How Lions' current roster fits Saints' offensive mold

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Lombardi plans to bring the New Orleans Saints playbook to Detroit next season. What does that mean for the Detroit Lions' current roster?

Most of what is said during a new coach's first few press conferences is lip service. They make promises and proclamations that put fans' minds at ease, but rarely tell you anything you wouldn't already assume. Things like "we want to win now" or "we're going to have an aggressive defense" make good clippings in February, but hardly tell us anything insightful about what the future of the team will be.

However, one of the few exceptions to this was the following quote from the Detroit Lions' new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi:

"So, you're going to see some differences, but, you know, the playbook that we're starting from is the Saints playbook. So, it will certainly be similar."

This is very interesting. Since Lombardi has no real offensive coordinating experience in the NFL, it was hard to know what philosophy he'd bring to the table. But with Lombardi being surprisingly upfront in his introductory press conference, we at least have a general outline of what we can expect the 2014 Lions offense to look like.

Running backs

The 2013 New Orleans Saints featured a team of running backs. Here's how their specific players fared:

SAINTS Rushes Yards TDs
Pierre Thomas 147 549 2
Mark Ingram 78 386 1
Khiry Robinson 54 224 1
Darren Sproles 53 220 2
Jed Collins (FB) 14 45 1
TOTAL 346 1,424 7

There are a few very important things to notice here. First of all, the Saints deployed a fullback fairly often. According to Rotowire.com, Jed Collins, the Saints' fullback, played 411 offensive snaps, or over 25 a game. The Lions don't currently have a prototypical fullback on their roster. Montell Owens technically has fullback experience, but he's three inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Collins. If Lombardi wants a solid fullback as part of his new regime, he may have to go out and find one.

Another important note is that the Saints used a plethora of backs last year, and their speedy, shifty back, Darren Sproles, hardly carried the ball at all. Instead, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram carried the load. This seems like it is very good news for fans of Joique Bell, who fits the mold of Thomas and Ingram. It would not surprise me at all if we saw Bell (finally) get a higher percentage of carries this year, while Reggie Bush may see less of a workload in 2014.

Of course, Bush started his career with the Saints, so we have extra insight into how Lombardi may use him. In his five seasons in New Orleans, Bush led the Saints in rushing attempts just once, in 2007 (which also happened to be the Saints' worst offensive output during the Drew Brees era). As his career rolled on, the Saints slowly diminished his role as a rusher, and his yards per carry average actually increased every year until his final season with the Saints.

For the Saints, running backs like Bush are much more valuable in the passing game. In 2013, a high percentage of their entire passing game relied on the backfield:

SAINTS Rec. % of team rec. Yards TDs
Darren Sproles 71 15.92% 604 2
Pierre Thomas 77 17.26% 513 3
Mark Ingram 7 1.57% 68 1
Jed Collins (FB) 14 3.14% 54 0
Travaris Cadet
2 0.45% 5 1
TOTAL 171 38.34% 1,244 7

As you can see, over 38 percent of the team's receptions went to a running back, with Sproles and Thomas being the main contributors. Here is the Lions' chart for comparison:

LIONS
Rec. % of team rec. Yards TDs
Joique Bell 53 14.29% 547 0
Reggie Bush 54 14.56% 506 3
Theo Riddick 4 1.08% 26 0
TOTAL 111 29.92% 1,079 3

Only around 30 percent of passes went to a Lions running back, and Bush and Bell combined for about 40 receptions less than Sproles and Thomas. If the trends hold, we should see both backs have a big increase in the receiving game, specifically Bush, who should excel more in the open field.

Tight ends

Tight ends, especially Jimmy Graham, were integral to the Saints offense.

SAINTS
Rec. % of team rec. Yards TDs
Jimmy Graham 86 19.28% 1,215 16
Benjamin Watson 19 4.26% 226 2
Josh Hill 6 1.35% 44 1
TOTAL 111 24.89% 1,485 19

Graham alone contributed almost 20 percent of the Saints' total receptions, and his 16 touchdowns proved his value in the red zone. Though Graham is clearly categorized as a tight end, the Saints deployed him as a slot receiver almost 50 percent of the time last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Saints also used a more typical tight end with Benjamin Watson. While not having much impact in the passing game, Watson did see the field quite often. According to ESPN, Watson played in 44.1 percent of the Saints' offensive snaps last year. So while the Saints valued a receiving threat like Graham, they also had a need for a blocking tight end like Watson.

Detroit does not have a Jimmy Graham on the roster. Joseph Fauria says he is striving to be that guy in the future, but it remains to be seen whether his ceiling is anywhere near that high. While his 7 touchdowns were impressive last year, we can't lose sight that this is a man who has only 18 career catches. Crowning him as the next elite receiving tight end is insanely premature at the moment.

Brandon Pettigrew is set to become a free agent, but he could fit Watson's role pretty well. Pettigrew is more well-rounded than Fauria as a blocker and receiver and could possibly benefit from a slightly diminished role as a receiver. Here's how the Lions' tight end distribution looked last year:

LIONS
Rec. % of team rec. Yards TDs
Brandon Pettigrew 41 11.05% 416 2
Joseph Fauria 18 4.85% 207 7
Tony Scheffler 7 1.89% 82 0
Dorin Dickerson 2 0.54% 34 0
TOTAL 68 18.33% 739 9

The Lions' tight ends only accounted for 18.33% of the receptions for the entire offense. But if Fauria can really pick up his production and Pettigrew settles into a more traditional role (presuming he's re-signed), the Lions could have a similar -- though less talented -- crew to the 2013 Saints.

Wide receivers

The Saints offense is most identifiable as a big downfield threat. And wide receivers are a big part of that identity:

SAINTS Rec. % of team rec. Yards TDs
Marques Colston 75 16.82% 943 5
Kenny Stills 32 7.17% 641 5
Lance Moore 37 8.30% 457 2
Robert Meachem 16 3.59% 324 2
Nick Toon 4 0.90% 68 1
TOTAL 178 36.77% 2,433 15

Marques Colston was the clear No. 1 receiver, totaling more receptions than Kenny Stills and Lance Moore combined. Colston is the same type of receiver as Calvin Johnson (though obviously less talented).

Stills and Moore, however, are the type of speedy, agile receiver that the Lions have been seeking for years. The Lions haven't had a reliable No. 2 receiver who can stretch the field since Matthew Stafford entered the equation. For a Saints-style offense, this is a necessity.

Ryan Broyles fits the description pretty well, but it would be highly irresponsible for the Lions to rely on him staying healthy for a full year at this point. Nate Burleson also seemed to be a decent fit, but his age and unreasonable cap hit caused the Lions to release him on Thursday.

Instead, the Lions will have to add receivers through the draft and/or free agency. Sammy Watkins seems like too perfect of a fit in the draft, while Julian Edelman, Dexter McCluster and Emmanuel Sanders (among many others) are good options in free agency.

Overall, we could see a very different offense come 2014. In addition to new players, we may see current players on the roster take on very different roles with Lombardi calling the shots.

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