MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Where the position groups stand

Posted Jun 12, 2017

In this week's Monday Countdown, Mike O'Hara looks at where the Lions’ position groups stand.

As head coach Jim Caldwell often says, the entire body of work is taken into consideration in deciding some roster spots on the Detroit Lions’ final roster.

With the countdown clock at 90 days and ticking until the Lions open the regular season against the Arizona Cardinals at Ford Field on September 10, it’s a long way before final decisions are made on the makeup of the 53-player roster.

This week’s mandatory minicamp is an important step in that process. It’s the last week of the offseason program before training camp opens in late July.

This week’s Monday Countdown looks at where the Lions’ position groups stand.

One notable position is absent. The Lions will not use a fullback this year. In that regard, the position has never looked better or worse.

1. Running back: Depth and determining roles are the primary issues with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick set at the top of the rotation.

Somebody can take a step forward in minicamp to get an edge going into training camp.

Abdullah has looked quick and decisive in the offseason workouts in his return from a season-ending foot injury sustained in Game 2 last year. There is no reason to think he cannot pick up where he left off as a dual-threat runner and receiver.

In six quarters before the injury, Abdullah had 101 yards rushing, a 5.7-yard average per carry and 57 yards receiving. That works out to 1,685 yards from scrimmage for a full season.

When healthy, Riddick ranks among the top tailbacks as a receiver. He has not taken part in the offseason workouts while recovering from offseason wrist surgery, but there is an expectation that he will be ready for the start of the season.

Returning veterans Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington and Mike James, recent free-agent addition Matt Asiata and rookie Tion Green are competing for roster spots. Versatility and reliability are key qualities.

Stat to note: Zenner rushed for 334 yards and four TDs last year. He gained first downs on 25 percent of his carries. Only 19 players with at least 300 yards rushing had a higher first-down percentage.

2. Offensive line: Every snap of every practice is important in building chemistry and cohesion for a unit that has to function efficiently and be able to adjust. That effort will be challenged by the shoulder injury sustained in practice two weeks ago by left tackle Taylor Decker.

For the present, with no projection on when Decker will return, Joe Dahl has been moved to tackle from guard, where he showed promise last year as a rookie backup. Also, the Lions have signed veteran backup Tony Hills.

Decker gave the Lions everything they could have wanted last year out of their first-round pick. He’s smart, reliable and has leadership qualities. Replacing him for any period of time at his performance level will be difficult.

Head coach Jim Caldwell did not give a timetable for Decker’s return in announcing last week that he’d been injured and underwent surgery. With an injury to any starter, a team has to cover itself for the possibility that there might be an extended absence. That’s just part of football business.

In his two years as GM, Bob Quinn has used high-value assets to strengthen the offensive line – three draft picks in 2016, and two prime free-agent signings this year to acquire starters T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner for the right side of the line.

Stat to note: Decker played every offensive snap last year at left tackle. It was the only position on the line where one player started every game.

3. Defensive front seven: Minicamp is an accelerated opportunity in the offseason for rookie first-round pick Jarrad Davis to continue to cement his status as the new middle linebacker whose presence allows the unit to be reshuffled.

Davis is the unit’s primary addition, along with veteran free agents Paul Worrilow and Nick Bellore and rookie fourth-round draft pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Antwione Williams is showing marked progress over his rookie year.

Up front, tackle A’Shawn Robinson is another gem from the 2016 draft class who is building – rapidly – on a promising rookie year.

A new veteran to watch: Defensive end Cornelius Washington, whose athletic ability could fit the Lions’ scheme.

Stat to note: The Lions had only 26 sacks last year, second fewest in the league and a decline of 17 from the 43 sacks they posted in 2015. Regarding the pass rush, nothing is more important than delivering a healthy Ziggy Ansah to the opening game after a lingering knee injury in 2016 limited him to two sacks after having 14.5 in 2015.

4. Secondary: From minicamp through cut-down day, performance is crucial in competition for playing time and roster spots. The margin for winning jobs could be razor thin.

A young wave of players – starters and backups – returned from last year. There is more quality competition at cornerback, either to play the slot or outside, with the addition of free agent DJ Hayden and draft picks Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew in a group competing for roster spots and playing time.

5. Receiver/tight end: Consistency is the key word for both groups after a season with too many dropped passes.

It’s doubtful if one player can make up for the eight TD catches Anquan Boldin had last season as the No. 3 receiver. Kenny Golladay, the 6-foot-4 third-round pick, and 5-9 Jace Billingsley, who spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad, are candidates for the third spot behind starters Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr..

The Lions added significantly to the tight end position by signing free-agent blocking specialist Darren Fells and drafting Michael Roberts of Toledo in the fourth round.

Eric Ebron is the key to the position, and in a large way to the offense as a whole. He has to continue to add consistency through the offseason to maximize his above-average talent.

Stats to note: Ebron ranked 10th among tight ends last year with 61 receptions and seventh in yards per game with 54.7. Ebron is fearless going over the middle. However he had one of the highest drop rates of any player at any position.

6. Special teams: Open competition for a return specialist could go down to the last preseason game.

Otherwise, it should be another strong year for a unit with an elite kicker-punter duo in Matt Prater and Sam Martin.

Stat to note: The Lions ranked second overall last year in the comprehensive special-teams rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.

7. Quarterback: For competition, watch the battle between Jake Rudock and Brad Kaaya for the backup job.

For appreciation of performance, watch Matthew Stafford throw the ball – any pass, any time. It’s one of the greatest arms in the history of football, and a pleasure to watch in warmups, practice and games.

Stat to note: Barring the addition of a veteran, this will be one of the rare times in franchise history that the Lions will go into a season without a backup QB who has thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game.