Confidence hasn't exactly been high in the national media for the Detroit Lions 2016 season. Predictions outside of the Detroit beat have the Lions winning only a few games and they are almost universally considered one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Favorite analytics site has the team tied for the worst record in the NFC. Bleacher Report has them at the bottom of the league. It seems like every outlet nationally thinks they're going to lose. With all the young talent on the roster like Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah, you'd think confidence would be a little higher. If for no other reason than the team has remained static, but not so low that they'll tank the season. There's only one problem, Lions fans: The national media isn’t wrong when they call this roster weak. Their lack of enthusiasm for the Lions season is completely warranted.
Now, that doesn't mean they're all correct. Much of the reasoning behind the media being down the Lions has to do with the departure of Calvin Johnson, and wide receiver is pretty easily the best and deepest position on the team at the moment. The most-efficient-pass-rusher-but-not-top-101 player argument is also a stupid one from a site hedging their bets as to whether Ansah can continue his ascendance or flounder. Even with these easily counterable objections to the national perception, training camp has given me significant pause to re-evaluate how strong I thought the roster was, and it is not a very pretty sight.
Matthew Stafford looks great in camp, he throws with ease and has no trouble placing the ball anywhere he likes. The rest of the quarterback stable is a mess, but as long as Stafford is there, we can expect improvement. Except Stafford always looks great in camp, and he looks no different than any other year. For some players, camp isn't a good indicator of where they are, and I'm more excited to see Stafford giving out tickets than I am seeing him throw. If he goes down, Dan Orlovsky is his old self while Jake Rudock may not even make the final roster.
The Lions had the worst rushing attack in the NFL last year and while scheme and OL had the most to do with it, the backs weren't blameless. This unit doesn't look any better, and is, in fact, less healthy than it was last season. The team's top two backs on the team are still nursing injuries. The rest of the depth chart includes the oft-injured Stevan Ridley, who is coming off a knee injury, and three backs who haven't had 50 professional touches in their respective careers.
As a whole unit, this group looks legitimately better than in 2015, even with Calvin gone. Golden Tate still looks like himself, Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin look like strong signings and TJ Jones along with other young receivers look ready to contribute.
Eric Ebron looks improved, but the next best TE is an undrafted rookie out of Incarnate Word. The other two tight ends from 2015 are injured, one on IR and one on PUP. The Lions may carry only two on the roster, which says it all about this group.
The hottest mess in 2015 looks like it will carry that torch into 2016. Both tackle spots seem to have improved, but there is no depth to speak of on the bookends. The interior OL has struggled mightily in camp against some pretty shoddy interior rushers. It doesn't engender confidence that we'll see an improved unit, and I'd even consider the possibility of it being worse than last year.
At best, this position is the same as it was last year with one improved rotational piece in A'Shawn Robinson. The starting group and current top backup remain the same as 2015, a unit that wasn't spectacular. If this unit is static from last season, teams will still be able to gouge the Lions up the middle, and without a reliable pass rush on the interior it is only going to be harder for the rest of the defense. Haloti Ngata was inconsistent last season while Tyrunn Walker was injured early. Caraun Reid, once thought to be a lock, is being challenged by at least four different players for his spot.
Though not a deep unit, end boasts the best starting group on the defense and possibly the team in Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor. Beyond those two, it's a pitiful group. The top reserve is journeyman Wallace Gilberry, who isn't exactly known for being a top pass rusher or run stopper. Anthony Zettel is next, a tweener rookie, followed by converted linebacker Brandon Copeland. The Lions have one of the best defensive line staffs in the NFL, but this group is an injury or bad day away from being bottom of the league.
This group should be improved just by getting DeAndre Levy back, except they haven't. I mentioned recently that it becomes time to panic if we haven't seen Levy on a field by the second preseason game, but it sounds as though he may not play at all. Tahir Whitehead's return is welcomed, but Kyle Van Noy remains a question mark at Sam. Beyond that, it's newcomer Jon Bostic as the top backup at Will, a position he's never played, then the group's worst cover backer in Josh Bynes and late-round rookie Antwione Williams. It is going to be a very long season if Levy is not ready to go, or isn't as effective after his year off and new line in front of him.
Darius Slay looks great and Quandre Diggs looks improved. That’s where the positives end with this group, which sees an uncertain starter across from Slay and a struggling stable of veterans and rookies who haven’t been able to establish themselves. This group as a whole looked five alarm bad in training camp, with 2015 rookie Alex Carter at the front of a shaky group. I wasn’t advocating for drafting a cornerback highly in 2016, but despite signing a couple of free agents it was largely and obviously ignored.
The biggest position of need for the Detroit Lions this offseason was largely unaddressed. The "three way battle" at strong safety that we were promised between Rafael Bush, Tavon Wilson, and Miles Killebrew? It never happened, and judging by their usage in training camp it won’t happen barring injury. Rafael Bush is the starting strong safety across from Glover Quin, who struggled to follow up his 2014 All Pro season last year. Tavon Wilson is essentially what Don Carey used to be (though with Carey now back, we’ll see if he holds that role), while Miles Killebrew is coming along very slowly.
The only unit that didn’t take a major hit, both Matt Prater and Sam Martin are fine while nobody knows who’s returning punts or kicks. Joe Marciano relies on his players more than his coaching (which throughout his career was sub par), and he’s got a good stable. Still, two of his specialists are in the defensive backfield (Johnson Bademosi and Don Carey), raising the possibility he loses one (Carey, and it’s more of a probability). Other special team stand outs like Tahir Whitehead and Theo Riddick look to have larger roles on their sides of the ball, meaning there will be a notable void. Long snapper Jimmy Landes, drafted in the sixth round, is struggling to adapt his pro game, but I’m less concerned about that as I am a unit with no set returners, and only one stand out ace for any unit.
The Detroit Lions have plenty of talented players, the problem being that they are concentrated at a few positions while depth is almost nonexistent. When general manager Bob Quinn came in and said he wanted to improve the depth of the team, like many fans I thought he would be building upon a solid but piecemeal base to put the team in contention. I was confident this team could compete against the weak schedule they face in 2016, though not so much to call them a contender by any stretch. The roster isn’t as bad as it’s being made out to be by some national media folk, but make no mistake, when people say this roster is a weak one, it is an accurate statement. Teams like the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, who can’t get out of their own way to save their lives, are far worse, but the Detroit Lions are closer to those teams than they are the Minnesota Vikings or Green Bay Packers.
I’d love to stand here and say this roster is going to put the team over the top, that I’m more confident in training camp than I’ve ever been, but it would be dishonest to do so. I’m confident in most of the moves Bob Quinn has made, and I feel the team will be good in time, even great. They are not so now, and while I will continue to bring the good news I see in training camp (such as Eric Ebron finding new footing), unless there is a sudden upturn in play by the offensive line, secondary, linebackers, and special teams units, I feel this is going to be a very long, very frustrating 2016 NFL season.