The Detroit Lions begin their organized team activities on Tuesday and with it comes the first chance for players to make their case to make Detroit’s final 53-man roster. Some portions of the roster have seen an overhaul during the offseason and there will be a ton of new faces in Allen Park for the next few weeks.
Already, there has been a lot of talk about increased competition at every position, something Bob Quinn notoriously emphasizes every time he addresses how to build a team. “I think we need to do a better job of creating even more depth and more competition throughout the whole roster,” Quinn said back in January.
So let’s look at where the Lions’ roster stands in terms of depth and look at the top five positional battles going into offseason training.
Everyone loves a good backup quarterback debate. All you have to do is go back to last year—when the Lions pretty clearly had their backup in Dan Orlovsky—to see just how rabid a fanbase can get about a quarterback competition, even if it isn’t there.
But with Orlovsky now gone, the Lions actually have a true competition on their hands: Second year, sixth-round pick Jake Rudock versus 2017’s sixth-round pick Brad Kaaya. Smart money is on both making the final 53-man roster, but the No. 2 slot on the depth chart remains in play.
Left defensive end
Unlike backup quarterback, this positional battle is due to lack of talent more than anything. Last year, there was no clear starter opposite Ezekiel Ansah, and Detroit did little to change that this season. Devin Taylor started all 16 games at left defensive end in 2016, but it appears he’ll be headed elsewhere in 2017—possibly to the New York Giants.
Right now, Cornelius Washington is the most likely candidate to take over the job. The Lions signed him two-year, $6 million contract making him the only true offseason addition to the position outside of seventh-round pick Pat O’Connor.
Washington, who has only started two games in his four year career, will have to compete with the likes of Armonty Bryant (4 career starts), Kerry Hyder (2) and Anthony Zettel (0). You read that correctly: The top four candidates for the starting job have a combined eight NFL starts to their name. Yikes.
While there may be questions as to whether Teez Tabor can take the No. 2 corner spot away from Nevin Lawson, there is an intense battle brewing at nickel corner. The Lions brought in DJ Hayden on a bulky one-year, $3.75 million contract to compete with the incumbent Quandre Diggs, who took a big step back in 2016 and suffered a torn pectoral that ended his season.
The Lions also drafted Jamal Agnew in the fourth round, who will likely make the team via special teams contributions, but could challenge for the spot down the line.
But this competition could be even hotter if Tabor quickly wins the No. 2 position. That would mean Lawson, who has capabilities as an inside corner, would be added to the competition at nickel and suddenly there would be a three-man race.
Hayden is the clear favorite given his big contract, but Quinn has shown that players still need to earn their spot on the team, so don’t count out Diggs quite yet.
Fourth wide receiver/punt returner
As the roster currently stands, the Lions have a clear hierarchy among their top three receivers: Marvin Jones Jr., Golden Tate and rookie Kenny Golladay, but things get very murky from there. The Lions kept four receivers on their roster last year, and the battle for that final spot is anything but settled for this season.
Jace Billingsley has been getting a ton of offseason hype, but he’ll have to beat out the likes of TJ Jones and free agent additions Jared Abbrederis and Keshawn Martin.
This isn’t exactly the most important camp battle, as the Lions went with just their top three receivers on the field nearly 80 percent of the time, but this could be a key special teams spot.
Essentially, you can look at this camp battle as a fight for the team’s returning spot. With Andre Roberts gone, there is a vacancy in both kick and punt returns. Billingsley, Jones and Martin all have returning experience, as does rookie cornerback Jamal Agnew. Earning a roster spot may come down to who brings the most explosion to the return game.
Last year, #LONGSNAPPERWATCH2016 didn’t quite live up to its billing. Jimmy Landes had to bow out due to an injury that sidelined him for his entire rookie year. However, this season he is healthy and ready to take on the oldest player on the Lions roster: Don Muhlbach.
Muhlbach has held down the position since 2004, but Detroit spent a sixth-round pick on Landes last year leading many to believe the veteran is living on borrowed time.
Age alone puts Landes slightly ahead in this camp battle, but the fact that Detroit went out and re-signed Muhlbach again this offseason means that he has a fighting chance at one more year with the team.