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Grading the 2021 Detroit Lions 53-man roster by position

An analysis of the Lions’ starting lineup and depth at each position.

Buffalo Bills vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Though the Detroit Lions are likely not done tinkering with their roster right now, after establishing their initial 53-man roster, now is a good time to assess where the team is at from Player 1 to 53.

Expectations may be low for 2021, but overall, confidence remains high in the long-term direction of this team. So by look both at the current starters and the depth behind them, we should see the beginnings of the blueprint for the Detroit Lions under head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes.

So here are my grades for Detroit’s roster, done position-by-position.

Quarterback

Starter: Jared Goff
Depth: David Blough, Tim Boyle (injured)

Starter grade: C

I like to think I came into training camp with a pretty open mind about Goff. In my mind, he had two really good seasons and two really bad seasons. It’s clear his relationship with Rams head coach Sean McVay had run its course, so I truly believed a change in scenery could unlock the talent that led to him being a first overall pick.

But I did not come away impressed during training camp. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t. Goff still looks like someone trying to overcome confidence issues, I don’t think he reads defenses particularly well, and we all know he struggles when under pressure.

I’m willing to give him plenty more time to leave a full evaluation. Maybe he needs time with a new offense, new receivers, and he could possibly look better with a competent running game. But consider me highly skeptical at this point.

Depth grade: C-

Considering there aren’t more than 20 quarterbacks who are NFL-capable starters, you could do a lot worse than David Blough as your backup. While he doesn’t have starter potential—and neither does Boyle—at least we’ve seen some significant growth in Blough’s game over the past couple of years. The Lions only get dinged a half mark from average because they clearly need a third, healthy option while Boyle is out 6-8 weeks. I expect them to add one to the practice squad.

Running back

Starter: D’Andre Swift
Depth: Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike, Jason Cabinda (FB)

Starter grade: B

Swift had a great rookie season, averaging 4.6 per carry and totaling 46 catches in the passing game. Early in camp, Swift looked like he was going to be one of the primary weapons in this offense. But I share the same concern that the coaches do: can he overcome this groin injury and be ready for the start of the season? Will that injury linger?

He’s looked fine in limited work at practice, but is he ready for a full game’s worth of snaps?

Depth grade: B+

I really like how the Lions are set up at depth. Jamaal Williams is a great No. 2 behind Swift and could also start in a pinch. The Lions have some pretty good developmental prospects in seventh-round pick Jefferson, and the growth Igwebuike has shown after just a couple of months at the running back position is very promising.

Tight end

Starter: T.J. Hockenson
Depth: Darren Fells

Starter grade: A

Assuming he stays healthy, Hockenson is primed to have an even bigger season than his Pro Bowl year in 2020. He gave the Lions defense fits all training camp, and he’s clearly Goff’s favorite target. Hockenson may be the most important person on the Lions' offense, and I fully expect him to approach the 1,000-yard mark this season.

Depth grade: D

Darren Fells is a good, albeit aging, blocking tight end. Unfortunately, that’s all the Lions have. No young player to develop. No “break glass in case of emergency” option. If Hockenson or Fells gets an injury, they’re screwed.

Let’s hope Hunter Bryant comes back healthy and stronger next year.

Wide receiver

Starters: Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond, Amon-Ra St. Brown
Depth: Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson, Tom Kennedy

Starters grade: F

I’m not going to sugarcoat this one, ladies and gentlemen. Tyrell Williams is the Lions’ best receiver who once had 1,000 yards... five years ago. Williams hasn’t shown he’s capable of being a No. 1 wide receiver, as the only year he took on that role he caught just 42 passes for 651 yards and six touchdowns (in 14 games). He’s Detroit’s best receiver by a large margin.

Kalif Raymond is set to start on the outside. The man has started four total games in five seasons and he’s better in the slot. Amon-Ra St. Brown has a lot of potential as the team’s starting slot, and he’s looked pretty good at camp, but I fear expectations are a little too high for the fourth-round pick.

Put simply, this is quite possibly the worst starting receiving corps in the league.

Depth grade: F

The Lions traded for Trinity Benson, who is a player with certainly high upside. But this group is still woefully inexperienced and shouldn’t be relied upon to contribute in any meaningful way. Cephus is one player who could produce if called upon—and maybe he even wins out the No. 2 receiver job—but he’s yet to prove he’s capable of carrying such a role.

Offensive line

Starters: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell
Depth: Matt Nelson, Evan Brown, Logan Stenberg

Starters grade: B

Obviously, there are serious concerns about the right side of the offensive line (again). Vaitai is the long-term weak link of the line, but has shown some promise in camp. Sewell has struggled in his transition back to the right side, but I believe he’ll have things settled there sooner rather than later.

The rest of the offensive line has a chance to be something special. Decker and Ragnow are among the best at their position, while Jackson has shown enough promise to believe he can be an above-average starter as soon as this year.

Depth grade: D

Detroit only has one backup tackle right now, and Nelson looked poised to give up his roster spot to Dan Skipper had Skipper not been injured in the preseason finale. Stenberg’s Year 2 growth provides some optimism for his ability to step in, but that’s about it.

Defensive tackle

Starters: Michael Brockers, Alim McNeill, Nick Williams
Depth: Da’Shawn Hand (injured), Levi Onwuzurike, John Penisini, Kevin Strong

Starters grade: B

Assuming Brockers is telling the truth when he says he’ll be ready by Week 1, this is obviously the strength of the team. While we haven’t seen what Brockers still has left in him, he’s got a good reputation and an extensive knowledge of the defense. McNeill has already shown a ton of promise at nose tackle as a rookie already. And Nick Williams looked surprisingly shifty in his limited training camp work.

Depth grade: B+

Where this unit really shines is at its depth. Onwuzurike is going to get a lot of playing time early, and he’s going to... *mess* some things up. John Penisini provides decent depth at nose, while Kevin Strong continues to make the most of his opportunities. If Da’Shawn Hand was healthy, I’d kick this up to an A or an A-, but until he can prove he can make it on the field, he still remains someone who has more promise than actual performance.

Edge defenders

Starters: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara
Depth: Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, Charles Harris

Starters grade: B

It remains to be seen how good of a fit Flowers will be in this new defense, but he’s such a solid player all around that it’s hard to imagine he’ll struggle much. He’s a very balanced athlete who may not get you double-digit sacks, but he will not give up any big plays, either.

After notching 10 sacks last year, Romeo Okwara could be in for an even bigger year this season. He’s been a monster in camp, and he’s got a better supporting cast around him than in previous years. He’s my breakout candidate for the season.

Depth grade: B+

The Lions had enough talent here that they decided to keep three backups. Harris has grown as a pass rusher, while Austin Bryant let coaches and fans know that they shouldn’t forget about him despite the two injury-filled seasons of his professional career.

Julian Okwara may be the rawest of the group, but he’s also the one with the most potential. At this point, he’s primarily just a pass rusher, but that could make him an intriguing third-down weapon this year.

Linebackers

Starters: Jamie Collins Sr., Alex Anzalone
Depth: Derrick Barnes, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Anthony Pittman

Starters grade: C-

We only got to see the starters briefly in the preseason opener, and it didn’t go particularly well. Alex Anzalone is a borderline starter who lost his starting job last year in New Orleans. Jamie Collins Sr. is a very talented player, but there are legitimate questions about his fit in this defense.

Depth grade: D+

I’m as hyped about Derrick Barnes as anyone else, but we also have to temper our expectations for a fourth-round rookie who has only played one season in college as an off-ball linebacker. He’ll get in the game eventually. He’ll make some plays, but he’ll also make some rookie mistakes.

As for the rest of this group, we’re talking special teamers. In other words, if there are any injuries to Collins or Anzalone, this group could be in trouble.

Cornerbacks

Starters: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, AJ Parker
Depth: Ifeatu Melifonwu, Bobby Price, Jerry Jacobs

Starters grade: C-

Oh man, where to start with this group? I think Okudah is going to prove some haters wrong this year, and Oruwariye has potential, too. But starting AJ Parker in the slot—one of the toughest positions in football—as an undrafted rookie? Whew, that’s a tough assignment.

I probably have more faith in this group than most, but even I can admit that I’m relying on a bit of faith here more than actual proven ability.

Depth grade: D-

Melifonwu is the primary backup, which should be a bit concerning. He’s shown plenty of growth in training camp and could have a very bright future, but it’s hard to imagine he’s truly ready to start right now.

Beyond him is even more troubling. Bobby Price and Jerry Jacobs are both fantastic stories and players who can contribute on special teams. But Price is a couple weeks into a position change and is clearly still going through an adjustment period. Jacobs has a tenacious spirit but is still very raw.

Safeties

Starters: Tracy Walker, Will Harris
Depth: Dean Marlowe, C.J. Moore

Starters grade: D+

Walker and Harris both seem like they’re in a much better position than they were in the past. The split-safety scheme is a better fit for both of their skill sets, and both of their confidence levels seem quite high.

But it’s hard to have much faith in Harris after a couple years of struggling, and Walker remains more hype than actual production. I think this group could be better than expectations, but I need a little more hard evidence before I start believing.

Depth grade: C+

Marlowe is the lone player in the Lions secondary above 26 years old (he’s 29), and the Lions could use someone with his experience in this league to at least provide some mentorship to an incredibly young room. Meanwhile, C.J. Moore is a great special teams player who showed some growth as safety in camp.

Specialists

Starters: P Jack Fox, LS Scott Daly

Starters grade: INC

Jack Fox is a stud, Scott Daly is a giant killer, but I suppose this team could use a kicker.