With the first set of roster cuts due within the week—August 27th, at 3:00 PM—teams across the NFL are starting to finalize their roster positions. Of particular interest to Vikings fans are not just the developments at home, but the evolution of rosters within the division.
That said, I've taken a look at the NFC North roster battles for the last few days to help fans get a more complete understanding of how the division has played out in this past offseason.
The preseason has given us some gems as well as some red herrings, and I've done my best to suss out the most likely outcomes and what they mean for Vikings fans.
It's a long read (longer than my usual style—over 6000 words), so be prepared. This will go over every position on all three rosters, and in particular identify weaknesses. Leslie Frazier's coaching style more often dictates taking away strengths than weaknesses, but the blueprint for beating these particular teams lies in making sure that we know both.
Green Bay Packers:
If you've been paying attention to the Packers this offseason, you may have noticed a few issues with their offense; Rodgers is 8 for 19 and has thrown one interception with one touchdown. Packers fans are not worried for the same reason that Vikings fans should not be excited. While the struggles are real, there's no reason not to think that he won't continue to dominate the league come the regular season.
Everyone seems convinced that Rodgers' backups (Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman) are terrible, but that's probably not relevant. I'll agree that there are major concerns at backup QB, but relying on that for our divisional games is a bit much.
Also on the wide receiver front, practice squad holdover Diondre Borel is back in action from his injury and Packers fans are looking forward to his competition with other practice squad holdover Tori Gurley, who was impressive before his injury. Word on the street is that physical specimen Dale Moss isn't extraordinarily impressive in camp—seems to have trouble getting open or catching the ball. He and Jarret Boykin are considered potential PS candidates. The Packers are deep at wide receiver, and still have veterans Donald Driver, James Jones and Greg Jennings. Alongside them, they have former rookie phenom Randall Cobb, who has been a tad worrisome in camp.
The Packers' tight ends aren't bad by any means, and Jermichael Finley may be returning to form after his quad strain, particularly in red zone situations. They also seem to like D.J. Williams, who has been catching the football left and right in practice. Williams is competing with Tom Crabtree for the #2 spot, but it seems that Crabtree has been making many more mistakes in the passing game, but is their best blocking TE. Ryan Taylor had a few camp highlights, including knocking over a blocking sled, but will likely make the team because of special teams performance.
As for their offensive line, the Packers are in the same spot we are when it comes to the second offensive line versus the first one. Worrisome for them. From what I hear, they have a big, big reason to worry if Marshall Newhouse goes down (he just came back . From my understanding, their third guard (Evan Dietrich-Smith) is good, and that's about it for their backup linemen. The Packers have a great guard in Josh Sitton, and T.J. Lang is better than average.
Jeff Saturday might be on his way to the Hall of Fame, but it remains to be seen if he can continue his excellent play in Green Bay. No complaints so far, it seems. While I have not personally been extremely impressed with Bryan Bulaga, the majority of Packers fans are—they know better, so I'll trust them.
We all know the Packers' running backs have neither been a focus of their offense nor their FO. They don't have great running backs by any means, but what is more worrisome is the injury issue. Both starting running back James Starks and second back Brandon Saine are out with injuries, which in part motivated the signing of Cedric Benson, who may end up looking better than Starks after all.
The injury situation was such that Cobb was taking RB snaps in shotgun, including duties in pass protection.
Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji are back. Observers seem keen on both of them and think that they'll return to what they're good at. C.J. Wilson is expected to start alongside them, and is not as good, but solid.
Backups Mike Neal and Anthony Hargrove* will begin the season on suspension, but seem to be serviceable.
Rookie Jerel Worthy looks good, but not enough to overtake anyone. He's starting in their nickel (2-4-5) package. Rookie Mike Daniels is a surprise and a penetrator. Expect him to make the roster and get rotated in somewhat frequently.
At linebacker, only one real development, which is that D.J. Smith could start. He's reportedly looking very good and Hawk should be worried, unless Desmond Bishop (who has a torn hamstring) stays out of the lineup. Rob Francois is also looking good, much to Hawk's chagrin. Backing up the inside linebacker spots could be Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore, although Lattimore will reportedly make it on his special teams play. Not much has been said about Manning.
On the outside are Clay Matthews (no surprise) and rookie Nick Perry, who is apparently flashing quite a bit of potential. The one-game suspension of Erik Walden shouldn't keep him out of the lineup, but he's a backup.
Vic So'oto isn't likely to make the team, but UDFA Dezman Moses apparently will. Brad Jones is also potentially going to make the team, largely as a result of his special teams skill.
At cornerback, Charles Woodson has potentially completed his transition to safety (who remains the nickel/slot corner) and Tramon Williams is expected to start opposite sophomore Davon House, who was looking impressive, until an injury had sidelined him. House is a physical corner like Chris Cook, and generally has the speed to cover. He'll return by Week 1, and should start. If not, Casey Hayward and Jarrett Bush have been competing for the first team spot and no clear winner has emerged.
Hayward had been looking unimpressive until very recently. He likes to make plays on the ball, but is inconsistent. Bush, on the other hand, is a much better tackler and blitzer than he is in coverage. It seems as if he doesn't offer nearly as much upside as Hayward or playmaking ability, but could provide some level of consistency. Bush has been doing well on special teams and is expected to make the team even if he ends up on the bottom of the depth chart due to that special teams play.
With Woodson at safety is Morgan Burnett, who doesn't look like he's making waves among the Packer faithful. Backing them up or rotating in on subpackages are Jerron McMillian who plays physically and veteran M.D. Jennings. Jennings is the current favorite to take the nickel safety snaps when Woodson rotates down to slot coverage, but is unimpressive. McMillian is still progressing, but the rookie could end up taking the job from Jennings later in the season. It's clear that this is a problem for them.
UDFA Sean Richardson looks quite good and may make the roster because of his size and speed, along with potentially good special teams play.
Overall, I expect the Packers to regress, but key players like Jordy Nelson and Clay Matthews to improve. While probably still the best team in the division, I don't expect them to be the world-beaters they once were, or even the best team in the NFL.
Their weaknesses seem to potentially include the thin offensive line, a young secondary and maybe some weakness with run defense—I never liked what I saw out of Pickett (or rather, I really enjoyed seeing him), but he may have been misused. We'll see.
Every team improves in every offseason, but let's just say the Packers may have improved less than most other teams.
Green Bay are a bit injury-riddled overall. Among the current injured:
RB James Stark (turf toe - several weeks) RB Brandon Saine (hamstring - about a week), RB Duane Bennett, FB Jon Hoese (hamstring - no timetable), CB Davon House (shoulder - several weeks), LB Desmond Bishop (hamstring - potentially season-ending), LB Frank Zombo (hamstring - on PUP for now), WR Shaky Smithson (ankle - unknown), OT Andrew Datko (shoulder - several weeks), OT Ray Dominguez (ankle - several weeks), OT Derek Sherrod (leg - several weeks/on PUP), TE Andrew Quarless (leg - several weeks), TE Eric Lair (knee - on IR), and DT Johnny Jones (knee - on PUP for now).
Just returning to practice alongside Finley were FB John Kuhn (ankle), WR Greg Jennings (concussion) and CB Sam Shields (elbow).
Seriously, these folks missed 21 players at practice once because of injuries.
This is a literal sentence I read: "With only 13 non-participants on Sunday, it was the healthiest practice the team conducted in weeks"
The Chicago Bears:
Best known for their return specialist Devin Hester, Chicago sports a somewhat complete roster.
At quarterback, they have the ever-underrated Jay Cutler, who passed for 2300 yards in 10 games despite one of the league's worst offensive lines and a depleted receiver corps.
An excellent scrambler—something that may have saved his life—he also throws well on the run and goes through reads quickly. If allowed time, he'll usually find his man. The Redskins game is good evidence of that.
Conversely, the primary backup, Jason Campbell has exhibited a tendency to hold the ball on too long, but has been accurate in preseason play, helped along with the size and skill of Alshon Jeffery. He takes a while to get through his reads, but is otherwise an OK quarterback.
The controversy here seems to be between the relatively terrible play of the third QB on the roster Josh McCown and the good play of the camp body, Matt Blanchard. In all honesty, neither of them are incredible, but Blanchard has impressed more with his reads and decisiveness in the pocket under pressure. It seems unlikely that Blanchard makes the roster, but McCown isn't sitting pretty.
The receivers have been upgraded in a significant way. It seems as if return maven Devin Hester will focus once more on returns and less on receiving like last season, but they are testing him in preseason games to see if he can once again cut it as a receiver. He has looked better than ever, which is to say pretty average.
Brandon Marshall's excellent play has continued in Chicago to no one's surprise and a 1200+ yard season seems well within reason.
Earl Bennet continues to showcase his excellent hands and is expected to be the slot receiver in 3-wide packages.
Alshon Jeffery has shown excellent play in the preseason and will see first team snaps very soon opposite Brandon Marshall, which means the two starting receivers are significantly different than last year, and should provide a new spark to the offense. Jeffery has displayed speed and good adjustment to the ball, but his body control stood out in the preseason.
The last receiver that is expected to make the roster is another special teams ace, Eric Weems. The idea is to create a return corps that is dangerous regardless of who is out. He can also perform excellently as a gunner, and accumulated 123 all-purpose yards against the Redskins, despite not playing at full strength due to injury. He returns with a different style than Hester (more head-on into the blocks, and with less elusiveness), and that change could give them an added dynamic.
It looks like Dane Sanzenbacher, journeyman/veteran Rashied Davis and undrafted free agent Chris Summers will need to show much more in the preseason to make the team. Summers seems to have a good chance of making the practice squad and has been surprising in his athleticism, ability to make plays and good control of his 6'5" frame. His fumble in the last game hurts him significantly. If the WR roster is expanded to six, Sanzenbacher seems to have the inside track, as he has had a pretty good camp.
At tight end, rookie Evan Rodriguez has been impressing as a receiver and apparently has some fairly abysmal blocking. He's been playing all over the line and in the backfield, like an H-Back, and can run routes from anywhere. He's currently practicing with the third team behind Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis. Both of them are relatively well-rounded, but tend to be better at blocking. Chicago plans to involve tight ends in a more dynamic manner, as blockers and receivers.
Spaeth will likely be asked to block much more, while Davis provides more flexibility. If they keep a fourth tight end, it will be Kris Adams, but that seems unlikely at the moment. Kris Adams has been doing well in the preseason, but not nearly as well as Rodriguez.
The Bears are very good with their running back positions, and it seems as if power back Michael Bush is being used exactly how pundits predicted; as a goal-line and third-down back. Bush impressed fans with his agility as well, and demonstrated an ability to make people miss with good footwork. Forte remains shifty and will continue to be a pass-catching option off the backside of plays. It does not seem as if either Forte or Cutler have residual issues with their respective injuries.
If they keep three backs, it looks like it will be Tyler Clutts, who plays more as a fullback than anything else. The Bears have used him in short-yardage, too, so that remains an option. Harvey Unga is also a fullback, but seems to be losing the spot to superior blocking by Clutts.
As for a fourth back, which seems much more likely, Lorenzo Booker and Armando Allen offer change-of-pace options with quick and agile running styles, while Kahlil Bell also competing for the last spot as a relatively complete, if not entirely talented, back. The fourth spot will be determined as much by need as by talent. If they want a scat-back, it seems as if Booker is ahead in that competition.
The offensive line remains a mess, but the return of Gabe Carimi should help their right side more than most give the Bears credit for. At times, the line looked good in the preseason, although Chicago is still experimenting because they aren't sold (correctly) on their starters. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has been under particular scrutiny. That backup Chris Williams hasn't outright beaten Webb for the spot speaks more to the poor depth at left tackle and less to Williams' ability. Against the Redskins, they both looked OK, but the Bears would like to see more.
Chris Spencer is playing a little out of position at left guard, but seems to be playing badly enough for backup Chilo Rachal to seriously challenge him for the position. For what it's worth, Rachal is looking better, but the final decision has not yet been made. Expect Week 3 to be a big determinant of this position as well.
Williams offers versatility on the line, so it seems that he would move around in case of injury, and J'Marcus would reprise his role at left tackle.
Roberto Garza seems set at center, and while I haven't heard much of him or seen tape, I'm not confident in him at all. It could be because he had poor help, but the Chicago line saw quite a bit of interior pressure. More worrisome, he may have been one of the worst run-blocking linemen I have seen.
As far as I can tell, Lance Louis is now taking snaps at right guard, the position he was at in 2010. Louis is just bad, and it seems as if no one is going to root him from that spot.
James Brown seems to be doing well for himself in grabbing the other backup spot, and is being developed as a left tackle. While not up to an NFL level yet, the Bears reportedly like his potential here.
As for the defense, Chicago is not in an extraordinarily different place.
At defensive end, Pro Bowler Julius Peppers will continue at right defensive end, but Israel Idonije might find himself kicking inside on a number of downs to undertackle while the preseason phenom Shea McLellin takes some spots at left defensive end. McLellin is getting good pressure inside, but we haven't seen his play against starting level linemen. Nevertheless, the indications are that he is going to shape up to be quite a good football player.
Based on preseason play, Israel Idonije is looking much better than before and could be the Brian Robison to Julius Peppers' Jared Allen.
The fact that Henry Melton has defensive end experience might mean trouble for players hoping to make the roster at DE, because his flexibility gives the Bears allowance to invest roster space elsewhere. Nevertheless, look for Corey Wootton to make the roster. He has been having a good camp and can generate a good pass rush on occasion, but is injured. Nevertheless, the Bears reportedly like what they see.
It seems as if Cheta Ozougwu may pick up a practice squad spot at defensive end. Depth is good.
At defensive tackle, the Bears really like Henry Melton at undertackle, although predictions of a double-digit sack season may be off. He had seven last year, and a very good amount of pressure, so it is certainly a possibility.
Strongman Stephen Paea is set to start at nose tackle, although his injury has allowed Matt Toeaina to shine. Still, unless Toeaina produces in a big way for the next two games, Paea is likely the starter.
Besides Toeaina, Brian Price looks good, and is enormous. He might be used in both tackle positions, but is really best suited at the nose. Other than that, Nate Collins had been disruptive in the Redskins game and could nail down the final DT on the roster. Chicago has good defensive tackle depth, and it is relatively versatile. Price seems to be a better run-stopper, and both were threats in the passing game (again, against backups).
At linebacker, the Bears are in an interesting place, with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher having gone into surgery to scope his knee in response to swelling that occurred during training camp. His knee is sore, and it looks like he'll be out of contention for a few weeks. Nick Roach is normally the replacement for Urlacher, and he slides from the Sam position to play Mike. While I don't know Roach's skillset at the middle, he's been a serviceable strongside 'backer with some coverage issues.
However, it seems as if Nick Roach moved back over to the strongside against the Redskins, and journeyman Blake Costanzo took middle linebacker snaps. Some Bears beat reporters are indicating that this means that Urlacher's return will be sooner rather than later, but it could be an indication that Geno Hayes is not a viable replacement at the Sam. I find the first hypothesis much more likely than the second, as Hayes has proved to be a backup-level outside linebacker (with serious questions in the run game), and Roach would likely perform much better than Costanzo, who has had extremely limited snaps throughout his career.
Moreover, Hayes (who generally plays on the weak side) has been looking alright in camp and in the preseason, which doesn't seem to be the case for Costanzo.
These rotations indicate that it is very likely that Hayes and Costanzo make the roster, with Hayes backing up both Roach and Pro Bowler Lance Briggs at the weak side.
Roach is definitively the weakest of the extremely strong linebacking corps, and he's a better than average outside linebacker. Briggs and Urlacher proved last season that they both still have serious wheels, although Urlacher's injury could cause some big problems near the beginning of the season.
If Costanzo's position were under threat, it would be by Dom DeCicco, although Costanzo is a better special teamer. As it is, DeCicco will likely make the roster and gives some depth to a linebacker corps that has one injury worry. It is still potentially one of the best linebacker groups in the league.
At cornerback Charles Tillman continues to retain the starting position, and he's pretty good. Not great, but a pretty solid corner that will make the occasional mistake. Lining up opposite him is a competition between Tim Jennings and Kelvin Hayden. It seems as if Jennings has this for the most part locked up, but Hayden is close on his heels.
Tim Jennings was an alright cornerback last year and should beat out Hayden easily. His inability to close down on the spot doesn't bode well for him or his skill, and his slight inconsistency could be a huge problem in the future. Hayden is not as good as advertised and has given up an unfortunate amount of catches, yardage and scoring plays over his career to reliably be called a good starter.
D.J. Moore will make the team, and is an average level back-up. He doesn't look much different than before, and that's fine. For the fifth corner, special teamer Johnathan Wilhite is presumed to be a lock, although rookies Greg McCoy and Isaiah Frey also look good on special teams and could be better in coverage than Wilhite.
Because Wilhite has not been impressive in camp or the preseason, McCoy or Frey could grab the 5th spot. Frey, the sixth-round pick looks better in play than McCoy, the seventh-rounder, and McCoy is expected to be a practice squad player. As it stands, their corner play is average.
More worrisome is their safety situation. Both Brandon Hardin and Chris Conte sustained injuries against the Redskins, with Hardin's injury looking a bit more serious. Conte's shoulder injury appears to have gone away, but concerns remain about Hardin's neck injury as he left on a stretcher. There is a possibility that Hardin starts the season on PUP, and the team won't know for another two weeks as tests continue to run.
Both play the free safety position, with Conte generally expected to start. Major Wright is on the opposite side of the field at the strong safety, although the distinctions are meaningless in the base coverage. Both Conte and Wright are below-average safeties and could be the biggest weakness on the defense. Neither of them are known for man coverage, either.
With Hardin potentially starting on PUP, depth might be a big issue for them. Craig Steltz was on the team last year, and is much better in run defense than as a zone defender. While he impressed in that capacity, the Bears are not looking for safeties who can stop the run as much as those who can manage the deep zones.
After that, it seems as if they've hit the bottom of the barrel. UDFA Trevor Coston has incredible closing speed, but is only 5'10" and doesn't have incredible strength. He might normally be a practice squad candidate, but injuries at free safety could push him onto the team.
Anthony Walters plays largely as a strong safety and never inspired a lot of confidence for the Bears. He played on special teams but never made a large impact.
So when discussing the weaknesses of the Bears, you can see that two jump out immediately. The primary weakness is their poor offensive line, something the Vikings well know how to take advantage of. Cutler can get rid of the ball quickly, so constant and consistent pressure is key to making sure Minnesota can take advantage of this weakness. If Minnesota had greater confidence at nose tackle, it could also make sure to dominate the Bears in the run—something their line is much better at—and therefore shut down the offense. As it is, they're not in a terrible spot and could do well to disrupt the Bears' passing game.
The second weakness is naturally at the safety position, and while this is traditionally exploited by deep routes, the Vikings are better set to use multiple tight end sets to encourage base personnel sets, then shift formations to create tight end or receiver matchups against the safeties, either in the seams or in man-to-man coverage. The connection between Kyle Rudolph and Christian Ponder is critical here. While the strength of the Bears' linebacking corps obviates this strategy somewhat, it is a good way to take advantage of their biggest problems.
The third weakness is their potentially vanilla offensive playcalling. While they'll have two big playmakers to match up against a secondary facing questions (even if you believe Chris Cook comes out ahead against Brandon Marshall), the tight ends are rarely going to be a threat in the passing game, which means accounting for two receivers and Matt Forte with relatively simple coverage could solve much of the passing problems, even if they do come out better in one-on-one matchups. Effective use of zone play that takes advantage of fewer potential receiving threats could make Jay Cutler's day much, much worse.
The Detroit Lions
The best quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL might be in the NFC North in the form of Matt Stafford to Calvin Johnson, Jr.
Both have looked good in the preseason, as is to be expected. Stafford has been firing bullets and making reads well. If he can stay healthy, be prepared for another season of gaudy numbers.
Behind him is Shaun Hill. He's a good backup and played at about that level.
Their third quarterback situation isn't as great. Kellen Moore looks awful and both the concerns about his height and arm strength seem to have materialized into real problems. The other quarterback, R.J. Archer, has not seen a snap of preseason play.
At receiver, the Lions are well-off. Nate Burleson looks like you'd expect and Titus Young has apparently improved. Second-round pick Ryan Broyles, who was recovering from an ACL surgery at the time of the draft, has impressed in a big way with his health and adroitness, and will assuredly make the roster.
Undrafted free agent Patrick Edwards was astounding people early on in camp, and may make the roster by virtue of that performance, but cannot seem to crack the special teams unit as a returner and has been seeing fewer reps with Broyles' return from injury. In the games themselves, he has been dull.
Maurice Stovall is a veteran receiver who has the capability of making plays, but will likely make the roster because of his excellent gunnery play. Because coverage on special teams is such an issue for the Lions, this is a priority need.
Riley Reiff is versatile, and has played at every position along the line. He has been impressing, but has not cracked the starting offensive line yet. Don't be surprised if he makes an appearance at right tackle with the starters. Apparently he has been doing that on occasion already.
Instead, Gosder Cherilus has the right tackle spot. The Lions value continuity on the line, and there don't seem to be many complaints about Cherilus on the line. Jeff Backus, Rob Sims, and the sometimes underperforming right guard Stephen Peterman have looked good so far, and the Lions have to feel comfortable where they are at.
Center Dominic Raiola is perhaps the weakest spot on the team, and is—along with Backus—the most experienced. There don't seem to be huge complaints about his play, but I don't think he's going to impress as the season moves forward, particularly in the running game.
Some say the Lions have the best offensive line in the NFC North, and if that's true, it is in some part because of their depth. Aside from rising lineman Reiff, many are satisfied with Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox, who can also play anywhere on the line.
Dan Gerberry and Dylan Gandy have also done well, but don't seem to be on the inside track to make the roster. If one of them does, it should be Gerberry, who has done a surprisingly good job in camp.
Running back Mikel Leshoure is suspended two games for two marijuana arrests, so they will need Kevin Smith to pick up the slack while Leshoure and injured Jahvid Best (concussion) are out. Best is expected to be out for his first six games on the PUP list, leaving what was once a relatively deep backfield fairly exposed. On that note, the Lions are entertaining options for a 4th and 5th running back. Rookies Stephfon Green and Joique Bell have been impressing in that regard.
They don't have that locked up, and it seems more likely that Keiland Williams, who took some first team reps in practices, takes one of these slots.
More interesting is that Stefan Logan, officially listed as a wide receiver, is actually in contention for a running back spot as well. Given his value as a return specialist and his flexibility for their offense, he is also a likely threat to take the 5th running back position.
Lucky for him, his ankle MRI came back negative after a scare during the preseason game against the Ravens.
Finally, the Lions are set at tight end. This isn't a position with elite talent, but expect Brandon Pettigrew to take advantage of the looks that Calvin Johnson will get. Tony Scheffler isn't a slacker either, and the Lions would not be making a poor decision putting both on the field. Behind both of them is solid backup Will Heller, and the three of them should keep any other tight ends out of the roster.
On defense, the Lions are doing significantly poorer.
At cornerback the Lions are thin. After releasing Aaron Berry for two arrests, they are choosing between rookie Bill Bentley—who has had some playmaking ability but is very clearly still raw—and free agent Jacob Lacey to replace Berry's position at right cornerback.
Sixth-round pick Jonte Green is likely to make the roster not because he's any good—he looks like you would expect a sixth-round pick to look: raw and undeveloped.
Chris Greenwood, whose measureables were through the roof (6'1", 4.38 40-yard dash, 43-inch vertical leap), has been injured throughout all of camp. He was picked in the fifth round of the draft, and it seems that he'll make the roster on the PUP list. Alphonso Smith will likely make the roster by virtue of their poor depth, and is still lost in coverage.
CB Drew Coleman was placed on injured reserve, and will collect checks from the training room.
Chris Houston is their top corner. He looks like he did last year, which is slightly better than average at cornerback.
While we evaluate the Green Bay cuts at wide receiver for depth, expect the Lions to take a peek at our suddenly interesting cornerback roster.
At safety, Detroit has some similar problems, but looks better. Their best safety, Louis Delmas is coming off of a knee surgery and won't be back in time to start the season. In his place, John Wendling has been surprisingly good given his inauspicious career. At the other end, Amari Spievey's headaches have allowed Eric Coleman to shine, who has improved from last year, especially in coverage.
That said, both of those safeties are much better against the run than the pass and they'll need Delmas to come back (and at full strength) before they have good zone safeties. Spievey is at risk of losing his starting position to Coleman, but in either case it's a weak spot. Spievey has always been fairly bad at safety and Coleman is too old (30) to be anything more than functional at this point in his career.
Given depth problems at both safety and cornerback, expect functional backup defensive back Don Carey to also potentially make the roster as either a safety or corner. He's OK, but obviously not better than the other starting before him.
The Lions are happy with their front seven, however.
Detroit is happy with Justin Durant with good reason, and there's no indication he's dropped off in play. DeAndre Levy is also guaranteed a starting spot, although I'm not as confident in his ability. Stephen Tulloch is one of the best 4-3 middle linebackers in the game right now, and he'll stay that way for 2012.
Overall that linebacking corps is weaker in coverage than against the run, but the difference is relatively negligible, especially because offenses would rather pick on the secondary for better gains anyway.
Fifth-round pick Tahir Whitehead hasn't made many notable mistakes in games and has looked consistent in practices, and it looks like he'll make the squad.
Carmen Messina, and undrafted free agent, has forced his way into the conversation with excellent preseason play, and will make the team if he continues to play at a high level. He's hurt by the great depth the Lions have at linebacker, and would make the practice squad otherwise.
From what I hear, seventh-round pick Travis Lewis has not been impressive in camp or in preseason play, but the word is that he'll make the roster because of his propensity to not make mistakes. Ashlee Palmer has been with the Lions for a year and is a serviceable backup. As such, he is expected to make the roster as well.
Doug Hogue is considered a project, but was a good special teams player his rookie year. He's an instinctive player with a decent physical build that displayed most of the skills scouts want in college, but is clearly inexperienced. His tantalizing potential might allow him a spot on the team. If not, he will surely make the practice squad.
The biggest strength of the Lions is with their vaunted defensive line. Had Cliff Avril or Kyle Vanden Bosch continued their holdout, Detroit would not have been in the dark. While I am of the opinion that Vanden Bosch is vastly overrated because of his extraordinarily poor run play and (currently) marginal pass-rush skills, Avril and first backup Lawrence Jackson are both very good ends. Willie Young is also a surprisingly good end and has shown a lot of excellent play in practices and the preseason. Expect Vanden Bosch and Avril to start, but for Detroit to feature heavy rotation here.
They like Ronnell Lewis and Everette Brown here, but there's a good chance that one of them gets cut. Lewis is a convert from linebacker, but seems to be doing fine as a defensive end, and has adapted well. Everette Brown, who has bounced around the league looked very good against the Browns, but much worse against the Ravens. Given Lewis' youth, potential and relative consistency, expect Lewis to make the roster.
Defensive tackle is also a deep position. First-round pick Nick Fairley still isn't starting, but that shouldn't be an enormous problem—Corey Williams looks good, even if I think Fairley looks more complete. He took fewer snaps last year in part due to injury, but is better against the run than either Williams or Suh and a much better pass-rusher and penetrator than Williams.
If the issue is injury or his motor, then the starter tag makes a lot of sense for Williams. Obviously the preseason and training camps don't reveal much about this, so the front office might simply be making a decision that can't easily be determined from on-field play, which is fair.
Nevertheless, the three of them offer a strong pass rush and some decent run coverage, although Suh has been criticized for all of his career as a poor run-defender. From what little I've seen, that hasn't really gone away, but what I've seen isn't very much. His run-defending is less important as he serves a Kevin Williams-type role, but overpursuit and wham blocks still take him out of the play more than they should.
Joining them should be Sammie Lee Hill, who saw some time in rotation with the Lions over last season. Definitely backup quality who doesn't look like he'll get better, Hill offers solid relief in defensive line rotation.
The question at defensive tackle revolves around Andre Fluellen, who seems to be a perennial back-up at this point in his career. Clearly worse than Hill, but not bad, Fluellen may be a victim of the numbers game more than not fit for the NFL. If Fairley's suspension occurs before the season starts, Fluellen will definitely get a shot, but without that suspension, he may be on the outside looking in. Still, his reliable depth may be good enough to secure him a spot.
The weakness for the Lions obviously involves a secondary that has lost players due to injury and legal trouble (sound familiar?). They haven't settled their questions at safety and are relying more on potential than proven talent. Beyond that, they carry two more potential weak spots in their historically poor special teams play (and therefore poor field positioning on both side of the ball) as well as weakside running. Their starting DEs are not great against the run, so targeting lead blockers or counters towards Levy looks like a good strategy, even with a solid MLB in the backfield.
There you go. A rundown on the strengths and weaknesses of our divisional rivals, who together help provide the NFC North with the informal title of "toughest division in the NFL."