Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn has never shied away from letting the public know his roster building strategy. He has already spent two of his first four first-round selections as a general manager on the offensive line. After he selected guard Frank Ragnow in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, he told DetroitLions.com:
I think it starts up front. We want to build through the middle of our team, through the offensive line, defensive line and through the middle. And that’s kind of what we believe in.
That’s what made the Lions 2019 offseason such a surprise. Four of the team’s nine draft picks this year were used on skill position players, including tight end T.J. Hockenson in round one. Not a single draft pick was used on the offensive line—despite a glaring need—and not a single pick was used on the defensive line until the fourth round, when the team drafted defensive end Austin Bryant.
A team that has especially valued the big guys up front over the years decided that this was the year they made huge investments into the skill positions. While it means that the offense has gotten a large injection of weapons for quarterback Matthew Stafford, it also means that the team will be facing a few tough decisions going forward.
As of now, Detroit has 25 skill position players on the roster: six running backs, a full back, six tight ends and 12 wide receivers. In 2018, the team held onto 15 skill position players for their ‘final’ 53-man roster. This means that no matter what combination of players Detroit chooses to hold on to, around 10 players will have to go.
So who makes the cut? And what can we project for each position going forward now that we are entering a summer full of offseason programs?
2018 53-man roster (Strike through name indicates player is no longer with team):
LeGarrette Blount, Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah
2018 additions: Zach Zenner
New additions: C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson, Mark Thompson
Detroit chose to hold on to four running backs last season, as was expected throughout training camp. The biggest decision they had to make regarding this unit was taken out of their hands when Zach Zenner was placed on Injured Reserve with a back injury, allowing Ameer Abdullah to slip into the fourth spot.
Kerryon Johnson is a lock to make the roster. LeGarrette Blount’s spot will be replaced by C.J. Anderson. While Theo Riddick may be a trade candidate, the Lions will most likely retain his services as well, as he is the best receiving back on the roster still and if they were going to cut him to save money, they most likely would have done so already. Mark Thompson is likely a camp body, and will need to have a stand out summer is he hopes to make the final roster.
This leaves Ty Johnson and Zenner. The latter replaced Abdullah when he returned from injury midway through the year, and an impressive end to the season earned him a one-year extension. Johnson is a rookie sixth-round pick with all the speed you could dream of and value as a potential return man.
If Detroit chooses to retain four running backs once again, that means there is only room for one. Johnson would be the favorite between the two. Detroit will most likely reduce the amount of receivers they hold on to, though (we will get to this in a second), so there is a very good chance they both end up making it.
New additions: Nick Bawden
2018 seventh-round pick Nick Bawden was the favorite to win the single fullback job last year. He unfortunately tore his ACL and missed his entire rookie season, and linebacker convert Nick Bellore earned the lone spot.
Bellore left the team to join the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, and with Bawden back from injury the job is his. There is no competition here, and it is likely that Detroit elects to have a fullback to run Darrell Bevell’s offense.
Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones, Brandon Powell, Bradley Marquez
2018 additions: Chris Lacy, Andy Jones, Deontez Alexander
New additions: Danny Amendola, Travis Fulgham, Tommylee Lewis, Jonathan Duhart, Jordan Smallwood, Tom Kennedy
Detroit made the shocking decision to hold on to six receivers on their final 53-man roster last season. Both Brandon Powell and Bradley Marquez seemed like long shots, but both did enough to steal one of the final places. Marquez did not last very long, though, and was cut in September.
Jones Jr. and Golladay are locks to return as the team’s top two receivers. Free agent signing Danny Amendola is a lock as well and will usurp Golden Tate’s role.
Chris Lacy and Deontez Alexander were all added at some point in 2018 as the team’s receiving corps fell apart. They failed to make much of an impact, though, and will need an impressive camp to make the roster.
Jonathan Duhart, Jordan Smallwood and Tom Kennedy are most likely camp bodies that will need a stand-out Summer to make the roster.
That leaves Brandon Powell, Travis Fulgham, Tommylee Lewis and Andy Jones competing for the remaining spots. If Detroit chooses to retain six receiver once again then three will be set to make the roster. Most likely they will only retain five, though, especially considering the current logjam at running back.
Fulgham is the favorite. Powell is an interesting piece that contributed late in the season and is a piece that could be used creatively in Bevell’s offense. Lewis is another deep threat who gives the team enough speed to take the top off of defenses. Jones is a long shot, but his ability as a run blocker quietly makes him a perfect fit in a Detroit offense that projects to be run heavy.
At most three, but most likely two, of those names will make the Lions final roster barring any sort of injury.
Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, Michael Roberts, Hakeem Valles
2018 additions: Jerome Cunningham
New additions: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta, Logan Thomas,
Detroit’s tight end corps was awful last year, but it looked like it had some sort of promise when the Lions chose to hold to four last summer. Hakeem Valles and Michael Roberts seemed like players who had potential, but neither reached it in 2018.
Roberts is the only tight end from last season’s 53-man roster to still be on the team entering this summer, but he will have to fight to hold on to his roster spot this year.
T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James are locks to make the roster. After that, everything is up for grabs.
Logan Thomas is a former quarterback with some use as both a blocker and a receiver. Isaac Nauta was selected in the seventh round, and he could fill a role as a blocker as well. Jerome Cunningham was a late activation off of Detroit’s practice squad in 2018. The coaching staff obviously seems some sort of potential in him.
RB (5): Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, C.J. Anderson, Zach Zenner, Ty Johnson
FB (1): Nick Bawden
WR (5): Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay, Danny Amendola, Travis Fulgham, Brandon Powell
TE (3): T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta
If Detroit chooses this path, then they will end up retaining 13 skill position players. This saves a surplus roster spot compared to 2018—I’m not counting Alexander as he was instantly released—and leaves Logan Thomas as the only real “odd man out”.