On Monday, I posted the first part of my far too early Detroit Lions 53-man roster prediction by taking a look at the offense. Today, it's the defense and special teams' turn.
While there were a couple calls on offense that were tough to make, I found predicting the defensive side of the ball to be much more challenging. The main reason for this is because there is a lot of young talent on the defensive side of the ball and there just aren't enough spots to keep all of that talent around. The Lions are stacked at several positions on defense, and let's just say that I wish teams were able to keep more than 53 players. The Lions will be letting a lot of good players go this year, and I have a feeling several of the players who end up on the cut list will land elsewhere after the final round of roster cuts.
To say there is an abundance of talent at this position might be an understatement. The Lions are stacked at defensive end, led by Cliff Avril, who was given the franchise tag this offseason. While there has been talk of Avril refusing to sign his franchise tender or the Lions deciding to trade him, I don't think either of those things will happen. Come the end of August, he should be on the 53-man roster. Will he be around next year? That situation is far more uncertain, but it'd be surprising if Avril isn't in a Lions jersey in 2012.
After Avril, the Lions have three solid defensive ends returning from last season in Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young. All three are basically locks to make the team. Vanden Bosch is a veteran, Jackson is a solid rotational player and Young is poised to have a breakout season.
Last year, the Lions only kept four defensive ends, but I don't see any way that happens in 2012. With Ronnell Lewis being drafted this year and being expected to be a big contributor on special teams and a developmental player at defensive end, he should make the team. Assuming he and the other four defensive ends already mentioned are on the roster, the Lions will have five ends on the team like they did in 2010 and 2009. It sounds like Everette Brown could make a case to be on the team as well, but barring an injury there just isn't room for him.
Expected to be suspended to start season: Nick Fairley
Cut: Michael Cosgrove
It was relatively easy to decide on keeping five defensive ends, but it's significantly tougher to figure out what to do at defensive tackle. In each of the last three years, the Lions have kept exactly nine defensive linemen. There has been either a combination of five ends and four tackles or five tackles and four ends. This year, with five ends expected to make the roster, the Lions may need to go up to 10 defensive linemen to keep all of the ones who deserve to make the team around.
The interesting dynamic on defense for the first couple weeks of the season is the fact that Nick Fairley will likely be suspended just like Mikel Leshoure. If he is suspended, he won't occupy a spot on the initial 53-man roster, allowing somebody like Andre Fluellen to make the team as the fourth defensive tackle. Once Fairley returns from his likely suspension, decisions will have to be made about whether it's best to keep 10 defensive linemen or part ways with Fluellen. The same goes for if Fairley somehow doesn't receive a suspension. It'll be tough to keep 10 defensive linemen with there being limited spots for a lot of talent in the back seven, but the flip side is that if you go with only nine, a talented player like Fluellen could be left off the team.
The silver lining of a Fairley suspension is that the Lions would likely have at least a couple more weeks to get some of these roster battles figured out. Tough decisions will still need to be made eventually, but a suspension for Fairley would give them some time in the regular season to continue evaluations on who should remain on the team and who should be left off the roster going forward.
Just like the defensive line, there is quite a bit of talent at linebacker. The Lions have their starters from last season all back, and backups Ashlee Palmer and Doug Hogue are returning as well. A couple months ago, I was thinking this might leave one spot open at linebacker for 2012, but with the Lions drafting both Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis, it's looking like the team will go with seven linebackers for the third year in a row.
Keeping seven linebackers might seem excessive, but the early returns on Whitehead suggest that he will be a contributor in 2012, so he's not going anywhere. Similarly, Lewis has a lot of promise, so it'd be surprising if the Lions decided to cut him loose. If they do decide to try and put him on the practice squad, chances are he would be cut so the Lions could keep another cornerback, as there is a limited amount of space in the secondary.
Like I said, there's a limited amount of space in the secondary, especially at cornerback. With the Lions drafting three cornerbacks this year, there is a lot of competition for only a few spots at the position. Chris Houston and Aaron Berry are both basically locks to make the team, and Jacob Lacey seems like a good bet to make the team as the Lions' nickelback. Beyond them, there are only two spots open (assuming the Lions go with seven linebackers).
Based on reports from the Lions' OTAs and minicamp, all three of the rookie cornerbacks have seemingly looked pretty good on the field. Of course, the true test will be what they do in training camp and the preseason, but right now I have Bill Bentley and Chris Greenwood with a slight lead over Jonte Green to make the team. Bentley has been noted as impressing his teammates, and Greenwood's upside is extremely high. Green is just the odd man out for me because there isn't room to keep all of the rookies.
Similarly, I couldn't find room for Alphonso Smith in this roster prediction. While Smith has apparently had a pretty good offseason, it's tough to forget the report from February that said the Lions were "willing to move" Smith and even "shopped him to at least one team." Considering that was before the Lions drafted three cornerbacks, it just seems like Smith's days as a Lion are numbered.
Last year, the majority of Lions fans wanted Ricardo Silva to make the team after he had an outstanding preseason. There just wasn't room on the 53-man roster, though, and Silva ultimately landed on the practice squad. I think the same thing will happen this year. With Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey returning as starters and Erik Coleman coming back, three spots appear to be occupied. The fourth spot could be up for grabs, but considering how good John Wendling is on special teams, I don't see the Lions cutting him. I'd certainly like to keep a fifth safety, but with space limited as is, there just isn't room for one.
Keep (1): Jason Hanson
Cut: Derek Dimke
Unless Jason Hanson gets hurt and isn't ready for the start of the regular season, he will be the Lions' starting kicker in 2012. I know Nick Harris shockingly lost his starting job and spot on the roster to an undrafted free agent last year, but this is Jason Hanson we're talking about. I don't see the Lions moving on and changing kickers until Hanson decides to retire.
Keep (1): Ryan Donahue
Cut: Ben Graham
Speaking of Nick Harris and the punting competition, Ryan Donahue, the man who beat him out last year, will go up against Ben Graham this summer for the starting job. Graham actually ended up replacing Donahue last season after Donahue suffered a season-ending injury. Although Graham did quite well, I think Donahue will repeat 2011 and beat out the veteran punter on the team to win the starting job and earn a spot on the team again this year.
Keep (1): Don Muhlbach
Don Muhlbach's work speaks for itself.