Lions Insider: Job market has gotten tighter

Allen Park — If you are a player fighting for a job on the Lions’ roster, coach Jim Schwartz’s comments about the team’s improved talent level have an edge.

A cutting edge.

The evidence after two exhibition games — a loss at Pittsburgh and Saturday night’s 25-20 win at Denver — is that the roster is deeper and more talented. That should translate into winning more games.

But that creates a higher level of competition for starting jobs — and spots on the final 53-player roster.

Plainly, the job market has gotten tighter.

“It’s going to be tougher to cut this football team, for sure, but that’s good news,” Schwartz said after a recent training-camp practice. “It’s not necessarily good news for the player, but it’s good news for the organization and the direction of our team.”

With two exhibition games left, cut-down days are fast approaching in the NFL. Players are running out of time to make an impact.

The Lions play their last two games at Ford Field — Saturday against Cleveland (kickoff 5 p.m.) and Thursday, Sept. 2, against Buffalo.

The first mandatory cut is Aug. 31 — three days after the Cleveland game — to a maximum of 75 active players.

The final cut is Sept. 4, to the regular-season limit of 53.

Here is a look at decisions facing general manager Martin Mayhew and Schwartz at each position, and one man’s opinion on how each position group rates, from top to bottom. (Note: special teams are rated separately.) The number of players that will be kept at each position is in parentheses and is based on last year’s roster.
Quarterback (2 or 3)

The revelation for Matt Stafford after two games isn’t about his arm or the intangibles. They were always there.

It’s how fast Stafford has developed. He is no longer a quarterback prospect. He’s a full-fledged starter and should be judged as such. Stafford has plenty of upside to grow, but he has plenty of ability to lead this team.

I rate the quarterback the best player on the team because of the impact on the rest of the roster. No doubt, Calvin Johnson is the best athlete, but the Lions’ hierarchy has finally found the main man and can sleep well on this position.

Not so the opponents. They know the Lions are armed and dangerous.
Depth chart: Shaun Hill is a solid backup, without an agenda. The Lions probably will keep three quarterbacks, which gives Drew Stanton a job, but keeping two to open a roster spot at another position would not be a shock.

Defensive line (8 or 9)

The Front Four doesn’t match the Vikings, but it’s close. Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams and rookie Ndamukong Suh make up a special unit. They can pressure the quarterback and still stop the run, and there is reserve help.
Depth chart: Landon Cohen has elevated his status as a backup tackle, and Sammie Hill and Turk McBride are set in the rotation. Lawrence Jackson, acquired in a trade with Seattle, should have a spot. Rookie Willie Young has made a push. A leg injury is holding back valuable veteran Jared DeVries.
Wide receivers (5)

Calvin Johnson is the best athlete on the team — maybe the best in the league. Nate Burleson’s arrival as the No. 2 receiver makes Bryant Johnson the No. 3 receiver. He should be effective in that role.
Depth chart: Special-teams play will dictate the future for Dennis Northcutt, Eric Fowler, Derrick Williams and Tim Toone.
Running backs (4 or 5)

The impact will be higher than my rating. Jahvid Best has added sudden impact to the position. His skill and football aptitude are obvious.

Whether Best is an every-down back doesn’t matter. Every down he’s in the game, defenses have to account for him as a receiver or runner. And wait till he lines up in the Wildcat. It’s coming.
Depth chart: Maurice Morris, Kevin Smith, Aaron Brown, Jerome Felton and DeDe Dorsey all have roles to some extent.

The biggest void remains a power back. There isn’t one.
Offensive line (8 or 9)

Rob Sims has settled left guard, and Stephen Peterman’s return from an injury has powerized (if that’s a word) right guard. Center Dominic Raiola and left tackle Jeff Backus are steady, solid, productive pros.

Gosder Cherilus, the starter at right tackle for 15 games in 2009, let Jon Jansen into the competition. There is no clear winner.
Depth chart: Rookie tackle Jason Fox was drafted for development. Versatility will decide the final spot.
Tight ends (3)

Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Will Heller are locked in.
Depth chart: Dan Gronkowski, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, has shown enough to have a future, but it might be on the practice squad this year.
Linebackers (6)

It’s a jumble after Julian Peterson and DeAndre Levy. The season-ending injury to Jordon Dizon left a roster crater. He could play the middle and outside.
Depth chart: Schwartz will have to piece together this unit from Zack Follett, Caleb Campbell, Landon Johnson, Vinny Ciurciu, Isaiah Ekejuiba and a couple others.

At least one linebacker on the final roster is currently on someone else’s team. Watch the waiver wire.
Defensive backs (9)

More and more it looks like the season is hanging by a thread for safety Louis Delmas because of a groin injury.

Delmas is the best player in the secondary, and the drop-off is substantial.

Jonathan Wade, Chris Houston and Dre Bly are the top three cornerbacks in some order. C.C. Brown, Randy Phillips and Ko Simpson are the top three safeties after Delmas.
Depth chart: Mayhew and Schwartz have shuffled the secondary throughout camp as if it were a family poker game with deuces and treys wild. The problem is, too many discards, not enough aces.

The waiver wire will be scanned thoroughly.
Specialists (3)

Kicker Jason Hanson, punter Nick Harris and long-snapper Don Muhlbach are set. Nobody has won a job as a return man, but there are plenty of choices for the regular season.

Aug. 23, 2010