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Let the battles begin: Lions’ depth chart breakdown

Justin Rogers, The Detroit News


Dwayne Washington showed flashes during his rookie season, but has his work cut out to earn more carries.



Allen Park — Rookie minicamp is in the books and the Detroit Lions’ offseason is ramping up as the group of youngsters will join the veterans for the first round of OTAs this week.

Training camp is a little more than two months away, where fierce competition on the practice field will help the team’s decision-makers whittle the roster from 90 players to 53.

Last year, first-year general manager Bob Quinn began to build the foundation of his vision. His free-agent class was highlighted by wide receiver Marvin Jones, the best available option on the market to help the team cope with Calvin Johnson’s retirement.

In the draft, Quinn selected 10 players. Nine spent time on the roster last season — injured long snapper Jimmy Landes the lone exception — and all are still with the Lions this offseason.

The incoming draft class brings nine more building blocks, joined by 14 undrafted hopefuls, and a free-agent class centered around a pair of premier offensive lineman and supplemented by a number of depth options looking for new and better opportunities.

The marathon to a 53-man roster is a process of daily battles. As those begin, let’s take a position-by-position look at where things stand as the Lions begin the process.


Starter: Matthew Stafford

Backups: Jake Rudock, Brad Kaaya

Analysis: With or without a playoff win on his resume, Stafford has clearly cemented himself as a franchise quarterback. His improvement in recent years, namely the improved accuracy and decision-making, have proven he’s the long-term answer at the position.

For the first time in his career, Stafford will have a backup younger than him. In an ideal world, that player won’t see the field during the regular season. Stafford has been remarkably durable, starting 96 consecutive games.

Rudock and Kaaya will be a camp battle to watch. Rudock doesn’t have the pedigree as the rookie, but still has the leg up after a year in the system. Given the market value for a capable, young signal-caller, don’t be surprised to see the Lions keep three quarterbacks this year.


Starter: Ameer Abdullah

Backups: Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Michael Burton, Mike James, Tion Green

Analysis: When healthy, Abdullah has been dynamic. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry, is a capable receiver out of the backfield and has home-run potential. Riddick isn’t anywhere near as competent as a ball carrier, but is one of the NFL’s premier receivers out of the backfield.

It’s unclear where the thunder is going to come from with this group. Zenner finished the year on a positive note, and should be given an opportunity to build upon that success. Washington is a big back with big-play potential, but lacked feel as a rookie. He’ll need to show growth there if he wants more touches.

Green, an undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati, merits some attention. He has the frame you want charging between the tackles, and could push for a job as a short-yardage back. His ability to contribute on special teams won’t hurt.

One of the biggest questions will be whether the Lions carry a fullback this season. Burton has been solid, but his role decreased significantly down the stretch in 2016. That could have been related to Abdullah and Riddick being out with injury, but it also could be a sign coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is phasing the position out of the scheme.


Starters: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones

Backups: Kenny Golladay, Jace Billingsley, TJ Jones, Keshawn Martin, Ryan Spadola, Jared Abbrederis, Dontez Ford, Michael Rector, Noel Thomas

Analysis: Marvin Jones and Tate have clearly defined roles and will see plenty of targets from Stafford. But how the depth chart shakes out behind those two is a wide-open competition. The team drafted Golladay high, and the big man has the size and skill to be the third man in three-wide sets if he adjusts quickly to the level of competition.

Billingsley carries a lot of intrigue after an impressive preseason showing in 2016. He played both receiver and running back in college and makes up for being undersized with elusiviness in space. He, along with Martin and TJ Jones, can also make a case for a job in the return game.

Among the undrafted rookies, Rector has developable measurables, while Thomas put up monster numbers at Connecticut without ideal size and speed. Both could be strong practice squad options.


Starters: Eric Ebron, Darren Fells

Backups: Michael Roberts, Cole Wick, Khari Lee, Robert Tonyan

Analysis: The Lions added reinforcements this offseason, but this is still the Ebron show. When healthy, expect him on the field between 70-80 percent of the snaps. Fells is a nice complement to heavy sets, with a big frame better suited for blocking assignments. And Roberts, a fourth-round pick, should round out the group. He probably won’t need to play much early, but he has the skill set to be an option in the red zone.

Wick, last year’s camp surprise, merits additional development on the practice squad. Tonyan, a college wide receiver, could also push for a practice squad spot.


Starters: Taylor Decker, Rick Wagner

Backups: Corey Robinson, Cornelius Lucas, Pierce Burton, Storm Norton

Analysis: The Lions have significantly invested in their bookends, drafting Decker in the first round last year and signing Wagner to a massive five-year deal this offseason. They should be the starting tandem the next several years.

Robinson is the likeliest to emerge as the swing man behind the starters, as long as he can stay healthy through training camp. Lucas enters his fourth year with the organization and will have to fight to keep his job. Burton and Norton would be cheaper options.


Starters: T.J. Lang, Graham Glasgow

Backups: Laken Tomlinson, Joe Dahl, Brandon Thomas, Matt Rotheram

Analysis: Lang was another prized acquisition this offseason and is locked into the right guard job. The Lions have said left guard will be an open competition, but Glasgow is the clear favorite having finished last year in that role. Tomlinson, a former first-rounder, will have a shot to reclaim the job he lost, and Dahl, a fifth-round pick last year, will also be in the mix.


Starters: Travis Swanson

Backups: Graham Glasgow, Leo Koloamatangi

Analysis: Swanson missed the last several weeks of 2016 because of a concussion, but he’s cleared and will look to build off last season’s breakout performance. He’ll presumably be backed up by Glasgow, who was drafted last year to provide competition at the position.

Koloamatangi, undrafted out of Hawaii, brings versatility and should have an opportunity to get plenty of preseason film playing center for the Lions.



Kerry Hyder established himself as one of the team’s top pass-rushers last season.






Starters: Ziggy Ansah, Kerry Hyder

Backups: Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel, Armonty Bryant, Brandon Copeland, Alex Barrett, Jeremiah Valoaga, Pat O’Connor

Analysis: Hyder isn’t a lock for the starting job, but after a team-leading eight sacks last year, he should get the first crack. The Lions gave Washington a two-year deal and are hopeful a scheme switch will lead to a jump in production. The final spot or two will come down to Bryant, a 2016 waiver claim who tallied three sacks in five games, Copeland, a special teams standout, and three rookies.

Barrett and O’Connor both bring some intrigue. The Lions gave Barrett, an undrafted free agent, a hefty $30,000 guaranteed. As for O’Connor, the team used a seventh-round pick on him to ensure his services. The Eastern Michigan standout brings a relentless motor and a habit of jarring the ball loose from opponents. Anyone who can force turnovers would be a welcomed addition to the roster.


Safety Glover Quin, left, and defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson (91) and Haloti Ngata (92) are all projected to be starters this upcoming season.






Starters: Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson

Backups: Khyri Thornton, Akeem Spence, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jordan Hill, Nick James, Maurice Swain

Analysis: Ngata is long in the tooth, but still getting it done in the middle. And Robinson, last year’s second-round pick, showed plenty of promise as a rookie, steadily improving throughout the year. Together, the two make up a strong starting tandem.

There’s some potential in the depth general manager Bob Quinn has amassed. Thornton returns after flashing at times last season, while Spence and Hill have had some pass-rushing success at their other stops.

Ledbetter, a sixth-round pick, is a wild card. He’s light (for his position), long and explosive with some real potential to disrupt the backfield. If he can get up to speed quickly, don’t be surprised if he unseats one of the veterans for a roster spot.


Starters: Tahir Whitehead, Jarrad Davis, Antwione Williams

Backups: Paul Worrilow, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Thurston Armbrister, Steve Longa, Nick Bellore, Brandon Chubb

Analysis: It’s a safe bet Davis finds his way into the starting lineup early, whether that’s in the middle or on the weakside. Whitehead, the team’s tackle leader in 2016, could still start at either outside spot if Davis winds up as the Mike.

As for the other outside spot, I like Williams in the strong side role more than Worrilow on the weak side, but it’s admittedly a coin flip at this early stage. If the Lions don’t have a repeat of last season’s injury issues, Reeves-Maybin probably won’t see the field much beyond special teams as a rookie. If the Lions do carry a sixth linebacker, most likely Armbrister or Longa, it would be because of special teams contributions.


Starters: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs

Backups: D.J. Hayden, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Johnson Bademosi, Adairius Barnes, Alex Carter, Desmond Lawrence, Josh Thornton

Analysis: Lawson and Diggs are projected starters for now, but they’ll have to fend off stiff challenges to keep their jobs. Metrics were in Lawson’s favor last year and he’s shown continued improvement, but he just doesn’t get his hands on enough throws. If Tabor can show his playmaking ability early and often, it will be his best chance to see the field early.

Diggs will have a more difficult time holding on to his job with both Hayden and Agnew, this year’s fifth-round pick, in the mix. Diggs is coming off an injury-shortened season and posted some troubling numbers in coverage prior to going down.

A small-school standout, Agnew is probably a year away from making an impact on defense, but the ball skill numbers he posted should excite. He clearly has good instincts.

The Lions will ultimately face some tough cuts. Bademosi’s special teams contributions should keep him safe, but that leaves Barnes and Carter on the outside looking in.


Starters: Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson

Backups: Miles Killebrew, Don Carey, Rolan Milligan, Charles Washington

Analysis: Quin, like Stafford, is as durable as they come. The Lions don’t have much to worry about here. At strong safety, Wilson’s versatility was key to his success last season and he figures to keep the strong safety job warm until Killebrew is ready.

Carey’s special team work and leadership in the locker room make him a safe bet for a roster spot with Milligan and Washington competing for practice squad spots.


Twitter: @justin_rogers