Plenty of roles to be earned on Lions roster

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Riley Reiff, middle, is expected to remain the starter at left tackle this year. In four seasons, he’s started 55 of the 63 games he’s played.

With 68 players on the 90-man roster, Lions general manager Bob Quinn still has plenty of work to do to fill out the team before training camp starts.

Considering most starting-caliber free agents already have signed and rookies face an uphill climb to play immediately, there’s a good chance the projected starting lineup won’t look much different than the one in September.

Quinn said last month he wants the roster to be competitive — some of the starting jobs are up for grabs, and some of the key backup roles will lead to serious competition — so besides a few players, most will have to earn their role.

“That’s what the NFL is all about,” Quinn said. “It’s not handing people jobs; people earn jobs. So, that’s where I’m at with most of the guys on the team right now.”

The Lions project to have one new offensive starter, with wide receiver Marvin Jones replacing Calvin Johnson, though there still could be some changes to the line.

On defense, there’s more changes with the guarantee of a new starting strong safety and left defensive end with Jason Jones still a free agent. Strong-side linebacker will be different with Tahir Whitehead moving to the middle. And, many in the line rotation will be new, too.


Strong safety

This is one position where there definitely will be a new starter after Isa Abdul-Quddus signed with the Dolphins and James Ihedigbo won’t return.

The Lions signed Rafael Bush, who should be the favorite despite some injury issues the past couple years. Tavon Wilson will compete for this job, too, but if the Lions use a high pick on a safety, the rookie will have a chance to play immediately.

Right tackle

The Lions would be wise to use one of their first couple picks on an offensive tackle, especially considering Riley Reiff is playing on the final year of his rookie deal.

For now, the expectation should be Reiff will start at left tackle while Michael Ola and Lamar Holmes are the top competition at right tackle. A rookie could supplant Ola or Holmes, but considering how poorly the young line played last year, experienced players could have an advantage, at least early. Geoff Schwartz could be in the competition, too, but the Lions view him more as a guard.


Travis Swanson will have a chance to earn the job and prove he can be better than last season, but coach Jim Caldwell said the other centers on the roster will have a chance to earn the job. Braxston Cave, Darren Keyton and Gabe Ikard went undrafted.

This will likely come down to Swanson and a pick or free agent, but experience working with Matthew Stafford should help Swanson.

Third-year linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) has 16 tackles and one sack in 23 games with the Lions.

Strong-side linebacker

The best-case scenario is Kyle Van Noy earns this job and finally has a chance to make good on his potential. But considering his struggles the past two years, there’s no reason to pencil him in yet.

DeAndre Levy will start on the weak side and Tahir Whitehead will be in the middle, which leaves Josh Bynes without a role after starting 11 games last year. Bynes can play the strong side, so he should be the favorite to earn the job over Van Noy.

The Lions could draft someone, but knowing the strong-side linebacker only plays about 25 percent of snaps (use of nickel defense), it might not be worth a high pick.

No. 3 wide receiver

TJ Jones looked capable of handling a larger role last year, but with the signing of Jeremy Kerley, there’s no guarantee Jones will have more chances. Plus, the Lions could draft another receiver in hopes of solidifying the group following Calvin Johnson’s retirement.

Golden Tate and Marvin Jones will be the starters, and with Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron commanding targets, the No. 3 receiver won’t be heavily involved. It’s still, however, a critically important position, and Jones, Kerley and anyone else involved should have plenty of chances to earn the job.

Nos. 2-4 defensive tackle

Haloti Ngata definitely will be starting, but who lines up next to him remains a mystery. Tyrunn Walker is the favorite, and even though he looks healthy in his Instagram workout posts, it could take some time to be 100 percent after a leg injury last year.

Caraun Reid looked like a capable starter last year, so he and Walker could compete for that job. Stefan Charles and Gabe Wright will compete for time in the rotation, too.

But, with lots of talented defensive tackles in the draft, a rookie could create a fierce competition.

Defensive end Ziggy Ansah hurt his ankle in the Lions' loss to the Titans last weekend.

Nos. 2-4 defensive end

Ziggy Ansah is already a top-tier pass rusher, but he’ll be even more effective if the end on the opposite side can create consistent pressure. For now, Devin Taylor is the most likely candidate.

Wallace Gilberry should in the rotation, too, but this is a position where the Lions will add at least two more players, which would force Gilberry to compete for a role. If one of them is a high pick, he would have to make a strong impression during camp to start ahead of Taylor.

Backup quarterback

The Lions value Dan Orlovsky’s experience and how he helps Matthew Stafford in meetings. But he has a career passer rating of 75.3, so the Lions know there are upgrades available.

How early or late the Lions draft a quarterback — if they take one at all — could be an indication of what the new scouting department thinks of Orlovsky, but performances in the exhibitions likely will determine whether Orlovsky or a rookie is the No. 2 quarterback — and whether team keeps three quarterbacks.