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State of the Team: Detroit Lions

State of the Team: Detroit Lions
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andy Benoit

The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.

Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.

Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.

Click here for an archive of all State of the Team articles.



The Lions are a static three-receiver shotgun offense. They can assume that sort of simple approach because one of those three receivers is the most feared offensive weapon in the NFL. Great as Calvin Johnson is, the results of Detroit’s offense hinge on how well Matthew Stafford executes. Last season, he was a roller-coaster ride. Things should stabilize this season now that the backfield features the multi-dimensional Reggie Bush and, presumably, a more developed Mikel Leshoure. But it’s on Stafford to take advantage of that.


QB: Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill; Lost: Jason Campbell

RB: Reggie Bush, Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell; Lost: Kevin Smith

Stafford’s career success will ultimately be determined by how well he harnesses his uncommon arm talent. It’s obviously a great asset, but it can also be a double-edged sword that prompts the 25-year-old to take silly chances and play with poor mental and mechanical discipline. Bush is an ideal fit in this shotgun-heavy offense. He’ll assume the duties that were originally reserved for Jahvid Best. Leshoure can be a sustaining back, but not in this system. He doesn’t have dynamic lateral burst or quickness to thrive out of one-back sets. Think of him as essentially a smoother version of Shonn Greene. Conventional wisdom says that backs like Leshoure and Greene tend to be “rhythm runners,” thriving on carries in bunches as opposed to spot duty.* In this offense, Leshoure will have trouble getting more than eight-to-ten touches each week.

(*Ed. Note: Does anyone out there remember if we've done research on this question, whether certain backs consistently play better when given more carries? I swear we've studied this but none of us can find the article. -- Aaron Schatz)


WR: Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, Mike Thomas; Lost: Titus Young

TE: Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler; Lost: Will Heller

The Lions do a good job capitalizing on the "Calvin Johnson effect." He’s obviously the fulcrum of the passing attack. There are concerns about the players surrounding him, though. Burleson is coming off a serious leg injury. Broyles is coming off another torn ACL. Thomas will have trouble finding his niche in this system. The coaches will likely wonder why they should play him in the slot when they can play the bigger, more diverse, Scheffler. Pettigrew is a solid all-around player, but it’s a little concerning that he followed up his impressive 2011 campaign with a very so-so 2012 performance.


LT: Riley Reiff LG: Rob Sims C: Dominic Raiola RG: Dylan Gandy RT: Corey Hilliard

Backups: Jason Fox, Bill Nagy; Lost: Jeff Backus, Gosder Cherilus, Stephen Peterman

Reiff is a good-looking athlete with fairly big shoes to fill, given that one of the best-kept secrets of 2012 was the highly effective play of now-retired left tackle Jeff Backus. Many believe Reiff is better suited for the right side. That may or may not be true, but if Reiff is not moved to the right, Hilliard figures to step in and be a downgrade. (If the 27-year-old could play, he would have supplanted the wildly inconsistent Cherilus long ago.) Sims is an underappreciated-though-not-dynamic run blocker. Raiola is gritty, but too often fails to overcome his lack of size. Gandy is a journeyman who will probably have trouble fending off Nagy for the right guard job.



Injuries and costly bouts of undisciplined play hurt the Lions in 2012. Those types of problems will always be fatal to a predominantly two-deep zone unit that’s predicated on out-executing opponents. For the Lions to get back on the upswing, they’ll have to get more from their four-man pass-rush. If they don’t, their sub-par secondary will continue to be exploited.


DE: Willie Young, Jason Jones, Ronnell Lewis, ______________; Lost: Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lawrence Jackson

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley; Lost: Corey Williams

Suh and Fairley form the most athletically-destructive interior defensive tandem in all of football. Mosley spent the past three seasons in Jacksonville and provides experienced depth. The concern is at defensive end. Young quietly has one of the league’s more explosive initial steps off the edge, but he’s never played a full-time role. Obviously neither has Lewis, who was drafted in the fourth round last year as a hybrid rush linebacker. If the fluid, lanky Jones can stay healthy (not a small if), he can be an impactful first and second down defensive end in a Wide-9 scheme that will allow him to play in space. However, he doesn’t quite have the sheer speed to consistently turn the corner on third downs, which is why he’ll likely play his more natural three-technique (defensive tackle) position in these situations.


OLB: DeAndre Levy, Ashlee Palmer, Tahir Whitehead; Lost: Justin Durant

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ILB: Stephen Tulloch, Travis Lewis

Levy and Tulloch give Detroit good speed and awareness at the second level. They are inconsistent and were better in 2011 than in 2012, but they are generally solid in this scheme. Palmer can be an adequate third linebacker, since he'll only be playing roughly half the snaps, although he’s a downgrade from the more athletic Durant. Depth at this position is a concern, though only if Levy or Tulloch goes down. If they’re healthy, the Lions will have two solid nickel linebackers, which is vital in today’s NFL. One issue with this set of linebackers is their tendency to over-pursue, which is a natural consequence of a fast playing style. Opponents love to exploit this with play-action and screens.


CB: Chris Houston, Bill Bentley, Jonte Greene, Ronald Bartell; Lost: Jacob Lacey, Drayton Florence

S: Louis Delmas, Glover Quin, Amari Spievey, Don Carey

A lot hinges on how well Bentley, a 2012 third-round pick, plays. This was the case heading into last season as well, which Bentley wound up missing most of with a shoulder injury. If Bentley is stable at No. 2, Houston –- Detroit’s best man defender, though he’s a more comfortable zone guy –- can survive at No. 1, as there will be more flexibility for giving him help. Of course, this probably hinges on 2012 sixth-round pick Jonte Green continuing to improve in the slot. And it hinges on Delmas, a rangy hard-hitter, staying healthy. So, in short, it looks like Detroit’s secondary is one giant "if." The only stable component, in fact, is the newcomer Quin. He’s a good man defender and very comfortable in the box.


K: David Akers; P: _________; Lost: Jason Hanson, Nick Harris

Maybe Akers really has lost it after a long, distinguished NFL career. Or, maybe last year was just the usual inconsistency of field-goal kickers. Akers' kickoffs also declined, but were still average.

With the underwhelming Nick Harris gone, the only punter on the roster is Blake Clingan, who graduated from UCF two years ago and hasn't kicked in the league yet -- even as camp fodder. Football Outsiders doesn't often suggest using draft picks on specialists, but this is a team where using a fifth- or sixth-rounder on Brad Wing would make a lot of sense.

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55 comments, Last at 07 May 2013, 4:35am

1 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

From the amount of blue and green I see on this list, if the lions stay healthy, this defense could be pretty good this year.

27 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

That depends heavily on whether the defensive ends can generate any pass rush and whether the corners other than Chris Houston are somewhat competent or a tire fire. But Glover Quin was a huge pickup for a defense that was awful on the back end last year.

2 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Are we really ok with Joe Flacco being the same color as Calvin Johnson? For real though, I'm a big fan of this series, Andy.

13 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

The Flacco stuff is a bit overripe at this point, but the general trend seems to be that if a quarterback has a secure starting job, they are green or blue, and if they have had any playoff success recently, they get the nod at blue no matter how awful their advanced stats. Jay Cutler is green with a -13% DVOA. Joe Flacco is blue with a -3% DVOA.

I would make only four NFL quarterbacks blue: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees.

Green: Ryan, Romo, Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Stafford, Schaub.

Black: Palmer, Flacco, Rivers (who maybe deserves green...but ick at 2011-2012), Cutler, Newton, Alex Smith, probably Kyle Orton, although he seems happy holding a clipboard...

Jury's out: All 2012 rookies except Brandon Weeden, plus Dalton, Kaepernick, Bradford, Freeman, Locker.

Just a guy: Michael Vick, Bradford, Ponder, Fitzpatrick.

Needs improvement: Anyone else who threw an NFL pass last year, and Brandon Weeden.

28 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

First - I almost completely agree with your rankings. Good work.

You don't think the jury is still out on Ponder? With the receiver "talent" he's had around him so far in his 1.5 seasons?

I think if Freeman and Locker still have chances to prove themselves, so does Ponder.

Also, you have Bradford listed twice.

Again - this is a really good list. I think we think alike (tiering QBs, anyway).

36 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Very happy to see Stafford getting some credit. In 2011-12 a lot of people (in media and message boards alike) were overcompensating to make it clear that his gaudy yardage totals are misleading, and there was a general consensus he was "average at best". Everyone has different standards, but I don't see how someone who has been top 7 in DYAR and top 12 in DVOA the past two years can be considered average.

Anyway, I think "Green" or "good but not elite" is fair assessment at this point in his career.

53 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

I agree, and think that the Lions did well to take Stafford when a lot of people were saying to pass on him. Look at the QBs taken after him: Freeman, Sanchez, Bradford, Ponder, Tebow, Newton, Locker, Gabbert, Tannehill, Weeden, Clauson, Kaepernick, Dalton, McCoy... how many of them can be (honestly) said to be better than Stafford right now?

37 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Your QB ratings seem much more accurate. The only one I would change would be Newton and that would be with an asterisk because his throwing is black and his legs are blue which in my mind would make him green.

44 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

For what it's worth, Jaws ranked the QBs before the playoffs started. Compared to this list it seems like he values Flacco much more and devalues Stafford, even before Flacco put the Ravens on his back and lead them to a super bowl win:

P. Manning
E. Manning


12 Cutler
15 Romo
17 Rivers
18 Newton
20 Stafford
22 Palmer

45 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

I like Jaws, but his rankings are 90% subjective, completely ignoring statistics (standard or advanced). Stats are clearly not the whole story and relying on them too much can be misleading, but individual opinions can also be misleading, especially when there's so much variability among those individuals.

4 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Aaron: Barnwell did an article on running backs getting into a rhythm league wide in April of 2009. I have no memory, however, of any articles analyzing specific backs getting into a rhythm, though I suspect that this is true for some ballcarriers.

8 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

I know this one, it's Anthony 'A-Train' Thomas, he always seemed to be rubbish unless you gave him 35 carries.

(OK pedants, I'm going to preempt you by saying that I know he'd never get to thirty five carries on days when he wasn't moving the ball, there's no need to pile on)

23 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

PFR says Bob Thomas, Mike Prindle, Rich Karlis and Dave Rayner have also attempted FGs for the Lions since 1980. (with Murray and Hanson ofcourse)
Remy Hamilton and Ndamokong Suh have both attempted 1 PAT.

That's a feat like the number of head coaches the Steelers have had.

32 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

All those other kickers were injury/strike replacements.

"That's a feat like the number of head coaches the Steelers have had."
The more I think about that, the more depressed I get, especially when you also throw in the number of starting quarterbacks the Lions have had during that period, in addition to the number of head coaches.

11 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions there a reason that the front page picture advertising this story is a picture of Adrian Peterson? I am PRETTY SURE he hasn't been traded.

14 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

"One issue with this set of linebackers is their tendency to over-pursue, which is a natural consequence of a fast playing style. Opponents love to exploit this with play-action and screens."

...And/or a natural consequence when Gunther is your coordinator. I don't mean to pile on the guy but the general theme of his defenses in KC when he was HC or Coordinator seemed to be "Above all else, over-pursue".

29 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

If you include injury replacements, then you're forgetting a few more. Rich Karlis attempted 7 FG for the Lions in 1990, Mike Prindle was a 3-game strike replacement in 1987, and Bob Thomas attempted 5 FG for the Lions in 1982. But this is the first time the Lions have entered a season with a starting kicker other than Eddie Murray or Jason Hanson since the 1970s.

19 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Wasn't there an essay in one of the early books comparing power backs with speed backs as their usage varied? IIRC speed backs wore down slower than the power backs.

24 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Lions have also signed Norwegian kicker Håvard Rugland.
Known from Youtube... I kid you not.

48 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Some cool stuff. Looks like he could be a punter and kicker. The moving car kick was very cool but the best was hitting the first ball in the air with the second kicked ball. With all the volley kicks he shows he may not know all the rules of American football.

30 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

You listed Jason Campbell as a "lost" player. Pretty sure that's mistake unless Cambpell managed to shift the space-time continuum and held the clipboard for both the Lions and Bears in 2012.

38 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Reggie Bush is good? Is that still a thing? I didn't think that was still a thing.

39 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Is this what you were thinking of?

40 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

My first memories of the lions were watching Jason Hanson in his rookie season. I knew the end was coming, but I thought we had one more season. He's my favorite Lion (Well him and Bobby Layne) and will be greatly missed.

That "kickalicious" video got my attention though. Anyone know how old that guy is?

43 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

It's also mindblowing to think about the fact that in first game of Hanson's rookie season, Jim Harbaugh was the oppposing quarterback, and the last game, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice were on the other sideline.

41 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

Reggie Bush is NOT green. This is another one of those jaw dropping fuck-ups that calls into question the entire project.

54 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

I think the OL analysis is problematic, probably because of unfamiliarity with the team. Dylan Gandy would have been unlikely to start at RG, even if they had not drafted Warford this year. That spot will be an open contest between Nagy, Warford, and Rodney Austin, while Gandy will remain a backup for C and G. The RT position will be a contest between Fox and Hilliard. While Hilliard might not have beaten out Cherilus for the starting spot (for reasons that might not be simple), Hilliard has been an adequate injury replacement for Cherilus, so I wouldn't be bothered too much. Hilliard was abysmal at LT, though.

55 Re: State of the Team: Detroit Lions

I am agreed that the lions can assume that sort of simple approach because one of those three receivers is the most feared offensive weapon in the NFL

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