Throughout fall camp, and into the early part of the season, it is the job of the area scouts to sift through the mounds of eligible players in their assigned regions. Once they have spotted the talent base that fits their organization’s needs, wants and desires, it is then the task of the cross-checking scout to either verify or dispute the reports filed by the area’s talent evaluator.
As most teams follow this protocol before the bigwigs make eye contact with the future NFLer for the first time, it is also common to see campuses get overrun by national scouts and scouting directors/coordinators before the general manager will check his frequent flyer miles, kiss the wife and children goodbye and begin a few weeks of gorging on fast food restaurants that might still be open when they emerge from college team film rooms in the wee hours of the morning.
In a series articles, I will be taking a look at each NFL team’s current roster situation and look at the areas that might become pressing needs to restock during the 2015 NFL Draft. Most of the emerging talent that might have been sleepers before the season should be well on their way of establishing themselves as “look-see” talent over the next few months.
Those that sat high on draft boards but may have slipped will also fall under the watchful eye of team evaluators, as they try to spot the reason for those struggling to maintain their previous draft values. Injury reports and game films will be stuffed in scouts’ briefcases throughout this journey, before they head home to determine who the real stars of the future in the league might be, and where those athletes fit in with the present status of their respective NFL teams.
To start off this report, I traditionally do so with what I refer to as the “Black and Blue Division,” the National Football Conference North. The Detroit Lions are the current division’s leader, boasting a four-game winning streak to reach a 7-2 record.
Team Needs…1.Cornerback; 2.Tailback; 3.Outside Linebacker; 4.Defensive Rush End; 5.Offensive Tackle; 6.Wide Receiver; 7.Offensive Guard; 8.Defensive Tackle.
Team Cap Numbers…$131,248,946 (Top 51: $117,363,741)…Offense: $57,330,969 Defense: $51,344,757 Special Teams: $1,572,428.
Quarterback…#9-Matthew Stafford; #8-Dan Orlovsky; #17-Kellen Moore.
With Matthew Stafford at quarterback, there will not be a change of venue behind center, as the former Georgia product has shown moxie in rallying the team late in games. Still, the offense has not been highly productive and that stems from Stafford’s less-than-impressive numbers. In both of the Lions’ losses, he failed to complete at least 60 percent of his throws, and while the injury issues to receiver Calvin Johnson left Detroit with a main ingredient on the sidelines, only once (35 vs. the Giants in the season opener) did the offense put at least 30 points on the scoreboard.
Receivers…Flanker-#81-Calvin Johnson; #12-Jeremy Ross…Split End-#15-Golden Tate; #84-Ryan Broyles…Slot-#10-Corey Fuller; #85-Eric Ebron (TE)…Tight End-#87-Brandon Pettigrew; #80-Joseph Fauria..IR#13-T.J. Jones (WR).
Even without Calvin Johnson’s services for three games (ankle) and the bulk of two previous others, the Lions are ninth in the NFL with an average of 262.3 receiving yards per game. Johnson has been limited to 29 catches, which is normally a good three-week performance for the man dubbed “Megatron.”
Rookie tight ends Eric Ebron and tight end Joseph Fauria have also been hobbled, but with the two youngsters appearing to have bright futures, a weak 2015 draft crop at tight end could see the Lions entertain offers for Brandon Pettigrew after the season. Ebron, playing mostly in the slot during Detroit’s first six games, has ten catches, but has also missed two contests (hamstring). Fauria (ankle) has just three grabs in three games and Pettigrew (foot), also nursing a few bumps and bruises, has made just nine catches before his injury finally put him out of action vs. Atlanta.
Injuries at tight end have benefitted two players. Kellen Davis was recently inked to a deal, adding much needed depth at tight end. With Ebron not around to play the slot, former track man Corey Fuller has made the most of his first extended professional playing time. With Ebron playing, Fuller’s only reception was a 52-yarder vs. Green Bay. With Ebron hurt, Fuller has pulled in 11 balls through the last five contests.
Seattle’s loss appears to have reaped a huge benefit for Stafford and company when Golden Tate agreed to serve as Johnson’s “wing man” at the opposite receiver’s spot this year. Used mostly as a return man earlier in his Seahawks career, Johnson’s absence has seen Tate rapidly become Stafford’s primary target. With Johnson in the lineup, Tate averaged 67.6 yards per game, but with the All-Pro sidelined, the former Seahawk has produced five 100-yard receiving performances during the last six contests.
Tate currently 66 receptions and 909 yards. Return man Jeremy Ross has had to fill in with Johnson hurt, but has managed just 15 grabs for 192 yards. With Ryan Broyles an oft-injured risk and having just two catches to show for 2014, Johnson’s age, injuries and lack of depth will make wide receiver an area that will likely be used for a couple of additions on draft day.
Running Backs…#35-Joique Bell; #21-Reggie Bush; #25-Theo Riddick; #38-George Winn. Fullbacks…#45-Jed Collins
It is easy to see that the offense is sorely lacking at running back, with injuries further impacting the performance, or lack of, that the Lions have received from this unit this season.
Unheralded Joique Bell had shown promise last season, as he totaled 650 yards with a 3.9-yard average and eight touchdowns on 166 carries, adding 547 yards on 53 catches while starting just four of the 16 games he appeared in. He suffered a head injury that set him back a bit this year, missing one contest while earning just two starts through the first eight games. He leads the Lions with 357 yards on 108 tries, but with 3.3 yards per tote, Todd Gurley (Georgia) or Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin) could be a primary target for the Lions, especially if either is available in the mid-to-late first-round picture.
It is likely that Reggie Bush will be hobbled the rest of the year by ankle woes. The team has to look at what type of future production they will receive from the aging star. He’s on the books to make $5.27 million next year and $5.78 million the following year. If he ends up being a salary cap casualty, the Lions face having $3.55 million in dead money in 2016 and $1.78 million more in 2016, but will save $5.72 million in cap money over the term of the contract, if they decide to end their time with the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Theo Riddick (hamstring) is just starting to round back into shape from early season woes, but has not been given too many opportunities, showing 33 yards on 15 carries in seven appearances this year. San Francisco lost George Winn from their practice squad when injuries forced the Lions to seek help for the backfield. The former Cincinnati Bearcat made his Detroit debut with 48 yards on 11 tries vs. Buffalo, but has had only 10 carries for 18 yards combined in four games since. Jed Collins is the lone fullback on the roster, carrying four times for 10 yards while scoring once on two catches.
Offensive Line…Left Tackle#71-Riley Reiff; #77-Cornelius Lucas…Left Guard#67-Rob Sims…Center#51-Dominic Raiola; #64-Travis Swanson…Right Guard#75-Larry Warford…
Right Tackle#70-Garrett Reynolds; #66-LaAdrian Waddle…IR#78-Corey Hilliard.
The offense’s struggles can be traced to the lack of quality rush lanes created by the Lions’ interior linemen. Detroit recognized the line as a potential minefield before the 2014 draft, but outside of drafting an eventual replacement for Dominic Raiola at center with Travis Swanson, the line remains a big concern. The unit has seen Matthew Stafford get sacked 24 times through eight games. Only four teams in the league have seen their signal callers get attacked more often. The team is 26th in the league with just 153 first downs on offense, but have had much better success keeping drives alive, as their 50 third-down conversions (97 attempts) is ninth-best in the NFL.
Currently, the only lineman that should be safe as a starter in 2015 is left tackle Riley Reiff, a former first-rounder who is an excellent pass protector, thanks to his powerful hands and ability to explode off the snap. However, the right tackle position has been a revolving door. LaAdrian Waddle was a pleasant surprise as the starter there in 2013, but he’s still not recovered from a preseason calf injury.
Waddle was replaced by Corey Hilliard in the season opener, but a Giants defender rolled on Hilliard’s leg and the injury would force him to injured reserve for the balance of the schedule. Undrafted Cornelius Lucas was not ready to step into the lineup and the Lions scoured the waiver wires before signing Garrett Reynolds, who was in camp with them before being cut when the 53-man rosters were announced.
The team’s solid situation at starting right guard has helped in covering up the constant shuffling and mediocre play from the right tackle position. Former third-round pick Larry Warford quickly claimed ownership of the position last season. He might not have the greatest balance as a trap blocker and when pulling long distances, but he is a very good “dancer” (light on his feet) for a 335-pound blocker, especially when called upon to pass protect, but still needs footwork refinement operating for the ground game (gets too narrow with his feet).
Rob Sims was a 2014 pre-draft trade addition from the Super Bowl champions Seahawks, joining receiver Golden Tate in bolting the Pacific Northwest for Motor City. Alongside Reiff, Sims has more than lived up to his billing as a physical player that sustains his blocks. He stays low in his pads and demonstrates good knee bend in pass protection, demonstrating very good awareness picking up the blitz. The former Seahawk is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2014 season.
Swanson is the only reserve for both guard spots, along with backing up Dominic Raiola at center. The veteran is coming to an end as a NFL blocker, but is still savvy enough to make all the blocking calls. However, if the team stumbles in the second half, a pattern they displayed in recent years, it could be time to see if Swanson is the answer to replace Raiola, perhaps as soon as next season. If Raiola is let go after the season, Detroit will absorb just 250K in dead money towards the 2015 cap.
Defensive Line…Left End#91-Jason Jones; #92-Devin Taylor; #79-Larry Webster…Left Tackle#97-Caraun Reid; #98-Nick Fairley…Right Tackle#90-Ndamukong Suh…Right End#94-Ziggy Ansah; #93-George Johnson; #52-Darryl Tapp…Suspended-DT#99-C.J. Mosley.
The next month-plus is going to be the litmus test for the Lions, as they will see if 2014 fifth-round pick Caraun Reid can capably fill in at left tackle with Nick Fairley expected to be sidelined up to six weeks. Fairley injured his knee during the second quarter vs. Atlanta on Oct. 26 and prior to getting hurt he was working hard to re-establish himself after unspectacular play the last two seasons had the Lions actively looking for a trade partner for the enigmatic first-rounder.
With Fairley expected to bolt on the free agency market after the 2014 season, it is doubtful that Detroit will strike a deal with him, even though he’s played inspired football the past couple months, keeping his weight down. Now that he's hurt, the team will closely monitor him to make sure his conditioning won’t slip prior to returning to action.
"First and foremost, I'm just concerned about him healing and getting ready for the game; we'll worry about the other stuff later," head coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's made a commitment to get himself in great shape and he's done so. He's conscious of it and he's done a tremendous job in that regard. I'm not going to lose any sleep over that one. When we get him back, we'll be happy to get him back - that's for certain."
In the interim, the job falls to the rookie, Reid, with some assistance from fellow rookie, Larry Webster, who has been playing behind Jason Jones and Devin Taylor at left end. Webster was also a serious candidate to play on offense, if any more injuries had occurred at the tight end position. Neither Reid or Webster had recorded any tackles after eight games of action, but Fairley’s injury means both will have to grow up in a hurry.
Left end starter Jason Jones has 12 tackles and two sacks, hardly the numbers they expected after doling out a contract that pays him $3.68 million this season. A salary cap casualty candidate, if he is let go after the season, the Lions will have to carry $833K in dead money, but will save $3.15 million in cap space. Jones might have been residing on the bench already, but his back-up, Devin Taylor, has only 10 tackles to his credit for the first half of this season.
Fellow right end Ziggy Ansah has been hobbled by turf toe and the injury might require surgery, but he leads the team with 5.5 sacks, causing two fumbles while recording 32 tackles. A Pro Bowl is likely in his future. The key reserve at the right end position has also put up impressive numbers, as George Johnson is third on the front wall with four sacks and has posted 23 tackles, despite not starting. Third-stringer Darryl Tapp, a former starter during his NFL journeys, is hanging on for a few more paychecks, as nine tackles in nine games are easily replaceable next season by a late-round draft pick, saving the team 536K.
The contract table could be where the Lions and perennial All-Pro Ndamukong Suh will part ways after this season – the team simply can not afford a massive contract on their books. While teams will line up and open up the vault for Suh, the team is being charged $22.4 million for his services this year and if they do not redo his deal, they stand to take another minimum hit of $13.3 million to keep him around next season. The problem for Detroit is, if Suh is let go, they are still responsible for $9.7 million in dead money for him next year, as he comes with just a $3.5 million cap saving.
This “motley crew” has been a cornerstone for the defense, though. Currently, Detroit ranks first in total defense, first in rushing defense and first passing defense while combining for 26 sacks. The penetration skills of the front four has allowed the secondary to play more man coverage.
Linebacker…Weak/Outside#58-Ashlee Palmer; #56-Josh Bynes…Middle#59-Tahir White-head…Strong/Outside#54-DeAndre Levy; #49-Julian Stanford…IR/Return#95-Kyle Van Noy; IR#55-Stephen Tulloch.
The depleted linebacker unit lost standout middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch after he suffered an ACL tear celebrating a sack during Week 3 action vs. Green Bay and is lost for the season. Before he was sidelined, Tulloch had made 20 tackles in ten quarters of action. In mid-October, his replacement, Travis Lewis, also joined him on IR with a quadriceps injury.
In his place, third-year fill-in Tahir Whitehead has been a pleasant surprise, as he’s second on the team with 48 tackles through nine games. There is no one listed as his back-up, but with Kyle Van Noy returning to duty after being placed on the IR/Designated To Return list (sports hernia surgery) prior to the season opener, getting him back on the field will likely see Ashlee Palmer shift inside for the second unit (just 10 tackles), with the former BYU prospect taking over at the weakside outside spot. Palmer is likely to be cut after the season, as he is on the books for $1.5 million in 2015.
On the strong side, DeAndre Levy, a 2009 third-round find, is having a Pro Bowl season. He leads the Lions with 86 tackles and has been a calming influence, calling defensive signals for Detroit. The six-year veteran has 553 tackles, 12 interceptions and 31 pass deflections since entering the league. The former Wisconsin star is making just $3.25 million this year, with a jump to $4.5 million in 2015, making him perhaps the best bargain on the team. Reserves Josh Bynes and Julian Stanford are easily replaced, having combined for just seven tackles through eight games this year.
Secondary…Left Cornerback#23-Darius Slay; #36-Danny Gorrer; #39-Mohammed Seisay…Strong Safety#32-James Ihedigbo; #42-Isa Abdul-Quddus…Free Safety#27-Glover Quin; #26-Don Carey…Right Cornerback#31-Rashean Mathis; #29-Cassius Vaughn…IR#28-Bill Bentley (CB); #43-Nevin Lawson (CB).
Like the line and linebacker units, the Lions have had their fair share of injuries in the backfield, but still have one of the most productive units in the NFL. They will likely prioritize the cornerback position for a big upgrade in the 2015 draft, as fill-in Rashean Mathis is getting “long in the tooth” and the Lions brass privately fear that Bill Bentley, the projected starter, might not be able to recover from the ACL tear suffered vs. Atlanta that landed him on injured reserve. Reserve cornerback Nevin Lawson is also on the sidelines after he suffered dislocated toes in the Carolina clash.
Mathis might not have the “wheels” he displayed as a Pro Bowler earlier in his career, but he’s put up 22 tackles with three pass breakups and a 41-yard interception return for a score. Left cornerback Darius Slay is the unit’s star. He ranks fourth on the team with 38 tackles, knocking down eight passes while picking off another to mount a serious challenge for All-Pro honors. The rest of the cornerback unit leaves a lot to be desired, though. The trio of Gorrer, Vaughn and Seisay had combined for fifteen tackles at the season’s midway point.
If Slay has company at the Pro Bowl, it could be the team’s safeties. Strong safety James Ihedigbo, after failing to stick during tours with the Jets, Patriots and Ravens, signed with the Lions last March, more so to provide camp depth. He sat out the first three games with a neck injury, but since returning, he’s delivered 36 tackles with a pair of sacks, both which caused fumbles. Free safety Glover Quinn is one of the best in the game at his position. He leads the secondary with 40 tackles and three pass thefts. Since he entered the league with Houston in 2009, he’s compiled 411 stops with 11 interceptions and 60 pass deflections.
Glover, the highest paid defensive back on the team with $2.42 million this year, sees his salary jump to $5.7 million next season, so expect the team to renegotiate to get him inked to a long-term deal. Ihedigbo, Bentley and Mathis are all free agents after the season and the strong safety should improve on his 1.15 million numbers for 2014.
Don Carey, who backs up Glover, is heading for unemployment after 2014, as he’s making 930K for minimal return. None of the other reserves should be house hunting after the season, unless doing so in a city not named Detroit.
Special Teams…Punter#6-Sam Martin…Placekicker#5-Matt Prater…Punt Returner#12-Jeremy Ross; #15 Golden Tate…Kickoff Returner#12-Jeremy Ross; #25-Theo Riddick.
The Appalachian State find has been solid as the team’s punter, as Sam Martin, who also holds for field goals and placements is averaging 47.4 yards (fourth-best in the NFL) on 40 punts, placing 18 inside the 20-yard line. Opponents have returned 19 of those boots for a 9.2-yard average, giving Martin a top-10 net average in the league.
Detroit has undergone quite a few auditions at the place-kicking position, though. Gone is future Hall of Famer and 20-year veteran Jason Hanson. First to step into the breach was rookie Nate Freese, but after he missed on all four field goal tries from 40 yards out, he was given the “boot.” Next to try his hand (or leg), was Philadelphia Eagles reject Alex Henery, who did not fare much better, connecting on just one of five three-point tries. When Denver cut Matt Prater after he returned from a four-game suspension, the Lions were quick to bring the veteran in. So far, so good – as Prater has made 7 of his 10 kicks, including three from 40 yards or longer, but he becomes a free agent after the season and with veteran kickers becoming increasingly scarce and college specialists proving “not ready for prime time,” Prater could be on the move again in 2015.
The return game is handled by Jeremy Ross doing the “two for one” special for the Lions. Golden Tate had good success as a punt returner while in Seattle, but is strictly concentrating on receiving duties this year. Ross, filling that role, has a 10.4-yard average on 18 punt returns. He’s also 13th in the league with an average of 24.4 yards per kickoff return.
Capping The Future…The current roster is projected to have a cap figure of $123,472,757 in 2015, with the offense earning $68,622,556, the defense checking in at $50,134,397 and special team players costing just $625,075.
“Dead Pool” money will take up $4,090,729 of the cap, with those funds being doled out to 16 players, including a chunk going to former Lions cornerback Chris Houston ($3.9 million) and free-agent bust defensive end Vaughn Martin bringing in $65K. The drafting of Nate Freese will bring a $44,568 charge and Michael Williams will bring a $32,574 charge.
|Name||Base Salary||Bonuses||Cap Number||Dead Money & Cap Savings|
If The Draft Was Held Today…The Lions’ current record would give them the 29th spot in the first round. While a second-half plunge could see them move to the top 15 picks, where Washington cornerback Marcus Peters is the closest thing they will find to a Darrelle Revis clone. If they do maintain their current pace, one cornerback they might select at No. 29 is Florida State’s P.J. Williams, but will first have to be completely satisfied with the results from his current off-field issues.
If Nick Fairley or Ndamukong Suh are sent packing, the priority immediately shifts to finding a big, physical defensive tackle and the Lions have spent lots of time watching Williams’ teammate to fill that role, the Seminoles’ Eddie Goldman.
If I Was Drafting For Detroit In Round One…I would find a way to keep Suh at a price that won’t kill the salary cap for years to come and look to find Ziggy Ansah a running mate at defensive end. In doing so, rather than fly my first-round pick in, I send a limo to pick him up – Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, the closest thing in college you will find to another Richard Dent.