Justin Rogers rates the Lions position by position
Detroit News reporter Justin Rogers rates the Lions position by position.
Matthew Stafford is coming off the finest stretch of his career. In the final eight games of the 2015 season, he completed 70 percent of his throws, tossed 19 touchdowns and was intercepted just twice. That’s MVP-like production. He also became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete at least 60 percent of his passes in all 16 games.
The question is whether Stafford can maintain anything close to that level of production. While that touchdown-to-interception rate is unsustainable, continued efficiency and good decision-making will make Detroit’s offense potent.
Yeah, Calvin Johnson is gone, but there’s no use dwelling on it. The Lions moved forward by signing Marvin Jones, who has looked like a great fit during his first offseason with the team. He and Golden Tate will share top billing in the passing attack and could easily combine for 170 catches.
Also added to the mix was savvy veteran Anquan Boldin, who will man the slot and give Stafford another security blanket across the middle of the field. Boldin uses his big frame to his advantage, boxing out smaller cornerbacks on short and intermediate routes.
The group is rounded out by Andre Roberts, who offers versatility and ability to contribute on special teams as a return man.
The running game’s success will largely be predicated on Ameer Abdullah’s heath. The second-year back has explosive potential, averaging 4.7 yards per carry down the stretch last season. He won’t be a workhorse, but should see between 12-18 carries per game.
Theo Riddick will continue to offer a dangerous receiving option out of the backfield. A repeat of last season’s 80-catch season isn’t out of the question. But despite a long run in the preseason, and a stated commitment to get him more handoffs, don’t expect to see a big increase in carries for the back.
The final component is the power game. Zach Zenner enters the season as the most logical fit, but it will be interesting to see how quickly Dwayne Washington can earn a bigger role. The rookie out of Washington is a true big-play threat and will only be held back by a recurrence of the ball security issues that plagued him in college.
The Lions spent a lot of resources on the offensive line this offseason, but will have only one new starter. First-round draft pick Taylor Decker will handle left tackle and will unquestionably deal with the natural ups and downs that come with a rookie manning the blindside. More importantly, his addition allowed Riley Reiff to slide to right tackle, solidifying the team’s weakest link up front.
On the inside, the young trio of Laken Tomlinson, Travis Swanson and Larry Warford remains intact. Warford is solid, as long as he can stay healthy, but the success of the entire unit largely depends on Tomlinson and Swanson making significant strides in their development.
Waiting in the wings is a bunch of youth. Fifth-round pick Joe Dahl will back up both guard spots, third-round selection Graham Glasgow will be ready if Swanson falters at center and Cornelius Lucas is the swing tackle, where he’ll be pushed by second-year man Corey Robinson for that role.
The Lions have been thin at tight end all offseason. Eric Ebron, who is expected to take a bigger role in the offense following Johnson’s retirement, missed the entire preseason with a leg injury. At this point, durability has to be considered a concern with the former first-round pick.
The team will roll with Orson Charles and undrafted rookie Cole Wick early, but it appears they’re just keeping roster spots warm for Andrew Quarless, who is suspended the first two games, and Brandon Pettigrew, who will miss at least six games while on the physically unable to perform list.
The trio of Ebron, Pettigrew and Quarless can actually pretty good when at full strength.
The Lions kept a staggering six defensive ends on the team’s initial 53-man roster. The roles at the top are set. Ziggy Ansah is a budding superstar and will be Detroit’s most important defensive player. Devin Taylor will start on the other side and has double-digit sack potential. And Wallace Gilberry rounds out the top group as a versatile veteran, capable of sliding inside on passing downs.
Rookie Anthony Zettel, preseason standout Kerry Hyder and key special teams contributor Brandon Copeland will fight for the scraps. Hyder is a high-motor guy who merits a longer look early in the season, while Zettel has some long-term potential and might be a healthy scratch for multiple games this year.
One of the team’s deepest groups in training camp, the Lions should present some problems in the middle for opponents. At 32 years old, Haloti Ngata still looks dominant after really coming into his own in Detroit’s scheme late last season. He’ll start alongside Tyrunn Walker, who looks more explosive than he did last year, before suffering a broken leg.
The backups have been upgraded with preseason standout Khyri Thornton and second-round draft pick A’Shawn Robinson the next two up. And Stefan Charles, a nasty run-stuffer picked up from Buffalo this offseason, rounds out the group.
If DeAndre Levy returns to form, this group can be good. He missed the 2015 season with a hip injury and only played a handful of snaps in the preseason. It remains to be seen whether he is still the impact player he was in 2013-14.
Tahir Whitehead takes over the middle linebacking duties and offers above-average range in coverage and steadily improving diagnostics in run support. At the other outside spot, a healthy Kyle Van Noy will finally get an opportunity to live up to his expectations as a second-round draft pick.
The depth is shallow, especially with Jon Bostic and Josh Bynes dealing with long-term injuries. Rookie Antwione Williams has some real potential as a thumper on the outside, but he’s making a big jump in competition from Georgia Southern. Thurston Armbrister, recently added off waivers, is more of a special teams contributor at this stage.
Darius Slay is the best cornerback the Lions have had in a decade and will likely be responsible for covering the opponent’s top receiver on a weekly basis. On the other side, Nevin Lawson is going to look really good some weeks and poor in others. His physicality is his best tool and that will play well against bigger-bodied targets, as long as the he stays within the rules. It wouldn’t be surprising if he leads the team in penalties.
Quandre Diggs will man the nickel and is essentially a starter in Detroit’s scheme. He’s physical in run support, tackles well and covers the short areas of the field effectively. As long as he doesn’t let his man behind him on deeper routes, the Lions will be OK here.
Depth at corner is an issue, again. Johnson Bademosi is an elite special teamer, but a subpar defensive player. The other option, rookie Adairius Barnes, surprised most by making the roster. He can play both inside and outside, has a lightning-quick first step when breaking on the ball, but most grow in his understanding of defending route concepts and playing zone defense.
Glover Quin is about as solid as they come at free safety, with the versatility to handle any assignment and a nose for the ball when it’s in the air. He’ll be paired up with some combination of Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush. Wilson offers a little more of a traditional strong safety build, while Bush’s skill set is more conducive to coverage.
Don Carey is back, but will likely be limited to special teams, where he’s a key contributor. And developing in the background, while potentially contributing on special teams, will be rookie Miles Killebrew.
The Lions are rock solid in the kicking game with Matt Prater handling field goals and Sam Martin punting and kickoffs. Detroit arguably has the best tandem in the NFL.
Return duties are still a mystery. The team has many options, including offensive stars Ameer Abdullah and Golden Tate, who might be best reserved for big moments. Roberts and Washington are also candidates, after showing above-average abilities during the preseason.