As the final cuts were made yesterday, there were several cuts that left me scratching my heads and some that made me seriously concerned about the direction of this franchise. After a day to sleep on it and reassess, I’m still less confident about the roster today than I was yesterday. That may change as roster moves continue to happen, as the team still needs to build its Practice Squad and scour the waiver wire, but for now I’m left scratching my head. In the wake of the final 53 man roster, we first need to understand that the ‘final’ part of that term is about as accurate as calling a football ’round’. With hundreds of players hitting the waiver wire today, and the Lions sitting at 5th in waiver priority, I would expect the team to continue making moves over the course of the day today and even throughout the week. The Lions are still working out receivers, so that’s the first point of emphasis I feel would be addressed. I digress, I don’t mean to get ahead of myself. Let’s start by looking at how the roster looks right now and how I feel those moves affect the team.
Judging by the types of plays the Lions ran in the preseason, I’m not as down on Matthew Stafford’s performance as most. The team was running an offense they won’t be running in the regular season due to personnel and he was clearly just working on timing with his targets. His accuracy is a concern, but not a huge one. His mechanics are a concern, but not as much a one as I once thought. Keeping Shaun Hill was a given, and he improved as the preseason progressed after a statistically good but relatively lackluster performance to start. Kellen Moore played well, and I’ll be the first to say that I think he has more than addressed the concerns we all had after last season. He looks sharp, poised, and ready. While he won’t make teams fear his passes, he looks like he could be a short-term option if Stafford went down, and that’s what you want from your backup. That said, and understanding that his performance WAS good this preseason, I think keeping him on the roster was a poor choice . The Lions have clear needs elsewhere and keeping a third Quarterback is a luxury they can’t really afford in 2013. Keeping any player that is unlikely to be activated on any game day roster this season is a poor choice, and the only reasoning I can think of to justify it is that the team is still not confident in their Offensive Line enough to roll with only two QBs.
5 Running Backs
Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure, Theo Riddick, Montell Owens (STIR)
Out: Shaun Chapas (Practice Squad), Steven Miller (Practice Squad)
On the one hand, I’m glad the team decided to keep Theo Riddick, who really turned it on to end the preseason but has been showing well in every facet of the game from camp onwards and looks to be a good long-term contributor. While I’m not opposed to keeping Montell Owens, whose special teams ability is unquestioned, I do have concerns with using the Lions only Short Term IR designation on a player that wasn’t poised to see a lot of time on offense. Now, some have claimed the Lions wanted to make him a bigger part of the offense, pointing to two back sets and the one time he played in a game for two snaps as a 3rd string RB, but it was CLEAR the Lions had no such plans for him. He was used sparingly as a runner or receiver in camp, and played a whole FIVE snaps of offense in four preseason games (Well, he played two). That number was the fewest for any RB, in fact one of the fewest totals for any positional player on the team. Even if you just go by those two games, his snap count is the fewest for any offensive player. Using the ST IR on Owens could handicap the team if a more important player goes down with injury, leaving them to eat a roster spot while the player heals or use the more definitive IR losing them for the season. The RBs the Lions ultimately chose to keep are not surprising, however, as the only one cut (Steven Miller) showed only limited effectiveness as a runner and would have been rolling solely as a KR. A likely Practice Squad candidate, however, Miller may catch on yet if Spurlock struggles.
4 Tight Ends
Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Joseph Fauria, Michael Williams (IR)
Out: Cameron Morrah
Sending Michael Williams to IR seems questionable to me for only a broken hand. Offensive lineman have played through broken hands by putting a club on it, and they must have that initial punch off the line. Williams was poised to be the Lions Hback, meaning he would be a lead blocker and primary edge blocker on outside runs, so the impact of a broken hand would be minimal. It’s surprising to me, but I’m also not a doctor so perhaps there is some medical reason that it is necessary. Outside of that, Tight end is pretty straightforward and could be a bright spot of the Lions offense this year. Pettigrew’s role as a blocker looks to be expanded this season, and Joseph Fauria showed some surprising blocking ability as well as receiving ability, enough to make the UDFA’s presence on the roster essential. If the team gets some consistency from Tony Scheffler, this could be one of the team’s best position groups in 2013.
6 Wide Receivers
Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, Patrick Edwards, Kris Durham, Micheal Spurlock
Out: Matt Willis, Corey Fuller (Practice Squad)
This one came as a surprised to most fans, as Matt Willis went down fairly early in final cuts. Now, I’m in the “Lions should have kept Willis” camp, but let’s look at this with a little perspective. Willis was a sub 50% receiver last season (10/22) with Peyton Manning throwing to him. His NFL career started in 2007 and he has 30 career receptions in 42 career games (.71/game). For context, Kris Durham, who the Lions kept, had 8 catches in 4 games (2/game) last season. A bigger surprise here is keeping both Pat Edwards and Kris Durham, and also keeping Micheal Spurlock as the returner. No, I don’t believe Spurlock has any value as a contributor in the receiving game, and I have a hard time considering a guy with more teams on his resume than touchdowns as a receiver will contribute more than his 2012 stat line (14 catches for 121 yards and 1 TD). As a returner, Spurlock brings decidedly less flash than he’s being represented as having. After having a brief run as an electric Punt Returner in 2012, Spurlock was let walk by the Chargers. He finished 4th in Punt return average, but only 26th as a Kick Returner, with TDs in each. More than 25% of his yardage for both punts and kicks came on his TD returns, with the remainder netting only a 18.4 YPR for kicks and 11YPR for punts. The small volume of returns in 2012 made his averages explode when he made those big plays, but the majority of the time he was netting a LOSS on kick returns and only average on punts. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of keeping Spurlock. However, with Patrick Edwards on the roster and Steven Miller on the Practice Squad, it will be a short experiment if Spurlock isn’t able to produce or goes all Stefan Logan, so there’s little risk. Most notable on Spurlock is that he stood in as Punt Protector and afterwords the unit improved, so there’s that.
4 Offensive Tackles
Riley Reiff, Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard, LaAdrian Waddle
Out: Kevin Haslam
As high as folks suddenly became on LaAdrian Waddle, he showed in the Bills game both why he needs to be on the roster and why as-a-starter would be a bad idea. At times brilliant and at others awful (Especially in the run game), Waddle proved himself a keeper. With Reiff and Fox playing bookends, Hilliard a favorite backup, once Waddle locked up his spot, this position group was done.
5 Interior Offensive linemen
Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Larry Warford, Dylan Gandy, Leroy Harris
Out: Jake Scott, Rodney Austin (Practice Squad), Darren Keyton
The first three were easy. With Dylan Gandy starting the offseason as the first man up at RG, his spot was basically ensured as long as he didn’t lose it. From there the Lions had a choice between veteran Guards Jake Scott and Leroy Harris, 2012 Practice Squad member Rodney Austin, or rookie UDFA Darren Keyton. Jake Scott looked the best of those four at RG, though you’d barely have noticed when they moved him. Rodney Austin showed a lot of improvement over his surprising 2012 season, but looked lost as a Center at times. Keyton was the opposite, looking good at Center but being overwhelmed at Guard. In the end, the Lions chose to go with Leroy Harris. Now, I’m no fan of Leroy Harris, but I’m not here to harp on him and retread old ground. From how the preseason progressed, it made the least sense to keep Harris, however. Despite a good showing against the Browns, his surgically repaired knee was never strong enough during camp to do much of anything, and if they wanted to keep a proven vet why not keep Scott who looked good even as a run blocker, a spot where he’s historically struggled? Keeping Harris makes little sense from all but a financial standpoint as the Lions paid Harris guaranteed money to be on the team. It was a mistake then, it is a mistake now. Still, after digesting the move, the Lions brought Austin back to their Practice Squad for one more shot. If he continues to improve like he did in this previous offseason, there’s a very real chance he’s activated sometime this season or fights for a spot at Center once Dominic Raiola’s contract expires.