Last season, the Lions drafted players like Chris Greenwood, right, with the idea he would have a year to develop. He might not have that luxury this season. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
This is a bad year to be a developmental player in Lions camp.
If you are a sixth- or seventh-round pick, this year or last, if you are an undrafted rookie, if you are inexperienced and unproven, your potential or upside might not be enough to keep you on the 53-man roster.
That sounds harsh, but it is the reality. For coach Jim Schwartz and his staff, perhaps for general manager Martin Mayhew, too, there may not be a future beyond this year. They aren’t talking about it. There isn’t an aura of desperation surrounding this training camp. But they see owner William Clay Ford Sr. making a point to visit the first day of camp. They see Bill Ford Jr. showing up almost daily.
These are extremely bright men who fully understand what’s at stake this season. Schwartz and Mayhew are in their fifth season together and they know their regime will be in peril if they bomb in 2013 like they did in 2012.
Mayhew reiterated Tuesday what he’s said since the end of last season: Of course there’s urgency. There is urgency for every general manager and coach every year, but there is a special sense of urgency coming off a 4-12 season.
For them, there is no point in worrying about 2014 or 2015. Just about every move the team has made, during free agency and the draft, has been about getting better now, this season. Reggie Bush, Glover Quin, Montell Owens, Israel Idonije, C.J. Mosley — these are immediate impact guys, on the field and in the locker room.
They rolled the dice giving safety Louis Delmas an incentive-laden two-year deal despite his injury issues. Why? Because if there is any way they can keep him on the field, he is a difference-maker. It’s a low-risk, potentially high-reward chance.
Yes, they drafted a raw athlete in Ziggy Ansah with the fifth overall pick. But they feel his size and skill set are good enough to contribute immediately, even if he has to learn some of the finer points of the position on the job.
The other high picks — cornerback Darius Slay, guard Larry Warford, punter Sam Martin, defensive end Devin Taylor — were drafted to help immediately.
Last season, the Lions drafted players like Chris Greenwood, Ronnell Lewis and Jonte Green, figuring they would probably have to redshirt them for a season. The only player they drafted with that in mind this year was receiver Corey Fuller.
The veteran edge
Schwartz bristles when we ask questions about the roster.
“The only people talking about the 53 right now are you guys,” he said. “We don’t go in our meeting and talk about what the 53 is going to be. We’re out here working and trying to evaluate everybody the best we can and see which pieces fit. We have 90 guys. We owe it to all 90 to give them all a fair chance.”
Understood. The best 53 will make the team. Last season, when 21 of 22 starters returned off a 10-6 playoff season, the Lions were inclined to keep developmental guys like Greenwood, Kellen Moore, Ronnell Lewis, Doug Hogue at the start of the season. This year they may not.
There is no guarantee, for example, Greenwood and Lewis will make the team. There is no guarantee seventh-round picks Michael Williams and Brandon Hepburn will make the team. Sixth-round pick Theo Riddick, too, though he has been mostly solid, is no lock, either.
Could the Lions conceivably put players like Greenwood, Hepburn, Moore and Williams on the practice squad? Yes, assuming they would clear waivers. But we’re talking about the 53-man roster.
Do you really think Schwartz wants to go into this season, of all seasons, with a kicker who never has played in an organized American football game at any level? Havard Rugland can kick as many 58-yarders during practice as he wants. Barring injury or an unforeseen falloff, David Akers is going to be the kicker.
At linebacker, the final spot could come down to veteran Cory Greenwood and Hepburn. Even if the Lions think Hepburn has a lot of upside, he’s probably not ready to contribute much this year. Greenwood, on the other hand, is a seasoned and productive special-teams player. If Ashlee Palmer wins the left outside linebacker spot, Greenwood could replace him on the cover units.
At cornerback, can the Lions afford to keep Chris Greenwood, who still needs another year to learn the position, over more experienced players like DeQuan Menzie or Dominique Johnson? Maybe Greenwood will be a starting-caliber player in two or three years; how much can Schwartz and Mayhew allow that to factor into the decision on final cuts?
At safety, all things being equal, would the Lions keep a young player like Ricardo Silva or even Amari Spievey over 12-year vet Chris Hope? If Hope proves he still has enough tread on his tires for one more year, he probably wins the job.
At running back, the Lions may have to make a choice between Riddick or Steven Miller. Miller has a chance to be the return man this season. Riddick, who was drafted as an understudy to Bush, has not been a part of the return unit.
What happens to Riddick if Miller wins the return job?
The tight end cuts might be the most intriguing. Williams is a blocking tight end. He was drafted with the idea he’d replace Will Heller as the third tight end and H-back. But in camp thus far, the Lions have been using fullbacks Owens and Shaun Chapas in two-back sets more than an H-back.
The team also signed 6-foot-7 Joseph Fauria from UCLA immediately after the draft, and brought in Matt Veldman, a diversely skilled player who spent last season injured with Jacksonville.
Those two, plus returning starters Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, give them conceivably four tight ends who could contribute. Veldman and Williams seem to be long-shots at this point, but what happens if Scheffler, who is in the last year of his contract, scuffles during exhibitions?
Yes, the goal is to keep the best 53 players. Yes, that’s the goal every year. But the emphasis is completely different this year than it has been in any of the previous four seasons. In most cases, the player who can produce the most right now is probably going to beat out a player who projects to be a better player a year or two down the road.