Position Battles: Offensive Backfield

Saturday, July 18, 2009

As we close in on training camp I thought it would be fun to take a look at the different position groupings and discuss some of the position battles we have to anticipate. I'm going to concentrate a little more on more off-the-grid fights. Stafford versus Culpepper is certainly compelling, but that has already gotten a great deal of digital ink, and will certainly get a great deal more.

Third Quarterback

Drew Stanton v Himself. If there is any role on this team that is the cliche 'player's job to lose' it is this one. There has been a lot of disagreement both in The Den as well as in the popular press, talk shows, and ... well ... everywhere about whether Stanton has gotten a fair shake. Really that is all irrelevant though, going into this season. He has every opportunity to make enough of an impression on Schwartz and Linehan that they will be comfortable with him as the backup QB if the need arises. If the Lions start shopping for veteran backups in August then Stanton is probably bound for points Calgary.

Third Running Back

There seems to be little likelihood that 34k or Morris can be dislodged from their positions at the top of the depth chart so that probably leaves one spot for third back, with the potential for a fourth who can also return kicks.

The contenders:

Aaron Brown. The recently signed 6th rounder out of Texas Christian is somewhat unlikely to make the team on the back of his running skills. He alternated with Joe Turner last year at TCU, displaying some breakaway skills and receiving ability, so there may be some potential for him to develop into a 3rd down back. Brown appears to have been drafted for his kick return skills. He finished 8th in the country in KR average (over 10 attempts) while returning a handful of punts with more modest success. If Brown breaks camp with the team he will likely be the primary kickoff returner.

Allen Ervin. A rare holdover from 2008, Ervin was something of a training camp favorite last year before landing on the practice squad. He was never activated during 2008 and appears to be a significant longshot to make the team.

Aveion Cason. Long time veteran whose flexible range of modest skills see him popping back up on the roster every year or two. Perhaps (hopefully), this is the year that Detroit is able to replace him permanently. With the drafting of Brown and Derrick Williams, as well as the trade for Dennis Northcutt it appears that Mayhew/Schwartz place a premium on upgrading the return game, a goal that obviously bodes ill for Cason. Cason's best chance to secure a roster spot is probably as an in-season roster replacement, a role he has filled repeatedly. In his five Lion seasons he has only broken camp with the team one time.

Antone Smith. A message board favorite. An undrafted free agent out of Florida State he was a priority signing by the Lions after the draft. He led the Seminoles with 15 touchdowns in '08, complemented by a somewhat modest rushing total. At 5'8" , #190 Smith is a smaller back, fast but unlikely to break any stopwatches. Football Outsiders developed a metric called Speed Score that has a reasonable correlation to future NFL success for running backs (Bill Barnwell discusses it a bit Here). With a speed score of a bit under 98 Smith is a bit behind the curve. As a one cut runner lacking much elusiveness his NFL potential is fairly limited. He is probably more of a practics squad candidate than a true competitor for a roster spot.

If it appears that I am a little dim on the prospects for third running back out of this group it is because I am. Perhaps one of the younger guys will surprise and force his way on to the roster.


Jerome Felton. The Lions could keep either one or both of these guys, so this may not be a true battle. Felton impressed enough to win the starting job in Colleto's offense to begin the year, before getting hurt and ceding the spot to Moran Norris. As a second year player Felton is probably a decent favorite to make the roster and would probably have to lose his spot at this point.

Terrelle Smith. Fresh from starting in the Super Bowl for Arizona Smith joined the Lions as a long-time veteran, having blocked for Deuce McAllister early in his career, Edgerrin James late, with a regular job with the Browns in between. Smith is an accomplished special teamer and a solid blocker and provides a very good option in the event that Felton is injured or cut.

Tomorrow: The wide receivers.

Discuss it Here in The Den.