Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Two weeks of OTAs are in the books, which means we have a better grasp on the fate of the final roster. It’s still pretty early for a certain guess, but confidence is high that we already know about 48 of the final 53.
Here’s how I see the final roster breaking down, as of June 6th.
Safe: Matthew Stafford
Competition: Dan Orlovsky, Kellen Moore, James Franklin
While it’s conceivable both Moore and Franklin could jump pass journeyman Orlovsky for the prime backup spot, it’s extremely unlikely. The former Lion comes cheap and has NFL experience, even if it’s with two of the worst teams in recent history. The real battle is between Moore and Franklin, who are quite different stylistically. I give Franklin the leg up because Coach Caldwell kept a similar talent in Tyrod Taylor as his backup in Baltimore even though he wasn’t very good. Moore lost his great patron in Scott Linehan, and could wind up joining him in Dallas.
Prediction: Stafford, Orlovsky, Franklin
Safe: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell
Competition: Theo Riddick, Mikel Leshoure, Steven Miller
This one is pretty cut and dry. Bush and Bell are coming off a season where they became the first set of teammates to each gain 500 or more yards as both runners and receivers. They could do it again, too. Riddick is a rising talent whose workload should increase to 5-6 touches per game. Leshoure is a forgotten man, but the way New Orleans used four backs gives hope that he too will see a handful of touches as a situational back. Both Riddick and Leshoure are cheap, useful reserves. Miller’s only real chance is to win the return specialist role, and that’s a longshot.
Prediction: Bush, Bell, Riddick, Leshoure
Safe: Jed Collins
Competition: Chad Abram
I’m giving Collins the “safe” benefit of the doubt because he’s a Lombardi import from New Orleans and he’s played well in the scheme. Abram is a wild card, a speedy converted safety who will be able to contribute readily on special teams. That gets the UDFA to stick on the active roster, taking the spot of an extra linebacker.
Prediction: Collins, Abram
Safe: Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate
Competition: Jeremy Ross, TJ Jones, Kris Durham, Ryan Broyles, Kevin Ogletree, Patrick Edwards, Naaman Roosevelt, Cody Wilson, Andrew Peacock, Corey Fuller, Cody Wilson
There are two question marks here–do the Lions keep five or six wideouts, and who gets those spots? Johnson and Tate are the unquestioned starters and will see at least 70% of the WR targets if they stay healthy all year. Ross seems safe because of his return man duties, and he can also play the X and Y receiver spots. Jones and Broyles appear to be fighting for the same slot position, though both could stick. Broyles is practicing in OTAs but remains a potential PUP stash to start the year. Durham has impressed in OTAs, which might save his bacon after a limp 2013 where he was clearly overmatched as the #2 wideout. Ogletree could edge him out. Of the rest, Fuller is the only real viable candidate, though the 6th-rounder from 2013 appears destined for the practice squad again. There’s also a fair chance the 5th, or perhaps even the 4th, wideout is not currently on the roster.
The Saints only kept five wideouts, and I do not expect Lombardi to alter that based on the relative lack of talent here. Eric Ebron will function as the third wideout.
Prediction: Johnson, Tate, Ross, Jones, Durham, with Broyles on the PUP
Safe: Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria
Competition: Jacob Maxwell, Jordan Thompson
Ebron will play as a hybrid TE/WR and could wind up seeing 70+ catches, definitely in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Pettigrew gets a second chance to make a first impression with the new coaching regime. Expect to see lots of two TE sets, with Pettigrew in line and Ebron in the slot, on the inside of a tight trips formation, or split wide. Fauria will continue his role of red zone and short-yardage specialist. He could jump past Pettigrew if his blocking improves.
The real drama is if Maxwell, or to a lesser extent Thompson, makes it as a fourth tight end. My Allen Park spies tell me the team likes what it has seen from Maxwell, an UDFA from Louisiana-Lafayette. He will make the practice squad and could challenge for the third spot in ’15. Thompson has some work as a long snapper, and that could keep him on the practice squad for a year.
Prediction: Ebron, Pettigrew, Fauria
Safe: Riley Reiff, Larry Warford, Dominic Raiola, LaAdrian Waddle
Competition: Rob Sims, Corey Hilliard, Travis Swanson, Rodney Austin, Cornelius Lucas, Michael Williams, D.J. Morrell, A.J. Dalton, Darren Keyton, Alex Bullard, JB Shugarts
Three of the five starting spots are set in stone: Reiff at LT, Raiola at C, Warford at RG. Waddle and Hilliard will battle for the RT spot, but with different fates; Waddle will definitely make the roster, either as the starter or the third tackle. Hilliard probably has to win the starting spot to stick on the roster, as he’s too expensive to keep as a reserve. He also doesn’t have the upside of young tackles Lucas and Williams. It’s hard to see Lucas, the giant UDFA from Kansas State, not making the final 53 as long as he’s healthy.
It might surprise some to see Sims, a perfectly fine starting left guard, not listed as “safe”. The reason is more about his contractual situation. He’s in the final year of his deal and he’s expensive at $3.77M. If Swanson, the third-round pick, demonstrates he can handle the role, Sims could be traded or a cap victim. Swanson will be the primary interior reserve and will be groomed as a future starter at either C or LG.
Practice squad fixture Austin is the wild card. He got 1st team reps with Sims out in OTAs, and he’s flashed great athletic potential in spurts. He can also play both guard and center, and Austin did see some regular-season action on special teams too. Of the remaining guys, they figure to be fighting for two practice squad spots. Morrell and Williams are the clubhouse leaders there, with Williams a mortal lock as he makes his position change from tight end.
Prediction: Reiff, Warford, Raiola, Waddle, Swanson, Sims, Austin, Lucas
Offense total: 25
Safe: Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley
Competition: Caraun Reid, Andre Fluellen, Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Greg Hickman
Suh and Fairley are as good as any starting duo in the league…but both have lingering issues that make keep them from being consistently dominant. Look for Suh to move all over the line more, including some 3-man fronts. Mosley is a solid third tackle and he can play the nose in odd fronts. Fifth-round pick Reid has the clear leg up as the fourth tackle, though he’s not as NFL-ready as many fans would like him to be. He must demonstrate he can handle the increased strength demands from Princeton to Detroit. Still, his only real threat is Fluellen, who somehow lingers around Detroit despite being a sad reminder of the Rod Marinelli/Matt Millen era. #FireMillen
If Suh ever agrees to a contract extension and frees up some cap room, the fourth tackle spot could be upgraded over Reid and the rookie hits the practice squad. Saddler-McQueen played well enough in the ’13 preseason to merit a long look.
Prediction: Suh, Fairley, Mosley, Reid
Safe: Ezekiel Ansah, Devin Taylor, Jason Jones
Competition: Darryl Tapp, Larry Webster, Kalonji Kashama, George Johnson, Xavier Proctor
Ansah, Taylor and Jones will play the vast majority of the snaps here. All have the ability to kick inside. Ansah and Taylor, the two ’13 draft picks, can both play either the closed or open end in Teryl Austin’s defense, too.
Tapp is a hybrid DE/OLB, and that almost certainly secures him a roster spot. While the journeyman veteran has not been a significant contributor since leaving Seattle in 2009, he’s a consummate professional with positional versatility. His best success (7 sacks, 8 PDs in ’07) came in a similar defense early in his Seahawks career. Webster carries cache as a fourth-round pick, even though he’s quite raw as a basketball player from a D-II school. The hope is that he develops one legit NFL skill to hang his hat on while his football skills catch up with his awesome athletic metrics. Webster almost certainly makes the roster for the simple reason that some other team would claim him if the Lions tried to waive him through to the practice squad. The other three street/undrafted free agents are fighting for one tenuous practice squad spot.
Prediction: Ansah, Jones, Taylor, Tapp, Webster
Safe: Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Kyle Van Noy
Competition: Tahir Whitehead, Ashlee Palmer, Travis Lewis, Brandon Hepburn, Cory Greenwood, Justin Jackson, Julian Stanford
Levy is coming off a breakout campaign, one that will be difficult to replicate. Still, he and Tulloch work well together and should provide a solid tandem. Van Noy, the coveted second-round pick, will play all over the formation as a joker. He can blitz, he can cover, and he can play end in a speed look. It will be surprising if any other LB saw more than 20 regular-season snaps.
Whitehead’s job is safe because he’s a standout on special teams. Indications from OTAs are that his overall game has improved enough to put him comfortably ahead of Palmer as the fourth LB. The erstwhile third backer, Palmer is in a real fight for his job. His salary–he makes the same $1.5M as Raiola–makes him too expensive to not be a regular contributor. Hepburn, the team’s seventh-round pick in 2013, is raw but has impressive athleticism and outstanding character, two legit feathers in his cap. He will make the practice squad, at minimum. Greenwood is strictly a special teams guy, while Jackson is an UDFA with some promise. Keep in mind that only four LBs will be active on game days, as Tapp can fill in outside in a pinch.
Prediction: Tulloch, Van Noy, Levy, Whitehead, Hepburn
Safe: Rashean Mathis, Darius Slay
Competition: Chris Houston, Bill Bentley, Aaron Hester, Cassius Vaughn, Nevin Lawson, Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Mohammed Seisay
10 from 6 is Bad Company’s greatest hits compilation. The Lions are going for the inverse, trying to find 6 hits from 10 candidates. Slay is being counted on to take a big step in his second season. Mathis was smartly brought back as a veteran mentor, though he happened to play pretty well in ’13 too. His coverage acumen was vastly underappreciated by the national media. They project as the Week One starters.
After that, it’s chaos. Houston’s toe surgery will keep him out until at least preseason, and the smart money is that he begins the year on the PUP. He could very well have played his last snap in Detroit, one way or another. Bentley and Lawson are both slot guys, and it’s hard to see the Lions keeping both unless one of them (more likely Lawson) proves he can handle playing outside as well. The fourth-round rookie could surprise and earn the nickel role. If he does, Bentley is more likely to be traded than kept.
Vaughn has done nothing but impress, and he started for playoff teams in Indianapolis. He has a decided leg up as the fourth corner. Hester, a street free agent who spent his rookie year on Denver’s practice squad, has the length/speed combination that GM Martin Mayhew covets. He also impressed in OTAs and has clearly elevated above both Green and Greenwood. Those two were Schwartz-era developmental projects who lost their prime supporters, and both are in real peril of being on the outside looking in. Greenwood’s health issues probably cost him here. Seisay couldn’t even play regularly, let alone start at Nebraska despite being a complete freak athletically.
Prediction: Mathis, Slay, Bentley, Lawson, Hester, Vaughn
Safe: Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo
Competition: Don Carey, DeJon Gomes, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Jerome Couplin, Gabe Lynn
Quin will start, and he too is a much more reliable player than the national media would ever guess. Ihedigbo figures to be the other starter thanks to his experience with Austin’s defense in Baltimore. Both he and Carey are better-suited as the third safety, however. Gomes and Abdul-Quddus will compete for the fourth spot. The early edge goes to Abdul-Quddus, who started for New Orleans in their playoff victory over Detroit following the ’12 campaign. Both are quite good on special teams, and that keeps them both on the roster. The fifth spot is quite vulnerable if a coverage-oriented safety is released from another team.
The two UDFAs, Lynn and Couplin, are fighting for the same practice squad spot. Couplin earns his nickname “The Osprey” for his freakish size and speed, but right now Lynn is the clearly superior football player. There is a chance both stick on the practice squad, with Lynn’s ability to play corner creating some flexibility.
Prediction: Quin, Ihedigbo, Carey, Abdul-Quddus, Gomes
Defense total: 25
Kicker: Nate Freese over Giorgio Tavecchio, though this is probably more uncertain than fans believe. If Tavecchio keeps nailing 55+ yarders and Freese is missing 45 yarders, the draft pick means nothing.
Punter: Sam Martin. Doesn’t even have a competitor in camp, as it should be.
Long Snapper: Don Muhlbach. One of the best in the business even though most fans wouldn’t know him if they saw him in the grocery store.
Tags: Roster Prediction