As the Detroit Lions prepare for the team's final exhibition tilt against Buffalo, the game will primarily serve as a final exam for many bubble players. With final cuts forthcoming, RoarReport.com offers its prediction on the team's 53-man roster with an analysis of each unit.
- QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matthew Stafford. Backups -- Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton.
In just his second year, Stafford has developed into the unquestioned leader on the field and in the locker room. Beyond his demeanor, his talented prowess has earned the respect of both teammates and opponents alike. He has a budding chemistry with not only Calvin Johnson, but also Nate Burleson. And he has a talented backfield to keep defenses honest. If he can have consistent protection (which he's enjoyed in the preseason), Stafford is poised for an explosive sophomore campaign. Shaun Hill gives the Lions a solid back-up, while Drew Stanton reminded everyone of his playmaking ability with his preseason exploits.
- RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Jahvid Best, FB Jerome Felton. Backups -- Kevin Smith, Aaron Brown.
As much as it might pain offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Jahvid Best won't touch the ball on every running play. In effort to keep his treads fresh, he'll split duties with Kevin Smith and the team will even use Felton on occasion. Last season, the Lions ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing production; if the exhibition season has been any indication, that will change in 2010. Aaron Brown showed enough in the return game and in the backfield to outplay Maurice Morris and DeDe Dorsey for a roster spot.
- TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Brandon Pettigrew. Backups -- Tony Scheffler, Will Heller.
Considering his first-round status, Pettigrew recovered from last year's ACL injury to post an impressive off-season, camp, and preseason. He will have help in two tight-end sets with Scheffler beside him. Both are adept at blocking, finding soft spots in a defense, and producing on the offensive side of the football. Linehan and company could not ask for a more capable duo at the position.
- WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson. Backups -- Bryant Johnson, Brian Clark, Dennis Northcutt.
Last season, Johnson was blanketed by overcommitted defenses. That won't be the case in 2010. Burleson has made his living as a No. 2 receiver, and can play anywhere on the field. His speed and surehandedness will force opponents to keep an eye on him. Bryant Johnson seems more comfortable as a third receiver. Former draft pick Derrick Williams loses his roster spot to Clark and Northcutt, two veterans with good speed and special team's value.
- OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups -- G Manny Ramirez, RT Jon Jansen, LT Corey Hilliard, C Dylan Gandy.
Although the right tackle situation is still precarious (it belongs to former first-round pick and Millen holdover Gosder Cherilus -- for now), the left side of the line is finally secure with veteran guard Rob Sims joining incumbent left tackle Jeff Backus. Dominic Raiola anchors the line, providing an intelligent leader wth a knack for reading defenses in front of Stafford. Depth is minimal, however, and any injury could curb the enthusiasm for the unit.
- DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Cliff Avril, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Corey Williams, RE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups -- LE Willie Young, DT Sammie Hill, DE
Lawrence Jackson, DE Turk McBride, DT Landon Cohen.
Easily the most impressive unit on the team at this point. Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams have already began wreaking havoc in the middle of the defensive line, and their ability to dominate in the trenches has allowed holdover Cliff Avril to flourish on the left side at defensive end. Opposite Avril, the addition of Kyle Vanden Bosch is already paying dividends, with consistent pressure applied to opposing offenses. The success, or survival, of Detroit's defense rests solely on this group's ability to reach the quarterback. Former draft pick Andre Fluellen is likely the odd-man out within a competitive depth chart.
- LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Zack Follett, MLB DeAndre Levy, WLB Julian Peterson. Backups -- OLB Landon Johnson, MLB Vinny Ciurciu, OLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Rocky
Boiman, MLB Isaiah Ekejiuba.
Other than the concern at defensive back (we'll get to that), the team's security beneath the defensive line is underwhelming. Levy and Follett are both second- year players, with Levy (groin) battling injuries while Follett leaps from practice squad/YouTube sensation to starter. Julian Peterson brings his veteran experience, but he's aging and isn't the double-digit sack master he once was. Behind them is little depth that could emerge as any adequate support on the field. Expect this unit to be addressed next off-season.
- DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chris Houston, RCB Jonathan Wade, SS C.C. Brown, FS Louis Delmas. Backups -- LCB Dre Bly, RCB Eric King, SS Randy Phillips, SS
Dante Wesley, FS Amari Spievey.
The Lions have made changes in the secondary, but that's all they appear to be at this point. First-year team members Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade have emerged as starters, as expected, but neither has any shutdown ability. The depth have appeared to be a liability, too. Third-round pick Amari Spievey was moved from corner to safety, as the Lions remain unsettled with any player opposite safety Louis Delmas in the deep secondary. Delmas, meanwhile, remains the team's best player in the defensive backfield, but still hasn't fully recovered from a groin injury that kept him out most of training camp. This is a unit the team believes can strengthen as the season progresses, but will rely upon the improved defensive line to shield its obvious faults.
- SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jason Hanson, P Nick Harris, LS Don Muhlbach, KR Aaron Brown, PR Dennis Northcutt, PR Nate Burleson.
Hanson and Harris continue to be a reliable duo, although Hanson is nearing the end of his career, entering his second consecutive season post-knee surgery. Muhlbach is one of the more dependable long snappers in the league, while Aaron Brown has the requisite speed to serve as a solid return man. Expect to see Northcutt and Burleson to share punt return duties. On the coverage unit, the presence of Isaiah Ekejiuba, Ashley Palmer, and Vinny Ciurciu will help the team restore aptitude to a special team's unit that struggled last season.