Very rarely is late May, early June a busy time for NFL rosters. One team bucked that trend completely and have made plenty of waves with Detroit Lions roster news in their busiest week of the offseason. A plethora of moves over the past week or so deserves mentioning. It should be noted that much of the moves have very little to do with the players themselves. I know, that seems counter-intuitive, but understand that teams got a chance to see very little in rookie minicamps and OTAs so far, so there’s very little to go on to say “this player is horrible” or “this player looks fantastic!”. Instead, it’s just a time to get an idea of what areas the team believes are a need, be it by checking conditioning, monitoring injuries, or simply reassessing their needs. The Lions are no exception, and while it’s unusual to see this many moves all at once, they are all (mostly) understandable roster moves. I have one rule when a team signs a roster pick, one fallback to decide whether I think it is a good move or a bad move. I think to myself “Who would I cut from the team to make room for that guy?” If I come up with an answer immediately, good signing. If I have to think about it for a minute, could go either way. If I look at 53 players (90 in the offseason) and find no one that I would cut? Bad signing. So here we go, in no particular order:
Owens was signed to a typical 2 year ST contract with the Lions this week. Owens is a former pro bowl Special Teamer, joining a ST unit that underperformed to put it lightly for the first half of 2012, but performed very well in coverage for the 2nd half of the season. Owens is a very good player, amassing an amazing 30 tackles on Special Teams tackles back in 2009. Though Owens played well in a limited capacity as a RB last season, his true position is that of Fullback, giving him limited use in a Lions offense that hasn’t used a FB since Jerome Felton in 2009. Owens is therefore likely going to be used solely as a Special Teams coverage specialist, putting John Wendling’s job in jeopardy. Despite the positives, I’m not a huge fan of this signing. The Lions have spent an incredible amount of resources over the past two seasons in the draft to augment their Special Teams, making Owens’ signing seem like its undermining the team’s draft philosophy. Teams only have so many roster spots, so when a veteran specialist is signed it is almost a guarantee that a rookie picked for the same reason has an insurmountable task of making the roster. Players like 2013 draft pick Brandon Hepburn, both undrafted LBs from this season, and in fact most of the Undrafted Free Agents and Practice Squad players have a far more difficult task to make the roster with Owens being not only a veteran, but one in possession of a multiyear contract with guaranteed money.
The Lions cut the former WMU bronco and signed recently waived Cleveland Browns QB Thaddeus Lewis. I’ve already went into detail about how I felt about Carder as an entertaining prospect prior to actually reviewing him technically as a prospect, and I still think he would have had a very good chance of beating out Kellen Moore on the Lions roster. Be it because of a poor showing at rookie minicamp or simply the Lions liking Lewis better, they moved on quickly and signed a player I am actually pretty familiar with. Not in a good way, I’m what you would call a ‘detractor’ of Lewis’. Several years back, I watched a game where my team, Navy, was playing Duke. At the time, I wasn’t writing about football and was more of a casual fan. I still remember one play cemented in my mind where Navy lined up nearly the entire team at the line of scrimmage, an obvious blitz. I remember thinking oh boy, dude’s got four receivers out there he’s just gonna throw a slant, somebody bail quick! I was wrong, Lewis took the snap and was popped pretty good shortly thereafter. That play is one of those I refer back to in my mind when I think of the term “Poor field awareness” for a QB. Lewis has “starter experience”, which means he’s started a single game in his career and he actually played well. I would wager that is the anomaly, especially considering how quickly the Browns, who aren’t exactly swimming in QBs, let him go. A marginally mobile QB with a slightly above average arm, Lewis’ accuracy is decent. His complete lack of field awareness (if there was a scale, he’d be the lowest rung) when coupled with poor pocket presence and read progression makes him camp fodder.
Harris is another player with “Starting Experience”. Quotations intentional, since that term deserves qualification. A player is not a starter because they are good. They are the starter because they are the least bad on a roster at any point. A better term, and one you will find conspicuously absent from most reports about Harris, is “Starting Caliber”. That term refers to a player who is actually capable of being a starter, rather than being one by default. Harris falls into the ‘by default’ variety of starters. As a run blocker, he did some exceptional work some years ago, helping block for Chris Johnson, but he has always been a liability as a pass blocker. In no season was that more evident than 2012 where Harris was notably awful, the worst part of an awful pass protecting unit. Had his run blocking held up, there would be something to salvage, but he was bullied as a run blocker as well. There’s always hope as a backup, right? Provided he isn’t injured. Well… Harris is recovering from a partially torn ACL from midseason last year (For which he landed on IR). He is still unable to practice making his presence on the roster solely because of his prior association with Coach Schwartz (Schwartz was the DC in Tennessee when Harris was drafted). I don’t expect Harris to beat out Larry Warford, or Dominic Raiola for that matter (In addition to being a poor Guard, Harris is also a poor Center), and I feel he would have trouble beating out 2012 UDFA Rodney Austin, waiver pickup Bill Nagy, and frankly it’s only his status as a veteran that keeps him above Darren Keyton, but he’s still behind fellow veterans Jake Scott, Derek Hardman, and Dylan Gandy. Oh, and then there’s this little nugget. The Lions have him listed as a Center on their roster despite Harris not playing the position since 2008.
I promise you it’s not all bad news. One of the more recent pickups was another former Titan, Jake Scott. Unlike Harris, Scott is a starting caliber Guard, having only allowed five sacks for the Titans from 2oo8-2011. Scott gambled on the 2012 market, but remained unsigned for much of the season despite trying out for several teams, including the Lions. Eventually signing with the Eagles, Scott was a big part of why the Eagles pass protecting unit went from absolutely awful to not completely terrible. Individually, Scott’s 2012 season was unremarkable, but it’s difficult to say how good or bad his season would have been had he not gambled on himself in Free Agency, either asking too much or making too many demands for playing time. Unlike the other Titan Guard, Scott could actually make a case for playing time, though I worry that Coach Schwartz’ aversion to playing rookies would ultimately stunt the development of promising 2013 3rd round pick Larry Warford. If the Lions Offensive Line does face struggles early in the season, a veteran presence like Scott with the ability to back it up could be more than important, it could be essential.
The Lions mercifully released Troy Burrell today. The former Wayne State product has sat at the very bottom of the Lions depth chart, which at most times of the offseason had 13 receivers on it. Burrell had intriguing underneath receiver traits, but there was a good reason he was buried on the depth chart and the Lions chose to sign street Free Agents in 2012 rather than call him up from the practice squad. Nathan Overbay was expected to take over Will Heller’s vacated Hback role in 2013 when he was signed to a futures deal. The draft saw any chance of that being thrown to the wind with the selection of Michael Williams and signing of UDFA Joseph Fauria. With no chance of beating out either of those players and one of either Pettigrew or Scheffler, I’m surprised Overbay lasted this long.
The Lions released Smith when Leroy Harris was signed. Most casual fans wouldn’t have even known Smith was on the roster, but the former TAMU speedster has actually clung to a Practice Squad spot for most of the year. When the Lions CBs were decimated by injuries, Smith was not called up with the team instead calling in veteran Free Agent after Veteran Free Agent, so they clearly had no faith in his abilities as a cornerback. Smith also has KR/PR experience, but we all know how awful Stefan Logan was with the Lions not once calling up someone to replace him. Again, only a matter of time.
It’s no secret the Lions have been seeking a new Kick and Punt Returner. Fans were subjected to the worst dumpster fire of a performance by a KR/PR ever in the form of Stefan “Sit at the 5″ Logan. Their brief flirtation with Josh Cribbs along with a noted focus on the returner position in the draft with the selection of Theo Riddick and UDFA with several players picked up and tried out with showed that the Lions weren’t playing around. Cribbs’ injury and declining play left him unsigned, so they turned to another 30 year old Wide Receiver for returning help. Like Owens, if Spurlock were to make the team he would likely be doing so at the expense of a younger player with higher upside, likely meaning a tougher road to the roster for a player with high upside like Patrick Edwards, Steven Miller, or even Mike Thomas.
The Lions signed a Ninja. Earlier this offseason, the Lions signed a Punter known for his practice videos from Youtube prior to signing another Youtube sensation in Harvard “Kickaliscious” Rugland. They also added Reggie Bush, who had his own brush with reality TV with his relationship to Kim Kardashian. Now, the Lions have dug deep into the reality TV well and picked up former Ninja Warrior contestant Matt Willis. Willis is an all around Special Teamer, unlike Owens or Spurlock who are more one dimensional in their ST duties. At nearly 30, Willis is no spring chicken, and like the other two STers would be a case of signing a veteran for the sake of a veteran presence. Willis is no threat to augment the Lions receiving corps, meaning he is more of a ST specialist than Spurlock though he isn’t as good of a returner, nor is he as good in coverage as Montell Owens.