PERSONNEL NEWS

Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

July 24, 2018 at 1:10 am.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Matthew Stafford. Backups – Jake Rudock, Matt Cassel.

Ten years into his NFL career, Stafford is beginning to get his due as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s made 112 straight starts, thrown for nearly 35,000 yards and delivered more than his share of late-game heroics. Stafford needs to take fewer sacks and he lost far too many fumbles last season (seven), but the Lions have clearly built their team around Stafford and will go only as far as he can take them. Rudock and Cassel will battle for the backup job this summer after alternating work with the second-team throughout spring workouts. Cassel is the more experienced option, and his past relationship with Matt Patricia is hard to ignore, but Rudock is the better player right now. It’s possible the Lions keep three quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – Kerryon Johnson. Backups – LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Nick Bellore, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, FB Nick Bawden.

The Lions probably won’t lead the NFL in rushing this year, or even come close, but they are much more equipped to impact games on the ground after an offseason of change. Second-round pick Johnson and free-agent addition Blount should split the backfield workload, with Johnson likely emerging as the primary ball-carrier and Blount adding some oomph to one of the league’s worst short-yardage rushing attacks. Riddick still should have a role as one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, but Abdullah’s future is up in the air entering training camp. He could serve as insurance if something happens to Johnson or Riddick, or be the odd man out after three disappointing seasons. Bellore’s switch to fullback full-time means the Lions will use more two-back sets this fall.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Luke Willson. Backups – Michael Roberts, Levine Toilolo, Hakeem Valles, Sean McGrath, Marcus Lucas.

While NFL teams have become more and more reliant on tight ends, the Lions are trending in the opposite direction. After cutting Eric Ebron for financial reasons early in the offseason, the Lions signed Willson and Toilolo as free agents. Neither has ever had more than 31 catches in a season, and those two plus second-year pro Roberts combined for just 31 receptions last fall. That number is bound to go up this year as Willson will play a feature role for the first time in his career and the Lions drafted Roberts with visions of him dominating the red zone. But with four good wide receivers plus a couple capable pass-catching running backs, the Lions see this tight end group for what it is: A complementary part of what could be a very good offense.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay. Backups – TJ Jones, Jace Billingsley, Dontez Ford, Andy Jones, Bradley Marquez, Teo Redding, Brandon Powell, Chris Lacy, Deontez Alexander.

The Lions were the only team to have two wide receivers top 1,000 yards receiving last year, and this group should be even better this fall. Tate is in a contract year, and as he approaches his 30th birthday has shown no signs of slowing down. Marvin Jones had the most productive season of his career last fall while emerging as one of the best deep threats in the game (18 yards per catch). Golladay is poised for a big 2018 after showing flashes of brilliance as a rookie. And there aren’t many No. 4 receivers better than TJ Jones, who caught 30 passes last year and can play inside or outside, but is coming off January shoulder surgery. The only real question about this group is whether Tate will be part of it for years to come, and we might not know that answer until next spring.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Taylor Decker, LG Frank Ragnow, C Graham Glasgow, RG T.J. Lang, RT Rick Wagner. Backups – T Corey Robinson, T Dan Skipper, T Brian Mihalik, T Adam Bisnowaty, T Beau Nunn, T Tyrell Crosby, G Kenny Wiggins, G Joe Dahl, G John Montelus, C Wesley Johnson, C Leo Koloamatangi.

On paper, the Lions should have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Recent first-round draft picks Decker (2016) and Ragnow (2018) will start on the left side, Glasgow, the only Lion to play every offensive snap last season, takes over full-time at center this fall, and Lang, a two-time Pro Bowler, and Wagner return for their second season together on the right side. Of course, the same could have been said last season, when the Lions finished last in the NFL in rushing and Stafford took a career-high 47 sacks. Some of last year’s struggles were injury-related. Decker missed half the season with a torn labrum, and Lang and Wagner played through a variety of ailments. And while some health questions remain, the Lions are better prepared to deal with injuries this year after adding Wiggins in free agency and Crosby in the draft. If you’re looking for one area the Lions can make the biggest improvement this fall, it’s in the play of the offensive front.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DE Ziggy Ansah, DE Anthony Zettel, DT A’Shawn Robinson, DT Sylvester Williams, Backups – DE Kerry Hyder, DE Cornelius Washington, DE Cam Johnson, DE Jeremiah Valoaga, DT Da’Shawn Hand, DT Jeremiah Ledbetter, DT Toby Johnson, DT Josh Fatu, Dt Christian Ringo, DT Jojo Wicker.

The Lions will mix up their looks on the defensive line this fall, playing both odd- and even-man fronts, but Ansah should be a staple at right defensive end no matter what they play – so long as he stays healthy. Ansah’s tape didn’t live up to his production last year, when nine of his 12 sacks came in three games, and it’s imperative the Lions keep him in the lineup. Zettel had a nice 6.5-sack season last year, but he didn’t touch an opposing quarterback after Thanksgiving, and Hyder is trying to return from a torn Achilles. Robinson and Williams give the Lions two behemoths in the middle, but the Lions are still waiting on Robinson to live up to the promise he showed at Alabama. Rookie fourth-round pick Hand is the type of versatile lineman the Lions want in their program. Expect Hand to play both end and tackle and see his snaps increase as the season goes on. There’s still room for another veteran defensive lineman here as the Lions don’t have great depth up front.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – OLB Devon Kennard, OLB Christian Jones, MLB Jarrad Davis. Backups – Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jonathan Freeny, Alex Barrett, Chad Meredith, Trevor Bates, Steve Longa, Al-Rasheed Benton.

No unit saw more change this offseason than the linebacking corps as the Lions signed Kennard and Jones early in free agency and plan to start both players alongside second-year middle linebacker Davis this fall. Kennard had four sacks in 11 starts for the New York Giants last year, and the Lions are counting on him adding a pass-rush element to the unit. He will start at strong-side linebacker, while Jones will move to the other outside spot after playing inside for the Chicago Bears last year. Davis, though, is the real key to the unit as the Lions expect him to take a big step forward in Year 2. He had an up and down rookie season, but showed tremendous promise and coaches rave about his intangibles. Freeny played parts of the 2015-17 seasons for Patricia with the Patriots and along with Reeves-Maybin should play a key backup and special teams role this fall.

DEFENSIVE BACKS Starters – CB Darius Slay, CB Nevin Lawson, S Glover Quin, S Quandre Diggs. Backups – CB Teez Tabor, CB Jamal Agnew, CB DeShawn Shead, CB Mike Ford, CB Chris Jones, CB Amari Coleman, CB Antwuan Davis, S Tavon Wilson, S Miles Killebrew, S Rolan Milligan, S Charles Washington, S Stefan McClure.

The Lions return most of a unit that tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions last season (without help from a great pass rush) and the hope is they will be even better this fall. Slay looks like a star, and is capable of checking any receiver one on one. Lawson has started 31 of the Lions’ last 32 games, but he will be pushed on the right side this year by Tabor, a 2017 second-round pick who played sparingly as a rookie. Tabor doesn’t have great speed, but his size and length make him a good fit for Patricia’s scheme. The Lions added another big cornerback in Shead for depth purposes, and Agnew could compete for time in nickel and dime packages. Diggs is expected to make the switch full-time to safety after playing primarily as a slot cornerback his first three years. He will still move up to that role in some nickel packages, but is one of the hardest hitters on the team. Quin spent most of the spring away from the team tending to family matters, but he’s a rock when he’s on the field. It’s a big training camp for Killebrew, who is on the roster bubble after a disappointing sophomore season last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, P Sam Martin, P Ryan Santoso, LS Don Muhlbach, PR Jamal Agnew, KR Ameer Abdullah.

The Lions have few peers when it comes to special teams. Martin had a disappointing 2017 after he suffered a summer foot injury, but special teams coordinator Joe Marciano said Martin was back to his normal self this spring “hitting 5.0s (in hang time) out of the wazoo.” Martin also handles kickoffs, and the Lions plan to tinker with ways to approach the league’s new kickoff rules this preseason. Prater has made better than 85 percent of his field goals each of the last three seasons, and four of his five misses last year came from 50-plus yards. The Lions trust him from just about anywhere on the field, and he has a long history of clutch kicks. In the return game, Agnew electrified while taking two punts back for touchdowns last season, but those same skills weren’t quite as evident on kickoff returns. The Lions will open the kick-return job up for competition from Abdullah and others in hopes of getting more bang out of a unit that ranked last in the NFL in 2017 and that Marciano said was a “direct reflection of bad coaching on my part.”

 

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