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2016 Detroit Lions roster and positional overview

A breakdown of the roster as it stands before free agency, including a look at the relative strengths of each role on the team and the team's needs for the offseason.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

This post is exclusively about the 2016-17 roster as it currently stands. This will go over the players who are currently under contract as well as the strength of the different units and positions. The goal of this is to determine who is currently set to be on the roster and what positions the Lions will need to fill. Obviously some of these could change between now and the draft, much less between now and the start of the season. For example, Calvin Johnson is under contract until 2020. He might retire before that, but right now, he’s on the roster and will be counted.

While the players under contract is objective and indisputable, everything else is just my opinion on the matter.

Players currently under contract

Players who have a fifth-year option will have their non-optioned year listed, with their optional year in parentheses.

Name Position Free Agency Year
Travis Swanson C 2018
Gabe Ikard C 2017
Darren Keyton C 2017
Alex Carter CB 2019
Quandre Diggs CB 2019
Nevin Lawson CB 2018
Darius Slay CB 2017
Devin Taylor DE 2017
Ezekiel Ansah DE 2017 (2018)
Gabe Wright DT 2019
Caraun Reid DT 2018
Kerry Hyder DT 2017
Michael Burton FB 2019
Larry Warford G 2017
Michael Ola G 2017
Laken Tomlinson G 2019 (2020)
Matt Prater K 2018
Josh Bynes LB 2017
Riley Reiff LT 2016 (2017)
DeAndre Levy OLB 2020
Kyle Van Noy OLB 2018
Khaseem Greene OLB 2018
Jerry Franklin OLB 2017
Corey Robinson OT 2019
Sam Martin P 2017
Matthew Stafford QB 2018
Ameer Abdullah RB 2019
Zach Zenner RB 2018
Joique Bell RB 2017
Theo Riddick RB 2017
Cornelius Lucas RT 2017
Glover Quin S 2018
Don Carey S 2017
Brandon Pettigrew TE 2018
Jordan Thompson TE 2017
Eric Ebron TE 2018 (2019)
Calvin Johnson WR 2020
Golden Tate WR 2019
TJ Jones WR 2018
Ryan Spodola WR 2018
Corey Washington WR 2018
Austin Willis WR 2017

Broken down by position group

Position strength are graded 1-10, with one being Detroit Lions QBs for 50 years, five being average and 10 being Lions DBs in the 1950s.

Positions are not separated by their named position. They are instead counted by their role on the team. For example, Theo Riddick is a running back, but he is used primarily as a receiver. For the purposes of this he’s counted in the receivers group, rather than rusher. Similarly, while Brandon Pettigrew is a tight end, and has been used in the passing game, he is used primarily as a blocker, so he’d be in the offensive line section.

Position Group Total Players Significant Players Strength
Quarterbacks 1 1 6
Receivers 9 5 8.5
Rushers 3 3 3
Offensive Line 13 8 3.5
Defensive Line 5 4 4
Linebackers 5 3 5.5
Defensive Backs 6 6 7.5
Special Teamers 2 2 8.5


Members, Breakdown and Rationale by Position Group

Quarterback: 6
Significant Members (1): Matt Stafford

In general, your QB should start every game. If he doesn’t, something has already gone seriously wrong. Ideally you want a good back-up and that’s absolutely on the to-do list for the offseason. After starting 80 consecutive games it’s safe to pencil Stafford in for another season.

He certainly ended the season on a high note, but that doesn’t make up for his bad start to the season. Last year I rated him a 6 and I think it’s safe to leave him there for now. As before it’s possible he moves up by the end of the year, but "slightly above average" seems to be the best ranking for him at the moment.

Receivers: 8.5
Significant Members (8): Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Eric Ebron, Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones

Right now there are two receivers capable of playing the number 1 role, a rising star in Riddick, a tight end who started to flash his potential last year in Ebron and a primarily depth player who hasn’t done much in Jones. There’s a lot of uncertainty though. It’s likely that Calvin Johnson retires before this season starts, which changes the shape of the group.

That could result in a free agent signing, a draft pick or both. Even without a retirement this is a very shallow group. The players at the top are strong, but very little depth behind them.

With more significant depth this could easily be the strongest unit on the team. Right now though it’s just too shallow for a pass-heavy team.

Rushers: 3
Significant Members (3): Ameer Abdullah, Michael Burton, Zach Zenner

The rushing attack last year was just not good. It was a continuation on the fall that began the previous year, resulting in both primary rushers losing their jobs.

The good news here is that these are all very young players, and they’ve all flashed potential. The bad news here is everything else. Zenner was hurt, Burton is a fullback and Abdullah had a huge fumbling issue while only intermittently starting. Meanwhile, none of them has more than a season of experience, as last year was their rookie season.

The bad showing last year may have had a variety of causes: The entire offense’s poor performances to start the year, the massive problems on the offensive line or the changes in offensive philosophy/coordinator. Whatever the contributing factors, it was also clear that the rushers on the team couldn’t overcome them.

The 3 rating I gave is mostly on their youth and potential they’ve shown. But with no experienced rusher on the roster, and a lack of performance last year, it’s hard to rate them any higher.

Offensive Line: 3.5
Significant Members (8): Riley Reiff, Larry Warford, Laken Tomlinson, Michael Ola, Brandon Pettigrew, Cornelius Lucas, Travis Swanson, Corey Robinson

The offensive line continued its downward trend along with the rushers. This could result in as many as three new starters on the offensive line next year.

The worst thing about this group is that Riley Reiff is the most reliable member of it. Larry Warford has been less than remarkable since his outstanding rookie campaign. Laken Tomlinson has been intermittent, and might develop into a decent player, but he’s certainly not great right now. Travis Swanson failed at a Center’s primary job of snapping the ball. It’s good that there’s depth, but the depth players (Robinson, Lucas) haven’t shown the ability to play well when they’re needed.

It’s a bad group right now, but there are a couple starters available. Ola might end up being a starting RT, but I don’t know that he’s proven that yet. Reiff has been able to start, but he’s due more than he’s worth this year, and it’s his contract year.

Defensive Line: 4
Members (4): Ziggy Ansah, Devin Taylor, Caraun Reid, Gabe Wright

This group is stronger than the 4 rating would suggest.

Ansah is a top-flight edge rusher, and Devin Taylor is a solid, flexible player, despite his under-utilization early on. Last year, Reid showed he can start, and he still seems to be developing. The real problem is that, just like last offseason, they lost half the group. That has made the group very shallow.

The Lions will need to bring in (or back) at least one defensive tackle to start alongside Reid. They will also need to bring back depth players for the edge. Ansah and Taylor have shown they can terrorize offensive lines, but they can’t do it alone.

Some solid signings in free agency and maybe a draft pick or two could bring this up rapidly.

Linebackers: 5.5
Members (3): DeAndre Levy, Josh Bynes, Kyle Van Noy

Talk about a disappointing group last year. DeAndre Levy got injured, Stephen Tulloch never returned to form from his injury and Kyle Van Noy hasn’t lived up to his potential at all. Whitehead continuing his 2014-15 campaign was one of the bright spots, along with Josh Bynes. Unfortunately, Whitehead is no longer under contract.

This means that, right now, one of the strongest groups from last year is now pretty mediocre. Any unit with DeAndre Levy on it can only be so bad\ and Bynes has shown himself capable. Given the Lions’ preference for Nickel packages, this is certainly a serviceable group. If Whitehead returns, or a really good LB is drafted, this group could easily jump up a lot.

Defensive Backs: 7.5
Members (6): Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs, Glover Quin, Don Carey, Alex Carter

On the positive side, the Defensive Backs continued their upward trend.

Darius Slay is on his way to establishing himself as an elite cornerback in the NFL. Quandre the Giant was a pleasant surprise, stepping in as an undersized sixth-round rookie, and playing very well. Nevin Lawson was up-and-down after stepping in for Mathis, but he showed a lot of potential in his effectively rookie campaign.

The problem is mostly one of track record. If everybody continues improving like they did last year and stays healthy, I think this is an 8 or 8.5. If Diggs had an aberrant performance last year, and Lawson stays inconsistent, I think it’s a 6. On balance I think 7.5 best describes the group.

Special Teams: 8.5
Members (2): Sam Martin, Matt Prater

This can be short and sweet. Sam Martin is one of the best punters in the NFL. Matt Prater is an incredibly reliable kicker with great range. Very little room for improvement here.

Needs and Expectations

With that breakdown in mind, here are the Lions' needs and expectations for free agency and the draft. I will follow that up with my idea for priorities, as well as suggestions for where I believe they would be best addressed.

Quarterback: The Lions need a back-up QB. They could take a flier on a young QB in the draft, or sign a vet. Jim Caldwell generally prefers a reliable vet, while the Patriots have shown a preference for young QBs to develop. It’s Quinn’s first year, so it’s hard to know what direction he’d prefer.

Receivers: What happens here will be significantly influenced by Calvin Johnson’s decision. Either way, the Lions are going to need another split end receiver, but the urgency certainly goes up with no Calvin. If Calvin is gone, they’ll need a second receiver to fill out the depth.

Rushers: With young, high-potential players that have been brought in recently, it’s unlikely there will be a significant investment of resources. At most I’d expect an older veteran to come in and just provide a little experience to the group.

Offensive Line: Leaving the right tackle position alone was probably the most unforgiveable mistake of the last offseason, and the concerns about Travis Swanson seemed to be warranted. It will be important to see how Quinn addresses those positions. They may also choose to either move on from Riley Reiff, or extend him.

Defensive Line: With so many defensive linemen leaving in free agency, I would expect some significant changes here. It’s unlikely that Reid and Wright are both the starting defensive tackles next year, so we should expect at least one more brought in. They’ll also need some depth at defensive end. I’d expect three more defensive linemen to come in to play at least a significant role next year.

Linebackers: The unit is largely set, but unless they’re completely sold on Van Noy (last year would at least indicate that Caldwell isn’t) I would expect one more notable acquisition. Either re-signing Whitehead, or a high draft pick is most likely.

Defensive Backs: I don’t think there will be many significant personnel changes to this unit. With the young, promising cornerbacks on the roster, the most I would expect is two completely depth CBs at most. They need to bring in another safety to start and after that probably one for depth. Keep an eye on Isa Abdul-Quddus, or expect a high level draft pick at safety.

Special Teams: Muhlbach will be Muhl-back and that’ll be the end of the unit.

Priorities

The way I will be describing the priorities will be interdependent. That is to say once a single need gets filled, what is the next biggest need? This will result in some positions being represented more than once and some not at all. This also doesn't distinguish between free agency needs and draft needs.

  1. Defensive line
  2. Safety
  3. Center
  4. Offensive tackle
  5. Defensive tackle
  6. Linebacker
  7. Rusher
  8. Backup quarterback
  9. Defensive end
  10. Wide receiver
  11. Safety
  12. Wide receiver
  13. Offensive tackle
  14. Cornerback

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