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Road to 53: How the Lions assemble their roster

A look at past numbers reveals insight into how the Detroit Lions assemble their 53-man roster.

Leon Halip

With so much changing in the NFL from year to year, it can be tough to accurately predict what a team's roster will look like at the start of a new season. For the Detroit Lions, given the amount of turnover from 2012 to now, that's especially true for their 2013 53-man roster. Even once training camp and the preseason are in the books, it won't be easy to predict who will make the team.

At the very least, we do have a basic idea of how the Lions will put their 53-man roster together on a position-by-position basis. Since the regime of general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz is entering its fifth season, we have four years' worth of numbers that can be pulled from their Week 1 rosters in that time. None of these numbers allow us to predict the future, but there are some noticeable trends that should come in handy as we try to form guesses on what the Lions' 53-man roster will look like this year.


2009: 3 | 2010: 3 | 2011: 3 | 2012: 3

Quite a few NFL teams are comfortable with having only two quarterbacks on their roster, but the Lions don't seem to be one of them. They've had three quarterbacks going into each of the last four seasons, and with Thaddeus Lewis and Kellen Moore competing for the No. 3 spot this year, it doesn't seem like that's going to change. If the Lions were ever going to go away from having three quarterbacks, they would have dropped to two last year.

Running back

2009: 3 | 2010: 5 | 2011: 5 | 2012: 4

The Lions' talent at running back seems to dictate how many players make it each year at this position. Last year, for example, the Lions were fine with having only four running backs, but after signing Reggie Bush and Montell Owens and drafting Theo Riddick, it's entirely possible they will go back up to at least five this year.


2009: 2 | 2010: 1 | 2011: 0 | 2012: 0

The "true" fullback position has essentially been eliminated from the Lions' offense. They still use players in that type of a role on occasion, and Shaun Chapas was on the roster at the end of last season. However, they haven't seen a need to keep a true fullback on their roster going into the season since 2010.

Wide receiver

2009: 5 | 2010: 4 | 2011: 5 | 2012: 5

The Lions have been pretty consistent at wide receiver, but it's worth noting that the fifth wide receiver typically has been kept around for special teams purposes. Perhaps with Owens joining the team to fill that role, the Lions could keep an extra running back instead of a fifth wide receiver.

Tight end

2009: 3 | 2010: 3 | 2011: 3 | 2012: 3

The Lions could also decide to keep only four wide receivers if they see a need to make room for four tight ends. Having more than three on the roster would be a first for this regime, but they haven't really had intriguing pass catchers like Joseph Fauria and Matt Veldman rounding out their depth chart before.

Offensive tackle

2009: 4 | 2010: 4 | 2011: 4 | 2012: 5

The Lions went up to five tackles last year to accommodate the addition of first-round pick Riley Reiff. With Jeff Backus retiring and Gosder Cherilus signing with the Indianapolis Colts, it's likely the Lions will keep only four tackles this year. There's no need right now to squeeze a fifth tackle onto the roster.

Offensive guard

2009: 3 | 2010: 3 | 2011: 3 | 2012: 3

The Lions have been completely consistent with their offensive guards. They always make room for strictly two starters and one backup.


2009: 2 | 2010: 2 | 2011: 2 | 2012: 1

Last year, the Lions had to carry one fewer center to open a spot for Reiff. However, it's worth remembering that the backup at guard can usually play center as well, so it's probably worthwhile to combine the interior positions on the offensive line. For this year, with only four tackles expected to make the team, there should be five interior offensive linemen.

Defensive end

2009: 5 | 2010: 5 | 2011: 4 | 2012: 5

The Lions have carried five defensive ends for all but one year under this regime. Given the make-up of the current roster, it's fair to assume that there will be at least five defensive ends who make the cut this year.

Defensive tackle

2009: 4 | 2010: 4 | 2011: 5 | 2012: 4

The Lions have always had at least four defensive tackles, and they even had five in 2011. This year, however, with ends like Jason Jones and Israel Idonije having the ability to slide inside, it's not out of the question that only three tackles could make the 53-man roster.


2009: 6 | 2010: 7 | 2011: 7 | 2012: 7

Much like wide receiver on offense, the Lions have really emphasized an ability to contribute on special teams for the linebackers at the bottom of their depth chart. In recent years, this has led to seven linebackers being kept around.


2009: 6 | 2010: 4 | 2011: 5 | 2012: 6

How many cornerbacks make the team often depends on how many safeties need to be kept around and vice versa. When at least five cornerbacks make the team, for example, there is only room for four safeties.


2009: 4 | 2010: 5 | 2011: 4 | 2012: 4

To continue that last point, the Lions have only once had five safeties on their season-opening roster under this regime, and that was because only four cornerbacks made the team. With both positions loaded from a depth standpoint this year, perhaps the Lions might sacrifice a spot at linebacker to keep an extra defensive back around.

Special teams

2009: 3 | 2010: 3 | 2011: 3 | 2012: 3

The Lions have a pretty simple formula for special teams: one kicker + one punter + one long snapper = three specialists. The only time this formula is different at all is when there is an injury, and that's never been the case at the start of the season under this regime. This year, once again, we should see the usual three spots set aside for special teams.


Offense: 2009: 25 | 2010: 25 | 2011: 25 | 2012: 24
Defense: 2009: 25 | 2010: 25 | 2011: 25 | 2012: 26
Special teams:
2009: 3 | 2010: 3 | 2011: 3 | 2012: 3

Last year was the first time in the Mayhew/Schwartz era that the Lions didn't have the same number of players on offense and defense. Instead of going with the usual 25-25-3 split, the Lions kept an extra defender and one fewer offensive player. The extra spot allowed the Lions to keep seven linebackers and 10 defensive backs on their season-opening 53-man roster.

What to expect for 2013?

It's a pretty safe bet that the Lions will have three quarterbacks, at least three tight ends, nine offensive linemen, nine defensive linemen and three specialists. The main storylines for me when it comes to the 53-man roster are as follows:

  • How many players will be kept at running back, wide receiver and tight end? It seems like there are 13 spots available between these three positions, and it also seems like 10 of them are already accounted for. I will be very interested to see how those final few spots are used and if we do in fact see four tight ends for a change this year.

  • The make-up of the defensive line will be worth watching. Given the versatility of Jones and Idonije, the idea of having six players listed as defensive ends is intriguing.

  • The storyline I'm most interested in for the 53-man roster involves the possibility of 11 defensive backs making the team this year. Between the recent draft picks and veterans, the Lions seem to have six cornerbacks who should make the team. The Lions also seem to have at least five safeties who should be kept around, especially when you factor in the injury concerns with Louis Delmas. It's not going to be easy to make room for all of these players, and some really talented guys could be released as a result.

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