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.
- 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.
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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