While discussing the makeup of the Lions last week, general manager Bob Quinn and coach Jim Caldwell both stopped questions to note that the roster isn’t yet complete.
Even though most of the marquee free agents are off the market, Quinn and Caldwell have a point. Sure, there are winners and losers in free agency, but teams find contributors throughout the year.
Remember, the Lions signed cornerback Rashean Mathis in August 2013, and he became a starter for the following two and a half seasons. The Lions signed defensive end George Johnson in April 2014, and he earned the No. 3 end job and posted six sacks that year. Most teams can find undrafted rookie contributors, too.
Currently, the Lions have 63 players on their roster, including the exclusive-rights free agents they tendered a few weeks ago. Whether or not the team is better than it was last year is certainly up for debate — Quinn said it’s better all the way around. But a few young players taking significant strides forward or a few veterans having bounce-back years is the best chance for success in 2016.
The team could add some more players in free agency, but at this point, most of the players would be backups. And considering most rookies shouldn’t be penciled into starting roles, it’s fair to expect that the current starting lineup projections won’t change too much between now and September, though injuries always impact things.
Obviously, the Lions still have some holes, even after free agency. Quinn has said he intends to blend need with best player available in the draft. Looking at the current roster, though, it’s clear where many of those needs will be when the draft starts on April 28.
Here’s a breakdown of the current roster:
Projected starter: Matthew Stafford.
Backup: Dan Orlovsky.
Needs: With a veteran backup already aboard, the Lions likely will wait until the draft. A mid- to late-round quarterback with upside would make sense to develop behind Stafford, but that player would likely have to be better than Orlovsky to lock in a roster spot. The Lions will do plenty of homework on Day 3 draft options.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Projected starters: Ameer Abdullah and FB Michael Burton.
Backups: Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, George Winn.
Needs: How much the Lions look for help here depends on what the new front office thinks of Zenner. Before his injury in Week 6, Zenner started filling Joique Bell’s role, and he had returned to full health before the end of the season. Abdullah and Riddick will command opportunities even with any additions, so the Lions probably won’t look until the middle rounds in the draft.
WIDE RECEIVERS (8)
Projected starters: Golden Tate and Marvin Jones.
Backups: Jeremy Kerley, TJ Jones, Corey Fuller, Ryan Spadola, Corey Washington, Austin Willis.
Needs: Kerley and Jones would be fine as the third and fourth options, and with Tate and Jones being young and under contract, the need isn’t great. However, with Calvin Johnson gone, the team could try to load up at the position with a high pick, but needs elsewhere make that unlikely. One mid- to late-round pick with return ability would make sense.
TIGHT ENDS (5)
Projected starter: Eric Ebron.
Backups: Brandon Pettigrew, Tim Wright, Jordan Thompson, Casey Pierce.
Needs: Even if Pettigrew is healthy at the start of the season, the Lions still need depth at blocking tight end. Ebron and Wright should fill the receiving role, and Thompson and Pierce have to prove themselves to make the team.
OFFENSIVE TACKLES (6)
Projected starters: LT Riley Reiff and RT Michael Ola.
Backups: Lamar Holmes, Cornelius Lucas, Corey Robinson, Tyrus Thompson.
Needs: The long-term need here is obvious, especially with Reiff entering the final year of his contract, so a high pick would make sense. However, even if the Lions take a tackle in the first three rounds, there’s no guarantee it would be an instant improvement over the experienced players.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (6)
Projected starters: LG Laken Tomlinson, C Travis Swanson, RG Larry Warford.
Backups: Braxston Cave, Gabe Ikard, Darren Keyton.
Needs: It seems like the Lions want to add competition for Swanson, and with the lack of proven depth, an early pick that can play center would make sense. A veteran backup still seems necessary, too.
DEFENSIVE ENDS (2)
Projected starters: Ziggy Ansah, Devin Taylor.
Needs: With Jason Jones still a free agent, this has suddenly become the team’s biggest need. Taylor can start, but the Lions need impact from a top backup. They should still add a couple experienced backups, but a pick on Day 1 or 2 could solidify the position long-term. With 10 picks, the Lions could take two ends.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES (7)
Projected starters: Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker.
Backups: Caraun Reid, Stefan Charles, Gabe Wright, Kerry Hyder, Khyri Thornton.
Needs: The signings so far ensured the Lions have experienced depth at the position, but there’s still a long-term need with Ngata now 32 and Walker and Charles on one-year deals. A Day 2 pick with the future in mind might make sense.
Projected starters: DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Josh Bynes.
Backups: Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Copeland, Khaseem Greene, Jerry Franklin, Stephen Tulloch.
Needs: Like a couple other spots, a high draft pick would be a move for the future. Levy and Whitehead will play in nickel packages, and any new addition would likely compete for a minimal role on the strong side. The expectation remains that Tulloch won’t be back.
Projected starters: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson.
Backups: Quandre Diggs, Alex Carter, Johnson Bademosi, Crezdon Butler.
Needs: The Lions would like another experienced cornerback, and they could use a couple draft picks this year, especially without knowing what Carter can do. Slay and Diggs, who plays the slot, should be secure in their jobs, but there might be competition for Lawson.
Projected starters: Glover Quin, Rafael Bush.
Backups: Tavon Wilson, Don Carey, Isaiah Johnson.
Needs: This could be where one of the Lions’ top picks goes this year. Bush has starting experience, but he played just one game last year. Wilson hasn’t played much on defense in recent years. So, any player the Lions draft would have a chance to compete for playing time.
Projected starters: P Sam Martin, K Matt Prater, LS Don Muhlbach.
Needs: Muhlbach re-signing ensured that the kicking unit would remain intact for 2016, so nobody should expect a change this offseason.