The official open to the NFL’s 2013 league year is but a handful of days in the past but the Detroit Lions already have a significantly tweaked roster.
The team’s new additions have been embraced with excitement while the casualties of free agency take a backseat to the unadulterated excitement.
Before proceeding, it should be clarified that – despite a furious start to free agency – the Lions are barely out of the blocks in the annual offseason marathon of roster construction. Still, after a high amount of quick conversion, critiquing the change may not be overly premature.
The team has signed newcomers running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and defensive end Jason Jones. They have also retained the services of cornerback Chris Houston, safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy and long snapper Don Muhlbach along with some other reserve players.
As significant as the additions are, the losses could be equally noteworthy.
Cliff Avril – the team’s top defensive end – boarded a plane to Seattle as an unrestricted free agent and was a Seahawk before leaving. Sammie Lee Hill, a key reserve at defensive tackle, was on the field for the defense about 40 percent of the time but now is a member of the Tennessee Titans. Gosder Cherilus, the team’s starting right tackle, played every offensive snap save for one in 2012 but moved on to greener pastures (emphasis on the ‘green’) with the Indianapolis Colts.
When you consider the fact that defensive tackle Corey Williams isn’t likely to return and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch is long gone, that’s three starters and two key backups that have left.
Oh, and another departure, left tackle Jeff Backus – the man who has protected the quarterback’s blindside in Detroit for 159 of the last 160 games – retired.
The addition of Bush is not a past-his-prime, marquee free agent signing to boost interest and sell tickets. Instead, the signing could be exactly what the Lions needed on offense.
Bush is a speedy back that operates well in space, runs excellent routes and catches the ball well out of the backfield – and is intended to fill the role envisioned for indefinitely sidelined running back Jahvid Best.
With Best healthy, the Lions offense performed optimally. 2011 was the last time Best was in the lineup. He started and finished the team’s first five games – all wins. In those games, the Lions averaged 31.8 points scored. In the 27 games since, it dipped to 25.5, or basically, a touchdown.
Bush is four years the elder of Best and – despite possessing great speed – may not be able to match Best stride-for-stride. Still, he’ll fill the same role and should present significant matchup problems for the opposition.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions were successful in fortifying their defensive secondary, long believed to be the team’s biggest weakness.
The team returned Houston and Delmas while adding Quin to the mix. Having both Houston and Delmas ensures continuity, enabling communication to be strong and allowing for on-the-fly adjustments.
The addition of Quin gives the Lions a very strong tandem at center field. Both players are diverse enough to play deep zones, lock up in man-to-man and rush the quarterback. The Lions don’t generally designate different roles among their safeties, so having these two will keep the offense guessing.
Simply put, the Lions are in a position where they may have to rebuild the exteriors of both the offensive and defensive lines.
On offense the Lions will have to replace Backus and Cherilus, who have accounted for all but 10 starts at the tackle positions for the Lions over the last five years.
Despite having some players on the roster to turn to, replacing those bookends could prove difficult.
Offensive tackle Riley Reiff, the Lions top pick in 2012, stepped in at left tackle for Backus after the veteran sustained an injury against the Green Bay Packers. Reiff also started the following game at left tackle.
Those two games were Reiff’s worst performances of the season. Although the rookie proved to be serviceable in the role, his performance was a drop off from Backus as he was called for three penalties and allowed six quarterback hurries in that time. To put that in perspective, Backus averaged four less hurries per game while being flagged for only six penalties in his 15 starts.
Jason Fox is another player the Lions may need to step up. The team spoke glowingly about his practice performances and development in 2012 but the fact remains Fox has appeared in only five games – with no starts – in his three year career. The biggest concern with the 24-year-old tackle is his ability to stay healthy.
Lastly, offensive tackle Corey Hilliard will have the opportunity to compete for a starting job.
Hilliard has started five games for the Lions during his four seasons in Detroit. The Lions have enjoyed his versatility and have played him at both guard and tackle but see him more as a tackle.
On defense, the Lions will have to replace both of their 2012 starters at defensive end. Vanden Bosh and Avril are both gone and – unlike offensive tackle – the team may not have options to fill the void available on the roster.
At the moment, the Lions have Willie Young, Ronnell Lewis and the newly acquired Jones as options.
Jones is being looked at as an option to start at one of the spots but played last season – and most of his career - as an interior lineman. The most time he spent at defensive end was 2011, when the Titans didn’t see enough to re-sign him and allowed him join Seattle, where he was converted back to the interior of the line.
Young is intriguing because he has flashed tremendous amounts of potential at times but has yet to put it all together. After a fantastic training camp in 2012, Young had no regular season sacks and committed more penalties (five) than quarterback hits (four).
Lewis was a 2012 rookie who mostly played on special teams. He had one snap at defensive end – a pass rush that generated no pressure on the QB.
There is plenty of time for the Lions to fill the voids that remain on the roster but resources are wearing thin.
They don’t have the cap space to sign – or trade for – a proven tackle or end. They could count on growth from within sparked by opportunity and competition but growth is always accompanied by growing pains.
The team’s ace in the hole is the draft. With the fifth overall pick, the Lions may be able to snag a starter at one of the positions in the first round and another in the second round.
Still, it is unknown how the draft will fall and counting on rookies – no matter where they are selected – is never an exact science.
No team will enter 2013 without a weakness and the Lions will not be an exception. The question remains, how well will the team be able to plug the current holes with the time and resources remaining.