A 'Tuff' look at the Lions defense going into the draft

USA TODAY Sports

Now that we are deep into free agency, it is believed that the Detroit Lions will not be singing many more players. So where does the Lions defense stand and which positions are they likely to draft in 2013?

I took a look at the Detroit Lions offense in my last article. Now I want to look at where the Lions stand on defense so that we can get a complete list of positions that remain unfilled prior to the 2013 NFL Draft.

The Detroit Lions were active in free agency on the defensive side of the ball. They started by returning cornerback Chris Houston to the roster. Then they filled a couple of holes by signing Jason Jones to play defensive end and Glover Quin at safety. The last free agent move of note was re-signing Louis Delmas. There may be more free agency news concerning the Lions and their defense, but I do not expect any more big splashes at this point. Most of the big-name free agents are already signed, and the Lions do not have enough cap space to do much more unless Matthew Stafford extends his contract.

The defensive tackles lost some depth when Sammie Hill left for Tennessee. Corey Williams remains a free agent, but the Lions do not seem to have interest in bringing him back. That leaves the Lions with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley as the only proven players on the roster. Jimmy Saddler-McQueen and former Spartan Ogemdi Nwagbuo are the only other defensive tackles even on the roster. While Suh and Fairley are strong starters, there is no longer any proven depth at the position. This may cause the Lions to surprise everybody at pick No. 5 and select a defensive tackle. If both Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher are gone, the highest ranked player on the Lions' draft board may be Sharrif Floyd or Star Lotulelei. We may also see the Lions bring back Andre Fluellen because they can afford him. We will probably see Jones play at tackle more than the coaches are admitting right now. It is very clear that the Lions need some depth at defensive tackle.

The situation at defensive end is more dire than defensive tackle. At least the Lions have proven starters at defensive tackle. The same can't be said about defensive end. Both starters are gone from last season. Cliff Avril is in Seattle and Kyle Vanden Bosch was released. Currently, the Lions have Jones as a projected starter. Willie Young and Ronnell Lewis are also returning for 2013 and, as it stands right now, one of them will have to start as well. I was expecting the Lions to re-sign Lawrence Jackson, but he remains a free agent. The Lions are likely to select at least one defensive end during the 2013 draft, and two would not surprise me. Unless there is a surprise free agent signing, one of the drafted defensive ends needs to be a starter.

The situation at linebacker will be very interesting in training camp. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy have returned to their starting positions. Justin Durant will not be returning, and the Lions will look to some of the younger players to fill the final starting position at outside linebacker. Ashlee Palmer is probably the favorite to get the final starting spot on the strength of the two starts he had last season. Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis and Carmen Messina will try to beat out Palmer for that spot. I really liked what I saw of Messina during the 2012 preseason, and he could be a wild card. I would not be surprised to see Messina stake a claim of his own, not only to be on the roster, but also for the starting spot. I feel the Lions are in a good position at linebacker and should avoid drafting for this position. All of the roster spots are filled with guys that are proven or are young and have the potential to be productive players.

Safety is going to be a very interesting position to watch in 2013. I have made no secret of my displeasure in the safety play last season. The Lions' safeties were just flat out bad. They rarely made plays in pass defense and almost never made any impact in the running game. It was almost as if the safeties weren't on the field for long stretches of playing time. The situation became so dire that we applauded every play that the safeties made as though it was amazing. In truth, it was just amazement that the safeties made any plays at all.

Adding Quin and re-signing Delmas will give the Lions a tandem of proven starting-caliber safeties for the first time since Jim Schwartz arrived in Detroit. If Delmas can stay healthy, we could see a very impressive season from these two players in 2013. If they are as good as I hope, they will be huge. Amari Spievey is a capable backup with lingering health concerns and some problems in his private life. It is unclear if Spievey will even be on the roster for camp. We also saw some nice plays from Ricardo Silva and Don Carey in 2012. John Wendling will be strictly a special teams player if he makes the roster. Spievey, Carey and Silva have a lot to prove before they will be thought of as acceptable depth. I can see the Lions taking a safety in the draft to upgrade that depth.

I have talked about the cornerback position a number of times, so my take here is not new to many of you. The Lions brought back Houston on a long-term contract, and that is all I felt they needed to do at cornerback. I like Ron Bartell and hope for a rebound to his previous form with the St. Louis Rams. If he rebounds fully, then Bartell is actually a better player than Houston. The Lions also have three young developmental corners in Jonte Green, Bill Bentley and Chris Greenwood. We have already seen some promising flashes from Green and Bentley. Greenwood has the physical tools to be the best of all three. We have to give these youngsters a chance to play and see what they can do. If the Lions take another corner in the draft, I expect it to be either very early or late.

I expect the Lions to spend anywhere from three to six picks on defense in the 2013 NFL Draft. My best guess would be one defensive tackle, one or two defensive ends and a safety. If the Lions drafted based only on need, which they don't, then I would expect the upcoming draft to be split almost evenly between offense and defense, with an emphasis on linemen. That actually fits well because this draft is deep in both offensive and defensive linemen. We all know that the Lions select best player available in the draft, so this is not necessarily how it will happen.

I would also like to point out that I would not be surprised if the Lions drafted a punter or a kicker or both in the draft. Both positions appear to be in flux since the recent contract stalemate with Jason Hanson developed.

Just to give you a clean summary of what I see, the Lions have needs at the following positions:

One offensive tackle (depth or starter based on opportunity)
One offensive guard/center (potential starter)
One wide receiver (depth)
One defensive tackle (rotational depth)
One or two defensive ends (starter and depth)
One safety (depth)
One kicker
One punter

If you look at my list, you will see there are potentially nine vacancies to fill. The Lions have only eight draft picks in 2013. If they take two defensive ends, they will probably have to skip either kicker or punter. You will also notice that I have identified the defensive end(s), offensive center/guard and offensive tackle as positions where the Lions may be selecting a potential starter, if the opportunity presents itself. That implies that these are the positions where the Lions would be well-advised to select earlier rather than later.

I will be writing a prospectus for the draft picks available at each position and my thoughts on them between now and the draft, so stay tuned for that.

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