Early projection of Detroit Lions’ depth chart following 2021 NFL Draft

Detroit News

Allen Park — With the Detroit Lions adding their rookie class to the roster, it felt like a good time to see how the depth chart was shaping up.

Obviously, any projection is limited to studying the investments the team has made and looking for context clues in the words from general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. A far clearer picture won’t emerge until we see these players on the field.

That said, let’s see how things are stacking up three months ahead of training camp.

Note: We’ve included the reported undrafted free-agent additions, even though they’re not official. Those players are marked with an asterisk (*).

QUARTERBACK (2)

Starter: Jared Goff

Off the bench: Tim Boyle

Work to do: David Blough

Thoughts: It’s still a little weird not seeing Matthew Stafford sitting at the top of Detroit’s depth chart, no? Instead, it will be another former No. 1 pick taking the snaps this season, and likely next after the Lions bypassed Justin Fields in the first round of the draft.

Boyle comes over from Green Bay, where almost all of his playing time came taking knees at the end of lopsided victories. The last time anyone really saw what he can do was during the 2019 preseason, when he posted an impressive 112.9 passer rating in four appearances.

Blough, who has seen playing time each of his first two seasons, is hurt by his lack of ties to the current staff. The GM who brought him in and the coaching staff who has been developing him are gone. There’s room for him to impress in the preseason and stick but, for now, we see more value in keeping a player at a different position.

RUNNING BACK (5)

Starter: D’Andre Swift

Off the bench: Jamaal Williams, Kerryon Johnson, Jermar Jefferson, Jason Cabinda

Work to do: Nick Bawden, Dedrick Mills*, Rakeem Boyd*

Thoughts: The Lions got younger at running back this offseason, replacing Adrian Peterson with Williams and adding Jefferson via the draft. 

We’ve said it before and we’ll continue to repeat it, while Swift is clearly the lead option, his workload is likely to be managed carefully. Alvin Kamara, who is on the field around 60% of the snaps for the Saints, continues to be the comp.

The versatile Williams, who has averaged better than 700 yards from scrimmage his first four seasons, should be penciled in as the primary complement, with Johnson continuing in his third-down role from last year.

Entering the final year of his contract, Johnson isn’t necessarily a lock for a spot, but his outstanding pass-blocking ability and willingness to do whatever is asked of him will appeal to the new coaching staff.

As for Jefferson, the Lions could certainly try to stash him on the practice squad unless he draws some attention with his performance in the preseason. And at fullback, which we believe will still factor into the roster, Cabinda gets the edge over Bawden based on durability more than anything.

WIDE RECEIVER (6)

Starters: Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Amon-Ra St. Brown

Off the bench: Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond, Damion Ratley

Work to do: Tom Kennedy, Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden, Sage Surratt*, Jonathan Adams Jr.*, Javon McKinley*

Thoughts: St. Brown, with his well-rounded skill set, inside/outside versatility and blocking ability, should be able to quickly carve out a meaningful role in the offense, complementing the speedy tandem of Williams and Perriman on the outside.

Cephus, who came on strong at the end of last season, finishing with 20 catches for 349 yards, projects as a solid No. 4 for the corps. And the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Raymond is the leading contender to return kicks and punts, while providing depth in the slot.

A sixth spot, if the Lions keep that many receivers, should be a healthy competition between veterans Ratley and Allison and an interesting group of undrafted free agents. We are giving Ratley the slightest of edges now because of his elite athletic traits and connection with senior advisor John Dorsey, who drafted him as the Browns GM in 2018.

Ratley will have to fend off Surratt, a big-bodied option with excellent body control who posted a 1,000-yard season with 11 touchdowns in 2019 at Wake Forest, and McKinley, who got a hefty $100,000 guaranteed to sign with the Lions.

TIGHT END (3)

Starters: T.J. Hockenson, Josh Hill

Off the bench: Alize Mack

Work to do: Hunter Thedford, Jake Hausmann*, Brock Wright*

Thoughts: Many fans let out a sigh of relief when the Atlanta Falcons drafted Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 pick, eliminating the Lions from the possibility of addressing the position in the top 10 for the third time in eight years.

Beyond Pitts, there was little purpose in the Lions considering a tight end in the draft. Hockenson, fresh off his first Pro Bowl selection, is an ascending talent with an even higher ceiling as a pass-catcher.

The team’s incoming brass wasted little time pulling the plug on Jesse James, who bombed during his two-year stint in Detroit. He was replaced by Hill, a quality blocker who will also serve as a culture-setter for the new coaching staff.

A third spot is up for grabs, but after the team waived Hunter Bryant, Mack’s experience and connection to Campbell give him a slight advantage.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

In: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell

Off the bench: Tyrell Crosby, Matt Nelson, Logan Stenberg, Evan Brown

Work to do: Dan Skipper, Drake Jackson*, Tommy Kraemer*, Evan Heim*

Thoughts: The Lions’ best unit got even better with the addition of Sewell at the top of the draft. He projects as an immediate starter at right tackle. And based on comments from Campbell earlier this offseason, we’re keeping Vaitai penciled in at right guard.

Detroit has pretty good depth at tackles. You could make the case for Crosby being one of the best swing options in the NFL, while Nelson, a converted defensive tackle, showed promise when pressed into action last season.

The interior depth is a little shakier, hinging on Stenberg’s development from his first to second year. Currently, we’re projecting Brown to keep a job because of his experience at center. It will be interesting to see if Jackson, Stenberg’s college roommate at Kentucky, can push for that job.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

In: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Michael Brockers, Levi Onwuzurike

Off the bench: Julian Okwara, Charles Harris, Alim McNeill, Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand

Work to do: Austin Bryant, Joel Heath, Robert McCray, John Penisini, John Atkins, Jashon Cornell, Kevin Strong

Thoughts: As surprising as it sounds, the Lions might be letting go of some defensive line talent that has the potential to catch on with other teams.

Williams’ experience might see him start early, but it’s tough to see Onwuzurike staying in a backup role for long. Figuring out the rotation at defensive tackle, without seeing the players on the practice field a few times, is admittedly tricky.

It’s difficult to suggest Hand is safe. Despite flashes of talent, durability has been an issue throughout his career. For Penisini, he was a better fit for the previous scheme, which focused on controlling gaps. He’s essentially pushed off the bubble by the addition of McNeill.

The toughest projected cut is Bryant, a fourth-rounder a couple years back who has also battled major durability issues. A shift to an off-ball role could be his key to sticking.

LINEBACKERS (6)

In: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone

Off the bench: Derrick Barnes, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Jahlani Tavai

Work to do: Anthony Pittman, Tavante Beckett*

Thoughts: The top of the depth chart is clear. Collins and Anzalone, a free-agent addition who followed Campbell from New Orleans, are the likely starters. Barnes projects as linebacker three in a base package, while Reeves-Maybin, a special teams standout, could work his way back into a defensive role as a second-level coverage option.

Fifth and potential sixth spots are more open. We mentioned the possibility of Bryant being permanently moved to the room, and Hamilton got name-dropped by Campbell as a pleasant surprise to have on the roster in March. The coach clearly sees something in the veteran with 46 games of experience.

Tavai is a wild card. The current staff has no allegiance to the former second-round pick who has disappointed to this point. If he shows improvement in training camp in the preseason, there’s little harm in continuing to try to develop him.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (10)

In: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Corn Elder, Tracy Walker, Will Harris

Off the bench: Quinton Dunbar, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Mike Ford, Dean Marlowe, C.J. Moore

Work to do: Bobby Price, Jalen Elliott, Godwin Igwebuike, D’Angelo Amos*, Jerry Jacobs*, AJ Parker*

Thoughts: Most of the secondary spots feel spoken for, and the minimal investment in the defensive backfield via the draft only confirms that.

At cornerback, Okudah and Oruwariye look to be the starters on the outside, with Elder as the leading choice to man the nickel. Dunbar, Ford and Melifonwu are solid depth, although it’s a little unclear who would back up Elder inside.

Walker, Harris and Marlowe are close to locks at safety, with some room for competition at the back end of the position’s depth chart. Moore’s contributions on special teams are difficult to ignore, but Price flashed some intriguing potential as an undrafted rookie last season.

SPECIALISTS (3)

Starters: Jack Fox, Randy Bullock, Don Muhlbach

Work to do: Matthew Wright

Thoughts: Fox, fresh off a Pro Bowl season, is one of the few sure things on the current roster, and the new regime didn’t feel compelled to bring in a fresh challenger for the timeless Muhlbach.

At kicker, Matt Prater took a better offer from Arizona. The Lions added the inexperienced Wright to the roster in January, before inking Bullock, a nine-year veteran, to a one-year deal in the first few days of free agency.

Bullock battled injuries last year, but he’s made 83% of his field goal attempts during his career. He doesn’t have Prater’s leg strength, but his experience and track record of accuracy gives him the edge for the job.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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