With the first game of the preseason coming up later this week, the time to start making predictions about the Detroit Lions' 53-man roster has arrived. The 53-man roster won't be established for another four weeks, but this time of year is when you start analyzing camp battles and try to figure out who is and isn't going to make the team.
Although we haven't even seen the Lions play a game yet, I will post my first 53-man roster prediction either today or later this week. The obvious caveat with it is there's not a ton of information to work with this early in camp, and things could change drastically from now to early September. That said, we do have some information from the past two years that could be valuable for trying to project the 53-man roster.
In addition to the battles between players for roster spots, it's always interesting to look at the position-by-position breakdown of how the roster is filled out. With Jim Schwartz and this regime now entering year three, we have the past two years to look at when trying to figure out just how many players the Lions will take at each position when their 53-man roster is established. Obviously two years can only tell you so much, but some patterns do exist, especially on offense.
In both 2009 and 2010 the Lions went into Week 1 of the regular season with the same amount of players at each position group on offense. They had three quarterbacks, five backs (running backs and fullbacks), five wide receivers, three tight ends, four offensive tackles, three offensive guards and two centers.
It's important to note that this doesn't mean that history will once again repeat itself since things could always change based on what happens during camp. For example, a sixth wide receiver could make a strong case for the coaches to keep him instead of a fifth back, or a fifth offensive tackle could show he is too valuable to be let go and take the spot from another position. It's all based on what happens during camp, although the numbers from the last two years do help shed some light on what battles are brewing.
On offense there are battles at every position but quarterback and tight end. QB is set in stone with Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton, and TE is set with Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Will Heller. Spots at other positions are up for grabs, though.
At running back/fullback, for example, really only Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure are locks to make the team. Maurice Morris is probably a good bet to make the roster as well, leaving two spots to be filled, likely by one running back and one fullback.
At wide receiver four spots are already taken by Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Stefan Logan. Since Logan is a wide receiver in name only and is really a returner/special teams player, the argument could be made that there are two spots open at this position. Then again, last year the opening game roster only had four receivers if you don't count Logan as one, so either way there appears to be one spot open at this position.
The battle for that spot already seems to be between Rashied Davis and Derrick Williams, although it's worth noting (as Tom Kowalski did last week) that Williams really might be battling Brown for a roster spot. This is where you can only take so much from the numbers from the past two years. Even though they have been identical in the past, if Williams shows he deserves to make the team more than Brown, the Lions will likely not hesitate to keep six WRs and only four RBs/FBs.
On the offensive line the breakdown of numbers at tackle, guard and center is also subject to change, but the past numbers suggest that there will be a total of nine offensive linemen. Tackles Jeff Backus, Gosder Cherilus, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard appear to have four spots locked down if they are healthy, as do guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman and centers Dominic Raiola and Dylan Gandy. That leaves one open spot on the offensive line. The past two years the final spot went to a guard to give the Lions three players at the position, but this year Detroit might be inclined to keep an extra tackle if injury issues persist. Once again, this is why the numbers are good indicators of what will happen but can only help so much.
That last sentence is especially true for the defense. The Lions kept nine defensive linemen -- five defensive ends and four defensive tackles, to be specific -- each of the last two years. This suggests nine defensive linemen will make the team again this year, but the numbers aren't much help for the other positions because there are differences from year to year. In 2009, for example, the Lions had six linebackers, six cornerbacks and four safeties. Last year they went into the opening week with seven linebackers, four cornerbacks and five safeties (if you count Amari Spievey, who was in the process of changing positions, as a safety). This difference shows how numbers can change based on what happens in camp and how strong or weak each position is.
For the defense this year, the only clarity is with the defensive line. At defensive tackle the Lions have Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill, and at defensive end they have Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young. If Turk McBride had re-signed with Detroit the breakdown on the D-line likely would have matched the last two years with four DTs and five DEs. His departure creates an open spot, and the versatile Andre Fluellen is a good bet to lock it down.
As the numbers from 2009 and 2010 show, there could be six or seven spots available at linebacker and nine or ten in the secondary. Considering the Lions two-deep at linebacker is set with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, Bobby Carpenter, Isaiah Ekejiuba and Ashlee Palmer, the question about if a seventh spot is needed likely comes down to special teams.
If another linebacker makes the case to make the team, the Lions could repeat last year and take seven LBs. If not, or if a tenth defensive back shows he should be on the team, the Lions could move forward with the six aforementioned LBs. With five cornerbacks (Alphonso Smith, Eric Wright, Chris Houston, Aaron Berry and Nathan Vasher) and four safeties (Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey, Erik Coleman and John Wendling) in good shape to make the team, this could be a case of where the final spot on the defense comes down to a battle between somebody like linebacker Doug Hogue and cornerback Brandon McDonald. As mentioned, special teams play will be a big factor.
Like quarterback, tight end and the defensive line, the Lions' special teams slots are perfectly clear. One kicker, one punter and one long snapper will make the team, and if healthy, chances are those spots will belong to Jason Hanson, Nick Harris and Don Muhlbach, respectively. These three players or some other combination of three special teamers, along with 25 offensive players and 25 defensive players, will help make up the Lions' 53-man roster in 2011.