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Breaking Down Detroit Lions' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup

Brandon AlisogluCorrespondent IAugust 17, 2014

Breaking Down Detroit Lions' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions' season-opening tilt against the New York Giants is less than three weeks away. Training camp has wrapped up and two preseason games have been completed.

    Thus, it's time to project the starting lineup.

    Some of the following are obvious. Some will cause you to jump to the comments section and curse my mother for creating such a moron.

    And some are such head-scratchers at this point that you'll shrug your shoulders and admit that it's possible.

    Just know that regardless of your decision, I'm 100 percent correct. Since there are no websites tracking my predictions, you'll just have to trust me and click through to see the latest batch. 

Quarterback

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    This will be the season of Matthew Stafford.

    It will be seen as a turning point in his career. It will be the year when the young gunslinger transforms his 42-touchdown potential into smart, efficient signal-calling.

    Time and time again, I've beaten the drum for Stafford. This kid (he's 26) has not only put up a 5,000-yard season, and if not for Peyton Manning, he would have been an MVP candidate at the halfway mark of the 2013 campaign. Through eight games, Stafford had one more touchdown and two more interceptions than Aaron Rodgers. Any quarterback who can keep pace with Rodgers is getting things done. 

    He fell apart—as the team did—because no one taught him how to take the next step. No player is a self-made All-Pro. Look at Tom Brady. If you ask him for the primary reasons behind his success, he will surely mention quarterback guru Tom Martinez.

    And now, Stafford has a coaching staff that might help him take his game to next level. You could see improvement against the Oakland Raiders in the team's second preseason game. Even though this is a new offense, he appears comfortable, in command and poised to make the right play.

    Yes, the preseason can be taken too seriously at times. However, Stafford has a track record of success—just not consistency. As he enters the prime of his career, he is primed to take his place as a top-five quarterback.

Wide Receivers

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The Lions have one of those "good problems."

    Apparently, when you have to decide whether to keep someone on the active roster or risk losing him altogether, that's a good thing.

    The top duo of Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are all set. They'll instantly enter the discussion for best receiving tandem because their skills are vastly different yet complementary. Whereas Johnson is one of the most complete big receivers to ever play, Tate is the smaller wideout who can make plays after the catch.

    The rest of the rotation is difficult to get your arms around. Sorry, that's how Reggie Bush tries to catch the ball, perhaps I should have said get your hands on.

    Kevin Ogletree has been the talk of the offseason. Yet he hasn't been overly impressive in games, as his drop against Cleveland was of the "huh?" variety. But he also hasn't had many opportunities either. Ogletree is a lock to make the roster but not the starting lineup.

    The game tape has been too kind to Ryan Broyles to ignore, and he offers more upside. The third-year slot receiver looks surehanded (no drops in six targets) and has forced two missed tackles. For these reasons, Broyles will be the starter depending on what formation the Lions use.

    Both Ogletree and Broyles will make healthy contributions, although not enough to warrant serious fantasy consideration in shallow leagues.

Running Backs

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The tide is growing. The truth is going to be set free.

    Joique Bell is—right now—a better running back than Reggie Bush.

    And if head coach Jim Caldwell's approach is about "accountability," then Bell has to be the starting running back come September. 

    Bell has been the better back running the football through two preseason games. Bell's yards per carry (4.5) is more than double that of Bush's (2.0). On the positive side, Bush does have more receptions (two for two yards), but that's only because Bell doesn't have a single target yet. Oh, and Bush has two drops in two games that were egregious.

    I can already hear the cry that preseason stats shouldn't be taken into account. That's fine with me. Bush had 10 drops and five fumbles last season and got banged up a few times. So why not let Bell do the heavy lifting to keep the more explosive Bush healthy? The latter would do well as a change-of-pace guy. 

    I'm not alone in thinking Bell will ultimately outperform Bush. ESPN's Matthew Berry stole my drum and beat it this week in his annual Love/Hate column. I'm just the first person, that I've seen, to suggest that the culture of accountability demands that Bell start.

Tight Ends

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Head coach Jim Caldwell loves to use two tight ends. With that premise in mind, that will leave either Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria or first-rounder Eric Ebron on the bench.

    Surprisingly, it will not be an easy decision.

    Fauria would be anyone's first guess as the odd man out. But the former undrafted free agent has shown this training camp an expanded skill set that goes beyond the red zone. His blocking hasn't been perfect, yet the improvement is impossible to ignore.

    And that's great. Unfortunately, it won't be enough.

    Pettigrew, for all his struggles the past two seasons, is still the best blocker. That almost guarantees him a starting spot, and when you factor in that he has taken just a third as many snaps as the two youngsters this preseason, it's clear the coaches already trust him.

    Ebron has struggled at times with his blocking and has had some trouble creating separation. It won't matter. He's been tasked with ingesting a large amount of information because the team wants to use him all over the formation. He offers the type of matchup problems that the other two simply don't offer.

    You don't keep mismatches on the bench.

Offensive Line

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last season. Every starter, excluding Jason Fox and his three starts, is back.

    That type of continuity should breed success. Now, we just need to figure out which right tackle will be joining his buddies in the beginning lineup.

    Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle have been battling it out this offseason for the honors. The above-mentioned Fox beat out Hilliard last season before succumbing to his annual injury in the opening tilt, while Waddle, the surprising undrafted free agent from Texas Tech, eventually replaced Hilliard.

    The two have split reps with the first team in practices and the approach has carried over to the games. The results, however, haven't been so even.

    Waddle was the clear winner after the Browns game. Hilliard struggled mightily, getting beaten often and getting tagged with responsibility for a sack. Waddle, meanwhile, seemed to take his second-string status personally, driving people off the line and neutralizing any pass rush.

    The Oakland game didn't favor either player. Each was flag while Hilliard was beaten on a quarterback hurry. 

    There's plenty of time to go, but Waddle has the edge and is the more talented player. Waddle will be the starter when Detroit hits the field on Monday, Sept. 8 for the season opener, and everyone in the backfield will benefit.

Defensive Line

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The microscope of the preseason has turned squarely on C.J. Mosley and Nick Fairley, and the underappreciated veteran is finally getting the love he deserves.

    Obviously, we're not talking about Fairley.

    The 2011 first-rounder has continued his mostly underwhelming 2013 season with a steadily declining preseason. After all of the reports discussing his trim physique, Fairley has added weight during a time when most players shed pounds due to the workload.

    It almost defies logic. That's Nick Fairley in a nutshell. A nutshell that is covered in peanut butter and dipped in chocolate.

    As mentioned in the Justin Rogers' link regarding his weight, Fairley didn't respond well at practice. He also didn't do anything to reverse course during the Oakland game. He logged one tackle and was mostly invisible.

    But this isn't all about Fairley. Mosley is a respected veteran who would start on almost any other team and has been "excellent" in practice, according to MLive's Kyle Meinke. 

    Fairley is the more talented of the two, but Mosley has been more impressive, meaning the latter will get the starting nod unless the former kicks it into high gear. However, it might be too late.

    There's little controversy about the other starters. Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah will hold down their respective spots, with Jason Jones set to bookend Ansah.

Linebackers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Detroit's linebacking unit is the most underrated positional group in the league.

    Pro Football Focus named Stephen Tulloch the team's "Secret Superstar," and the stats back up that assertion. Not only was he effective against the run (fifth best in terms of "run stop percentage"), but he was extremely valuable in coverage. He finished with the third-best pass-coverage grade among inside linebackers.

    Nobody needs to be reminded of how far DeAndre Levy came. He snagged six interceptions and sniffed out nearly every screen the opposition attempted. Not everything came up roses, as he needs to improve upon his 12 missed tackles from 2013, but his production is a far cry from his disappointing 2012 season.

    The only "battle" in the second tier of the defense is between Ashlee Palmer and rookie Kyle Van Noy.

    There's no doubt that Van Noy is the more talented player. He's capable of dropping into coverage, rushing the passer and stuffing the run. Palmer logged only 367 snaps last season because he was taken off the field in passing situations.

    The clincher is Van Noy's penchant for making game-changing plays. While his forced fumble against the Browns was ultimately ruled an incomplete pass, it still serves as evidence as to how disruptive Van Noy can be.

Secondary

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The secondary has been targeted all offseason as Detroit's Achilles' heel. Yet, for all of the presumed shakiness, the foundation has been set since the first day of camp.

    The starting cornerbacks will be Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis.

    While Slay wasn't great against the Browns—allowing Brian Hoyer to post a 106.3 rating on three throws—he didn't allow a single target against Oakland. Plus, he's logged four tackles without missing one.

    As for Mathis, it's been a much quieter preseason. Nobody has really mentioned him aside from his age (he'll be 34 in a couple weeks). Thus far, he's missed one tackle out of four opportunities and held opponents to a 42.4 quarterback rating.

    The caveat about preseason statistics applies to those numbers, but it's all we have.

    The safety duo of James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin can hopefully bring stability to the back end. Ihedigbo gets another year in the same system that helped him produce his best season as a pro. Quin is learning, but the former cornerback could enjoy working in a role that primarily calls for deep coverage.

    This likely will not be a top-10 unit. The trick is it doesn't have to be. If the secondary can at least provide league-average play, the team's above-average front seven and top-tier offense should carry the day. 

Special Teams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    There isn't any question that Sam Martin will be the Lions' punter. He finished his rookie year as a top-10 punter and, as he told MLive's Justin Rogers, wants to be the best at his position. 

    On the other side of punts (and kickoffs) is Jeremy Ross. Detroit picked him up midway through the 2013 season, and he rewarded their move with two returning touchdowns. Nobody has made a significant move toward his position this preseason, so he'll stay firmly entrenched in his role.

    The only position left to sort out his place-kicker. And this one will go down to the wire.

    Both Kyle Meinke and Rogers of Mlive.com believe that Giorgio Tavecchio will take the honors. He hasn't missed a kick in either preseason game, capped by a 25-yard field goal against Oakland.

    There's very little to refute their predictions, as both kickers have done reasonably well during camp. However, the fact that Nate Freese continues to "start" the games and converted a tough 55-yarder (although he missed a long point-after attempt) leads me to believe the coaches feel more comfortable with the rookie.

    Out of every prediction on this slideshow, the place-kicking competition is the biggest toss-up. Joique Bell may be the most unlikely starter mentioned, but that result should be clear. The converse is true here. All we have to go on is the trust of the coaching staff.

     

    Brandon Alisoglu is a Detroit Lions Featured Columnist who has written about the Lions on multiple sites. He also co-hosts a Lions-centric podcast, Lions Central Radio. Yell at him on Twitter about how wrong he is @BrandonAlisoglu.

    All stats, grades and rankings are courtesy of Pro Football Focus and require a subscription. 

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