Do the Detroit Lions have enough depth to make a deep run into the playoffs? Are the Lions prepared if one of their key playmakers were to go down with an injury? These are the types of questions that usually don’t asked until necessary, but they are important to dissect as you begin to analyze an entire roster.
This is an idea we got first got from our Vikings brethren over at The Viking Age. We liked it so much we decided to dissect the Detroit Lions in the same vein.
Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports recently created a 13-point test that he used to determine which NFL teams had the best depth across the league. His assumption is that teams with the best depth have the best chance to make a deep run into the postseason and win a championship. As Kirwin puts it, “roster depth can become an issue if players get injured or get in trouble and we all know both things are possible in this league.”
It’s especially interesting to look at the Lions through this depth lens. An argument can be made that the Detroit Lions are the most talented team in the NFC North, but most of that talent is top heavy. If Matthew Stafford or Calvin Johnson go down it would obviously be devastating. But if guys James Ihedigbo, Stephen Tulloch, or Larry Warford were to get hurt, the team is all of a sudden in a load of trouble because of the lack of talent behind them.
I will try my best to be as objective as possible in my answers. This exercise should give Detroit Lions fans a good idea of where the team is at before heading into training camp.
1. Does your team have a quality backup quarterback?
There’s a lot of different variables when factoring in a solid backup quarterback. For this exercise, Kirwin defines a good backup QB as one “that can go at least 2-2 in a four-game stretch.”
Dan Orlovsky has started 12 games since entering the NFL in 2005, winning just two of them. It’s tough to pin Orlovsky with blame for all of those losses. Seven of them came while playing for a winless Lions team in 2008, the worst team in NFL history.
He won two games while playing in Indianapolis during one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The Colts started of 0-13 in 2011, but Orlovsky was able to lead them two late season wins to finish with a 2-3 record as a starter.
For those reasons, I think Orlovsky is a borderline backup quarterback. I think if he was asked to take over for four games, a 2-2 record would be wishful thinking, with 1-3 being a more realistic number.
2. Does your team have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?
As it stands right now the Lions have a solid swing tackle type guy in Corey Hilliard. He’s the perfect type of guy to come in and not blow everything up. I don’t like Hilliard as a starter, but I think he’s effective coming off the bench.
3. Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or center?
The Lions actually might have two of those guys. Both Travis Swanson and Rodney Austin have seen snaps at both guard and center this offseason. These type of swing guys could be very important down the stretch, especially if Dominic Raiola or Rob Sims were to go down with an injury.
4. Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?
The Lions have a great set up at running back. They became the first running back duo in NFL history to have both 500 yards rushing and receiving. I have no doubts that either of those players could deliver a 100-yard day if the team needed it.
5. Is there a good second tight end on the roster?
With the Lions drafting Eric Ebron in the first round of the NFL draft, that now allows Brandon Pettigrew to slide into the number two tight end role. If Ebron were to ever go down with an injury I don’t think Pettigrew would be able take over his role, but he could fill in as a serviceable receiving threat if needed.
6. Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter went down?
This is a huge question mark and one that has plagued the Lions over the last five seasons. The Lions have struggled to field a formidable number two wide receiver, let alone a third. Ryan Broyles would probably slide into that role if he was fully healthy but at this point the number three job is completely up for grabs.
7. Does your team have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?
I’m guessing this is the type of role that the Lions will look to Devin Taylor to fill. Now that Willie Young is in Chicago, Taylor will need to step up and become that rotational third defensive end behind Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones.
8. Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could play the whole game if need be?
C.J. Mosley fits the bill. He’s never been much more than a rotational type player, but he did have 13 starts in Jacksonville in 2012 before joining the Lions last season. Mosley is a much better player against the run than he is as a pass rusher, but for a third defensive tackle he’s a solid all around player.
9. Is there a quality nickel corner on the roster, since most teams are at least 50 percent sub defenses?
This may be one of the more interesting stories to follow throughout training camp. Incumbent, Bill Bentley has shown flashes through his first two years, but will also have to fight off rookie Nevin Lawson for the starting nickel cornerback job. Both guys are undersized, but scrappy.
I don’t think anyone would classify either of those guys as a “quality” starter at this point, and the Lions are counting a big jump for Bentley this season. A key for him will be just staying healthy. The third year corner has missed significant time in his first two years due to injuries.
10. Is there a fourth corner for dime packages?
Now we’re really in trouble. The Lions are doing a lot of projecting with the starters, hoping Darius Slay makes a jump and Rashean Mathis recaptures the fountain of youth. The fourth cornerback is a complete toss up at this point.
It will come down to a training camp battle between Cassius Vaughn, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green, and Aaron Hester. If I had to guess, Vaughn will get the nod going into the season, which doesn’t exactly exude confidence from me.
11. Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?
This is most likely the role that Don Carey will fill for the Lions this season. Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo will fill the starting roles, but Carey could see some snaps if the Lions do go into a big nickel defense.
Carey’s role in “Big Nickel” would be to cover, blitz, and support the run, while allowing Teryl Austin to disguise which coverage his defense is actually playing.
12. Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punt and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?
It took Lions half a season to find a guy, but Jeremy Ross stepped in and played a big role for the Lions last season. He was one of the lone bright spots throughout the second half of last season.
The Lions also have Golden Tate on the roster who could fill in and perform at a high level on returns if he needs to. I would consider this a strength on the Lions special teams unit now that they have a capable starter and backup.
13. Does your team have a special-teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?
Tahir Whitehead was named the Yale Lary Special Teams Most Valuable Player for the Lions last season. In 2013 Whitehead had nine tackles on special teams and forced a fumble. He helped the Lions special teams unit limit opponents kick return yards per game to the lowest average (73.4) since 1993.
Whitehead has also seen snaps at middle linebacker throughout OTAs and will probably fill in for Stephen Tulloch if he were to go down.
By my count, the Detroit Lions’ roster passes 7 of the 13 tests, with a possibility to get one more if Devin Taylor steps up in the third defensive end role. By looking at this test, it’s easy to see where the Lions strengths and weaknesses are. Clearly the Lions lack depth in some key areas, but they also have some solid contributors currently in backup roles.
They are in much better shape on offense than they are on defense, and special teams should remain solid as that unit continues to improve.