They don’t get as much playing time as the starters, but the backups have to perform to the same level whenever they’re called on to play.
The “next man up” credo requires the backups to be ready to play at any time, whether it’s one play, one series, one game or an extended period.
Here are players at seven positions on offense and defense who have distinguished themselves as backups for the Detroit Lions in the last decade. Some went on to become future starters, and others remained in their role as backups.
All of them had some quality that made them valuable to the Lions.
Quarterback: Shaun Hill.
What he brought: Reliability.
Background: Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick called Hill the best backup in the league, and it was hard to argue against that. Backups haven’t gotten much playing time since Matthew Stafford began his streak of 128 starts on opening day of 2011, but Hill contributed on the field and in the meeting rooms.
Four of his 15 pro seasons were with the Lions (2010-13). Hill played 15 games with 10 starts. He threw 18 TD passes against 12 interceptions and had a passer rating of 84.2.
View photos from the 2019 Detroit Lions golf outing on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Running back: Zach Zenner.
What he brought: Toughness.
Background: Other backs such as Joique Bell and Theo Riddick didn’t start a lot of games, but they got too much playing time to be considered backups. They were high-rotation role players.
Zenner was unheralded as an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State in 2015, but he made the roster off a strong preseason performance. Injuries cost him playing time in 2015 and 2018, but he’s had stretches of solid performance – 334 yards rushing and four TDs in 2016 and a start against Seattle in the playoffs, and 265 yards, three TDs and an average of 4.9 yards per carry in eight games last year.
Zemer’s play on special teams adds to his value.
Tight end: Tony Scheffler.
What he brought: Balance.
Background: Scheffler gave the Lions what they hoped they were getting – speed and a big-play threat -- when they acquired him in a trade with the Broncos in 2010. Scheffler was a complement to starter Brandon Pettigrew, a blocker and outlet receiver.
Scheffler played his last four seasons with the Lions and had 120 catches, eight TDs and an average of 10.9 yards per catch. His career ended after an injury in 2015 limited him to five games.
Wide receiver: TJ Jones.
What he brought: Dependability.
Background: As the fourth or fifth receiver, Jones had to learn all the spots to fill in for an injured teammate or when the offense used formations with three, four or five receivers. Regardless of how much or how little he played, Matthew Stafford knew Jones would be in the right place.
A sixth-round pick in 2014, he missed his rookie season with an injury. His best season was 2017: 30 catches and 13.3 yards per catch.
Defensive back: Don Carey.
What he brought: Versatility.
Background: Carey played 85 games with 12 starts in eight seasons as a Lion (2011-18, with just one game in 2018). A valuable utility man, he played cornerback, safety and even linebacker briefly and was an ace on special teams. Carey had two interceptions as a Lion and one fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown against Seattle in 2015.
Defensive lineman: George Johnson.
What he brought: Impact.
Background: Johnson came in for a tryout during the 2014 offseason, expecting to head back home to New Jersey the same day. Instead, the Lions liked what they saw so much that they signed him to a contract.
Playing all 16 regular-season games plus the playoff loss at Dallas, Johnson gave the Lions an outside pass rusher who was quick off the ball. On a defense that ranked second overall in the league at No. 1 against the run, he posted career highs of six sacks, 29 tackles and 12 quarterback hits.
Linebacker: Tahir Whitehead.
What he brought: Next man up.
Background: The 2014 Lions had the makings of a playoff team (they made it with a record of 11-5), but the defense took a major hit when middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch went down with a knee injury in a Week 3 win over the Packers.
The next man up was Whitehead, who had not played a defensive snap in his first two seasons with the Lions but had been worked into the lineup in the first two games of 2014. He took over in the middle and was second on the team with 91 tackles. After 2014, Whitehead was a starter for most of his his last three seasons with the Lions before signing with the Raiders as a free agent in 2018.