Projecting Lions' 53-man roster: Tough decisions loom

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Matt Cassel

Oakland, Calif. – As the Detroit Lions get set for their preseason opener Friday night in Oakland, we thought we'd take this opportunity to make an early run at projecting the team's 53-man roster. 

Quarterback (2)

In: Matthew Stafford, Matt Cassel

Work to do: Jake Rudock

Thoughts: It’s difficult to imagine the Lions are in a position to waste a roster spot on carrying a third quarterback. For now, experience gets the edge over youth in his competition.

Earlier in the offseason, I thought it would be a mistake moving on from the investment in Rudock’s development, but as Cassel has gained a better familiarity with his new settings, he’s clearly been the more consistent performer. That would give the Lions a better chance to pull off a win in a situation where Stafford can’t finish a game.

Ameer Abdullah

Running back (5)

In: LeGarrette Blount, Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Nick Bellore

Injured: Nick Bawden

Work to do: Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington

Thoughts: There’s still a reasonable possibility the Lions clear out this logjam of capable depth with a trade, but if that doesn’t happen, you can’t justify letting Abdullah walk. There’s still too much talent, at a reasonable price tag.

For a minute, I tinkered with the idea the Lions would temporarily keep six backs (and four receivers), simply because Zenner is such a quality special teams performer, but that’s less than ideal roster construction.

As for Bellore at fullback, even though he doesn’t have traditional competition, he doesn’t have a lock on the job. The Lions could keep a fourth tight end who could serve as a situational lead blocker, but Washington is a player to watch here. He’s been the lead blocker in some I-formation looks in practice, in addition to getting first-team and goal-line work. The Lions are still intrigued by his potential.

Teo Redding

Wide receiver (5)

In: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones, Teo Redding

Work to do: Jace Billingsley, Dontez Ford, Andy Jones, Chris Lacy, Bradley Marquez, Brandon Powell, Brian Brown

Thoughts: The top four are good enough to carry this group, but it’s always good to have some insurance depth, in case of an injury. Detroit could go any number of directions with a fifth receiver and none would be wrong. Billingsley has the most experience and he has enough strength in his undersized frame to contribute on special teams. Lacy brings an element of size only topped by Golladay. But we went with Redding, the lanky practice playmaker, because we like his route running, hands and ability to make plays downfield.

Tight end (3)

In: Luke Willson, Michael Roberts, Levine Toilolo

Work to do: Hakeem Valles, Sean McGrath, Marcus Lewis

Thoughts: As noted, four tight ends isn’t out of the realm of possibility. In that case, Valles and McGrath both have a case. Valles is the more polished pass-catcher, while McGrath is the better blocker.

Roberts is going through a rough patch in recent practices, but his roster spot remains safe. But with each dropped pass and blown block, he’s losing ground to Willson to be the lead dog in the rotation.

Offensive line (9)

In: Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow, Frank Ragnow, T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner, Corey Robinson, Tyrell Crosby, Kenny Wiggins, Joe Dahl

Work to do: Brian Mihalik, Wesley, Johnson, Dan Skipper, Jamar McGloster, Leo Koloamatangi, John Montelus

Thoughts: The starting five is locked down and it’s a matter of trying to determine the best combination of backups. Crosby is the team’s third-best tackle and should enter the season as the swing option, who is active on game day.

Dahl and Wiggins offer similar positional flexibility on the inside. We’re giving the last spot to Robinson, entering his fourth year with the Lions, but he hasn’t done enough in camp to suggest he couldn’t be overtaken by someone, namely Mihalik. There’s also an outside shot the Lions start the year with just eight linemen, three tackles, and address their depth when an injury situation arises.

Ricky Jean Francois

Defensive line (9)

In: Ziggy Ansah, A’Shawn Robinson, Sylvester Williams, Anthony Zettel, Kerry Hyder, Da’Shawn Hand, Cornelius Washington, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Ricky Jean Francois

Work to do: Alex Barrett, Jeremiah Valoaga, Josh Fatu, Toby Johnson, Christian Ringo, JoJo Wicker, Cam Johnson

Thoughts: Francois came into camp and immediately asserted his value, both as an on-field contribution and mentor to the team’s younger players. It’s reminiscent to Rashean Mathis’ addition several years ago.

There’s some flexibility with the final two spots, but we went with Washington and Ledbetter. There has been some outside talk about Washington’s contract being a factor, but he’s been doing a lot of work with the first-team defense and his spot doesn’t seem to be in immediate jeopardy. Both Ledbetter and Valoaga offer untapped potential, but Ledbetter’s inside-out versatility gives him the slight edge.

Linebackers (7)

In: Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jonathan Freeney, Steve Longa, Freddie Bishop

Work to do: Darnell Sankey, Trevor Bates, Chad Meredith

Thoughts: The starting spots are set, and Freeny looks to be the best backup option. Beyond that, the Lions can go a number of different directions. Expect there to be a focus on special teams and sub-package potential.

Reeves-Maybin doesn’t have the ideal frame for the scheme, but he’s made an effort to bulk up and makes up for his lack of size with exceptional instincts. He adds something as a passing-down option. Longa proved last season he’s a top-flight cover option on kickoffs and punts. As for Bishop, his ability to rush the passer, particularly on stunts, has popped out during camp. The Lions need as many options who can pressure the quarterback as they can find.

Miles Killebrew

Defensive backs (10)

In: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Quandre Diggs, DeShawn Shead, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Tracey Walker, Charles Washington

Work to do: Miles Killebrew, Antwuan Davis, Mike Ford, Chris Jones, Rolan Milligan, Josh Okonye, Stefan McClure

Thoughts: Is Killibrew in or out? That’s something that's been debated all offseason and I still don’t have any clarity on it. You can view his recent conversion to linebacker as desperation, or the refinement of his niche skill set for a specific sub-package in Matt Patricia’s scheme.

For now, we’re going to lean out on Killebrew to keep Washington, a more traditional safety option. The added benefit is you lose almost nothing on special teams with the swap.

Specialists (3)

Starters: Matt Prater, Sam Martin, Don Muhlbach

Depth: None

Work to do: Ryan Santoso

Thoughts: Nothing to see here. This special teams battery has the potential to be one of the league’s best, assuming Martin can bounce back from last season’s struggles.