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2017 Detroit Lions roster: Is the team better than last year?

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We compare the rosters of the 2016 and 2017 Detroit Lions.

New York Jets v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Many believe last year’s Detroit Lions roster was one of the worst in the league. The narrative of the 2016 Lions has become that Matthew Stafford pulled a 3-13 team to a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance.

While that is likely a huge oversimplification of the season and probably a bit exaggerated, there is a point to be made. Last year’s team was not good. This is a team that ranked dead last in defensive DVOA. This is a team that rushed for the third-fewest rushing yards per game and had the sixth-worst yards per carry average. They had the second-fewest sacks in the league They forced the fourth-fewest turnovers, including zero in the final five games.

This is all to say this team needed to improve this offseason to compete for something other than a playoff appearance.

Bob Quinn had a busy offseason filled with a lot of big moves, but was the end result an improvement? Let’s compare today’s roster to the one back in Week 1 of the 2016 season.

Quarterback

2017 QBs: Matthew Stafford, Jake Rudock
2016 QBs: Matthew Stafford, Dan Orlovsky

Obviously the Lions didn’t change their starting quarterback this year. Instead, they locked him up for another five years. Orlovsky, now out of a job, was replaced by youngster Jake Rudock, who has shown a large amount of improvement since last year.

However, because the Lions don’t plan on using their backup quarterback at all, we can’t call this a significant improvement.

Verdict: No change

Running backs

2017 RBs: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Tion Green
2016 RBs: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Michael Burton

The Lions return basically the exact same squad as they did last year. However, they all return healthy. Last year, Abdullah missed 14.5 games. Theo Riddick was sidelined for six games.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the 2017 versions of these players will be completely healthy and therefore are going to be better than last year. But let’s be realistic, there’s a pretty good chance Abdullah doesn’t miss 14 games again this year. The Lions are relying on him to be the premier back, and if he even manages to play just through the first month of the season, the Lions should see a lot of improvement at running back from last season.

Verdict: Small-to-medium improvement

Tight ends

2017 TEs: Eric Ebron, Darren Fells, Michael Roberts
2016 TEs: Eric Ebron, Cole Wick, Orson Charles, Khari Lee

Here’s a clear spot of improvement from last year’s squad. Because of injuries the Lions were completely depleted at tight end last year. They were forced to keep an undrafted rookie and added Khari Lee leading up to Week 1. In fact, all three of Ebron’s backups would end up either cut or injured by the second week in November.

This year, the Lions invested in the tight end position. Darren Fells was one of their most important free agent signings, finally shoring up a blocking tight end that this roster so drastically needed. Rookie Michael Roberts should add some value to the Lions’ red zone offense as well.

Verdict: Big improvement

Wide receivers:

2017 WRs: Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones, Jared Abbrederis
2016 WRs: Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, Andre Roberts

The loss of Anquan Boldin looms large in this position group. Boldin hauled in 67 catches for 584 yard and 8 touchdowns last year, and it’s not clear if the Lions have anyone that can come close to that kind of production on this season’s squad.

However, the future of the position could be bright. Third-round rookie Kenny Golladay impressed all offseason and could see playing time earlier than expected. Still, it’s unrealistic to expect the rookie to put up that kind of production in his first year in the league.

Verdict: Small decline

Offensive line:

2017 OLs: Greg Robinson, Graham Glasgow, Travis Swanson, T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner, Corey Robinson, Brian Mihalik, Joe Dahl, Zac Kerin

2016 OLs: Taylor Decker, Laken Tomlinson, Travis Swanson, Larry Warford, Riley Reiff, Cornelius Lucas, Corey Robinson, Joe Dahl, Graham Glasgow

The offensive line has seen the most turnover among the Lions position groups. Just four of the nine linemen have been carried over from last year’s roster.

The biggest turnover happened on the right side, where starters Larry Warford and Riley Reiff were both, arguably, upgraded with T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner.

Now the problem is on the left side. Taylor Decker starts the year on the PUP list, leaving newbie Greg Robinson to take over the blind side. Graham Glasgow officially takes over for now-traded Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson had lost the job to Glasgow by the end of last season anyways, but Glasgow has yet to show he’s an actual upgrade from Tomlinson.

The Lions are clearly better on the right side, and clearly worse on the left. So this one is a draw. The good news is that once Taylor Decker is back, this offensive line could have a bright future. Unfortunately, that may mean a year of growing pains in 2017.

Verdict: No change

Defensive line:

2017 DLs: Ezekiel Ansah, Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson, Anthony Zettel, Cornelius Washington, Jeremiah Valoaga, Alex Barrett, Akeem Spence, Jeremiah Ledbetter

2016 DLs: Ezekiel Ansah, Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, Devin Taylor, Wallace Gilberry, Brandon Copeland, Anthony Zettel, A’Shawn Robinson, Khyri Thornton, Stefan Charles, Kerry Hyder

When the Lions sent Tyrunn Walker and Devin Taylor packing this offseason, it was considered addition by subtraction to many. However, eager fans waited and waited for the team to find adequate replacements for the two in the starting lineup and never found them.

The Lions did add Cornelius Washington and Akeem Spence, two players that figure to play a huge part in their defensive line rotation this year. However, both come with little accolades to their name. Spence earned one of the worst PFF grades among DTs last year (122 out of 125). Washington brings a little more promise, but in a four-year career, he has only started two games and tallied 3.0 sacks.

The season-ending injury to Kerry Hyder and Brandon Copeland has made a squad that could have been better than last year, almost certainly not. While there is hope that Ezekiel Ansah will play better now that he’s healthier (although spending all training camp on PUP isn’t exactly a clean bill of health) and A’Shawn Robinson will continue to improve, I just don’t see any signs of significant upgrades here.

Verdict: Small decline

Linebackers

2017 LBs: Tahir Whitehead, Jarrad Davis, Paul Worrilow, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Steve Longa, Nick Bellore
2016 LBs: DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Kyle Van Noy, Thurston Armbrister, Antwione Williams

Last year, the Lions’ worst unit on the team was their linebackers. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that is has seen such drastic turnover this year. Drafting Jarrad Davis hopes to improve two spots on the linebacker crew: Davis as an upgrade to Whitehead at MLB and Whitehead as an upgrade to Levy (or whoever played in Levy’s spot each week when he was injured).

Not only are the Lions’ starters improved, their depth is better. Gone are the days of Thurston Armbrister getting meaningful snaps. Now the Lions have veteran Paul Worrilow backing up the squad, along with a high-ceiling rookie in Reeves-Maybin and another experienced vet in Nick Bellore.

It may be a few months until we see the upgrade that Davis provides at middle linebacker, but this unit has a promising future.

Verdict: Short-term, small improvement; Long-term, big improvement

Defensive backs

2017 DBs: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Teez Tabor, DJ Hayden, Quandre Diggs, Jamal Agnew, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Miles Killebrew, Don Carey, Charles Washington
2016 DBs: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs, Johnson Bademosi, Adairius Barnes, Glover Quin, Rafael Bush, Tavon Wilson, Miles Killebrew, Don Carey

This unit looks drastically similar to the team last year, just with more depth. This makes a lot of sense, because once Quandre Diggs went down the Lions’ defense suffered immensely. Now Detroit has the likes of DJ Hayden and rookies Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew to step in if the injury bug rears its ugly head again.

At safety, you could argue the team is slightly worse. Rafael Bush is gone and replaced with a second-year Miles Killebrew. The hope is that Killebrew is ready to get some additional playing time in big nickel packages, but we’ve yet to see if he’s made any improvements from last year.

Verdict: Small improvement

Special teams:

2017 STers: Matt Prater, Kasey Redfern, Don Muhlbach
2016 STers: Matt Prater, Sam Martin, Don Muhlbach

The injury to Sam Martin hurts, but it doesn’t sting as much as you’d think. Kasey Redfern proved in the preseason that he can hang with NFL punters. Still, he’s no #PuntGod.

Verdict: Small decline

Overall

The Lions have improved in four of nine units, while they declined in three. The offense promises to be better with significant improvements to the backfield and tight ends, with only a minor decline in receivers and a push at offensive line.

The big question is on defense. I see no reason to hope that the defensive line will improve and that’s could really hold the unit back. That being said, the linebackers will certainly be better this year; it’s just a question of when. The secondary too has better depth, but the starters are essentially the same.

Overall, I think you have to say this team looks better on paper than last year, but not as much as I would have hoped for. All it would take is one or two big injuries, and then suddenly you’re back at a talent level comparable to last year.

Still, even if the Lions don’t see improvement, the future beyond 2017 is undoubtedly brighter. With a healthy offensive line, that unit could be top 10 in the league. Detroit also has a few young pieces on defense to finally build around in Jarrad Davis and possibly Teez Tabor.

Most improvement is gradual in the NFL, so while the Lions may not be a massively upgraded team from last year, I still think they are trending upwards.

Poll

How does the 2017 Lions roster compare to 2016?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    A lot better
    (333 votes)
  • 67%
    A little better
    (1963 votes)
  • 15%
    The same
    (457 votes)
  • 4%
    A little worse
    (143 votes)
  • 0%
    A lot worse
    (22 votes)
2918 votes total Vote Now