Though there are likely to be a couple moves left before the Detroit Lions’ roster is set for Week 1, it’s time to look at what they’ve got and see what kind of team they are on paper. Are they better than last year’s squad? It seems easy to say so now. Are they a team that can compete for a playoff spot? For a division title? For a championship?
Okay, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s just take a look at each positional group and hand out a grade for them.
Starter: Matthew Stafford
Backups: Josh Johnson, David Blough
Overall grade: B
For the most part, your quarterback room is all about your starter, and Matthew Stafford is the definition of a Grade B quarterback. That’s not supposed to be a knock on the guy; It’s very hard to find quarterbacks of his caliber in this league.
However, the Lions need to be a little concerned about their backups. Obviously, things didn’t go as planned for the backup job, as the Lions shuffled between Connor Cook, David Fales and Tom Savage before landing on the journeyman Johnson. Having a backup with only three week’s experience with the team is a risk, no matter how much of a veteran he.
Starter: Kerryon Johnson
Backups: C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson, J.D. McKissic, Nick Bawden (FB)
Practice squad: Mark Thompson
Overall grade: B+
Johnson has a real chance to be a star in this league—we’re talking top five, not just top 10. He’s not there yet, and he needs to prove his durability before we go crowning him, but his rookie season was undoubtedly promising despite the injury.
The depth is easily the best the Lions have had in some time. Despite moving on from both Zach Zenner and Theo Riddick, the Lions are in good shape with Anderson as their “thunder” back and Ty Johnson and McKissic as their shifty, receiving backs.
Starters: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James
Backups: Logan Thomas
Practice squad: Isaac Nauta, Austin Traylor
Overall grade: A-
Based on what I saw in training camp, Hockenson has real potential to buck the trend of first-year tight ends having a modest rookie season. He has already developed solid chemistry with Stafford and has caught just about everything thrown within a 5-yard radius of him. I typically try not to get too hyped about a rookie, but Hockenson has made that damn-near impossible.
Jesse James should be a good 1B option and a more polished blocker than Hockenson right now. Meanwhile, Logan Thomas provides some experienced depth.
Starters: Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay, Danny Amendola
Backups: Chris Lacy, Travis Fulgham
Practice squad: Jonathan Duhart, Tom Kennedy
Overall grade: C-
This group of receivers screams mediocrity to me. While Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are both capable of big plays, they both struggle with creating separation and neither are truly mismatches against above-average cornerbacks.
I’m higher on Danny Amendola than most. If he can stay healthy this season, I don’t think 600-700 yards are out of the question for the 33-year-old slot receiver.
But this is overall an underwhelming unit, and one injury would mean they are relying on unproven talent to come in and produce. We saw how that worked out last season.
Starters: Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Frank Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, Rick Wagner
Backups: Kenny Wiggins, Beau Benzschawel, Tyrell Crosby, Oday Aboushi
Practice squad: Matt Nelson
Overall grade: C-
The Lions’ starting offensive line has the potential to be good, but not great. The biggest question remains at left guard, where it appears 2016 fifth-round pick Joe Dahl may finally get his shot. Moving Ragnow to center theoretically improves two positions (center and right guard), but that remains to be more theory than fact.
Ragnow’s preseason injury was a stark reminder of just how much of a house of cards this offensive line is. One injury to any starter, and the Lions could be in serious trouble. Their offensive line depth was horrible in the preseason—especially at tackle—and that should leave many Lions fans worried about this front five, because an entire unit staying healthy all year is just not that common.
Starters: Trey Flowers, A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison Sr.
Backups: Mike Daniels, Da’Shawn Hand, Romeo Okwara, Kevin Strong
Practice squad: Jonathan Wynn, John Atkins
Overall grade: A
When Mike Daniels, Da’Shawn Hand, and Romeo Okwara are considered your “depth pieces,” you know something is going right in Detroit. With the development of Robinson and Hand last year, the trade for run-stuffer Harrison, and the impressive offseason additions of Flowers and Daniels, the Lions now have a defensive front that can do everything and is a couple players deep.
Those five would be impressive enough, but Okwara is a perfect fit for this defense and put up 7.5 sacks last year. And while Kevin Strong likely doesn’t make much of an impact his rookie year, his preseason was good enough to provide some long-term optimism there.
Starters: Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Jahlani Tavai
Backups: Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew
Practice squad: Steve Longa, Anthony Pittman
IR (eligible to return): Austin Bryant
Overall grade: C-
The Lions’ depth provides some serious promise—especially with the perceived growth in Reeves-Maybin and maybe even Killebrew—but this starter group of players has too many questions to have a ton of faith in.
Jarrad Davis will likely miss some time with an injury, and his play has been inconsistent at best, anyways. Jahlani Tavai looked promising this preseason, but handing over immediate duties to a second-round pick is certainly a risk. Meanwhile, Devon Kennard has only been a serviceable jack linebacker thus far in Detroit.
As of right now, there is nothing special about this group, and to call them average may be a compliment. That said, they have the potential to be a solid group of players. It’s going to rely heavily on this coaching staff getting the most out of these guys immediately.
Starters: Darius Slay, Rashaan Melvin, Justin Coleman
Backups: Amani Oruwariye, Jamal Agnew, Mike Ford, Dee Virgin
Overall grade: B-
Darius Slay is still a game changer, and there is a fair amount of hope for both Melvin and Coleman. Melvin had a quiet but solid preseason, showing signs that he could return to 2017 form after a rough 2018. Justin Coleman came into training camp with a lot of expectations and a hefty contract. However, his performance in August left a lot to be desired and has left a lot of Lions fans—including this one right here—a little concerned about Detroit’s starting nickel corner.
Detroit’s depth is just okay, but improvements from fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye and Mike Ford throughout the preseason gives a little hope.
Starters: Quandre Diggs, Tracy Walker
Backups: Tavon Wilson, Will Harris, C.J. Moore
Overall grade: B+
Quandre Diggs is a playmaker, both as a run defender and in coverage. Tracy Walker is still mostly unproven, but everything we’ve seen from the second-year safety has been promising.
Combine that with reliable veteran safety Tavon Wilson and third-round pick Will Harris, and you’ve got a pretty good—but not great—set of safeties. Don’t sleep on C.J. Moore with his special teams contributions, either.
Starters: Matt Prater, Sam Martin, Don Muhlbach
Overall grade: A-
(Note: I’m not including return or coverage units in my grade, as they are nearly impossible to predict.)
Just look around the NFC North. It’ll serve as a very pleasant reminder just how lucky the Lions were to land Matt Prater when they did. Punter Sam Martin has the pressure on now that he’s essentially on a one-year deal, but if that can provide the motivation he needs, he’s a Pro Bowl punter. And you will never see me say anything disparaging about the ageless long snapper Don Muhlbach.