MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Face of the Lions changing

Posted Sep 1, 2014

Season to season, draft to draft, transaction to transaction, the Lions are getting younger.

The face of the Lions is changing. Season to season, draft to draft, transaction to transaction, the Lions are getting younger.

A grizzled veteran, with worry wrinkles and travel stickers on his suitcase, is no longer the face of the franchise. A photo from graduation night – with hope for the start of life’s journey -- is more fitting.

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses on the makeup the Lions’ roster has taken, and it starts with these three facts:

Ten players who survived the mandatory cut to 53 players have never played in a regular-season game. Nine of the 10 qualify as rookies. The 10th is wide receiver Corey Fuller, a sixth-round draft pick in 2013 who spent his rookie season on the practice squad.

Nine more of the final 53 were rookies in 2013. That means more than a third of the roster – 19 of the 53 – has one season of NFL experience or less.

Only eight of the 53 players are 30 years old or older.

Even the kicker is younger – by a decade and a half.  Nate Freese, a 24-year-old rookie, replaces David Akers, who turned 30 at the end of last season.

Younger doesn’t necessarily mean better, but if all things are equal, it should mean the Lions are more talented and more durable with less exposure to the carnage of playing in the NFL. And they should have more room for development.

There is also a look at how GM Martin Mayhew’s words to remember were borne out in the cuts, which positions are most likely in store for more work and how the offense is a barometer of how the Lions have gotten younger.

We start with the issue that trails only corruption in government, foreign affairs and the flood and freeze of the 2013-14 weather season as issues that affect the wellbeing of Metro Detroit, the State of Michigan and perhaps the entire Great Lakes Region –THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK!!!!!!

1. QB II: The debate over whether Dan Orlovsky or Kellen Moore should be the backup quarterback is further evidence of the lock that Matthew Stafford has on the starting job.

Fans and analysts can question how much more of his potential Stafford has to realize, or whether he can lead the Lions to consistent playoff contention, but there is no debate about his status as the starter.

In fact, Stafford is the iron man among quarterbacks in the NFC North. He has started all 48 games over the last three seasons.

No other team in the division has come close to avoiding the quarterback carnage – either because of injury or performance – the way the Lions have with Staffaord.

The Packers, Vikings and Bears all have used four starting quarterbacks in the regular season in the last three seasons. (Joe Webb started in the playoffs for the Vikings in the 2012 season when Christian Ponder couldn’t play because of an injury.)

I take it as a good sign for the Lions that the phone lines were burning over the Orlovsky/Moore debate.

It’s a lot better than what the Lions endured not that long ago – Joey Harrington vs. Mike McMahon, Jeff Garcia vs. Harrington, anybody vs. Harrington. And the ultimate – Daunte Culpepper vs. Stafford in Stafford’s rookie year.

2. Tracking the backup: For those who obsess over these matters, and assuming head coach Jim Caldwell does not announce who his backup is and word does not leak out, the issue will be settled publicly when the names of the inactive players are announced 90 minutes before kickoff of the opening game vs. the Giants one week from tonight.

3. Mayhew’s words to remember: He said in the spring that if a cornerback doesn’t make it in his third year, the chances are he’ll never make it. The Lions drafted three cornerbacks in 2012, and third-round pick Bill Bentley is the only one who survived the cut this year.

Fifth-round pick Chris Greenwood was cut Saturday. Sixth-round pick Jonte Green was let go last Monday.

4. Secondary a primary issue:  Based on his history, I’d be more surprised if Mayhew doesn’t make at least one move in the secondary than if he does.

Ten defensive backs made the final roster, with an even split of 5-5 between cornerbacks and safeties, and if Mayhew feels he can upgrade any part of the secondary, he won’t hesitate. He never has.

He made a trade at the cut deadline in 2010 to acquire cornerback Alphonso Smith, who provided some play-making for a brief period. In 2012, he signed Drayton Florence two days after he was let go by the Broncos in the final cut.

As it stands, the secondary has the same starters as it did for the final game of last season, with one change. James Ihedigbo is in at safety for Louis Delmas.

5. Potential position upgrade:  Linebacker is an obvious choice with rookie Kyle Van Noy probably headed to the short-term injured reserve list. Only five healthy linebackers made the final roster, and Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis did not start a regular-season game in their first two seasons.

6. The kid line: That’s what the Lions’ offensive line has become in the trend toward youth, and it’s a 180-degree reversal of recent seasons, when even backups were mostly veterans.

For the second straight year, two rookie offensive linemen made the final roster – center Travis Swanson, a third-round draft pick, and tackle Cornelius Lucas, an undrafted free agent. It was the same formula last year for two rookies – guard Larry Warford, a third-round pick, and tackle LaAdrian Waddle, an undrafted free agent.

7. Raiola’s senior status: The huge experience gap between center Dominic Raiola and the rest of the offensive line combined shows how the unit is evolving.

In 13 seasons, Raiola has played 204 games with 188 starts. That is 30 more starts than the other seven offensive linemen have combined. And he has played only six fewer games. The other seven have combined to play 210.

The games played and starts for the other seven: Rob Sims, 109/98; Corey Hilliard 41/12; Riley Reiff, 32/24; Larry Warford, 16/16; LaAdrian Waddle 12/8. Swanson and Lucas are rookies and have never played in a game.

8. Rising roster stock – Corey Fuller: He went from forgotten man on the receiver depth chart last season to a prospect whose ceiling cannot be projected.

Corey FullerWR Corey Fuller (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Six catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason games won a roster spot for Fuller.

That’s a reversal in form from a year ago, when Fuller showed little as a sixth-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech. He had one catch for six yards in the preseason, and that came in the last four minutes of the last preseason game. Even the backup popcorn vendors had left early.

Fuller is 6-2, with a recorded time of 4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That’s a combination that warrants a long look and patience from the scouts and coaching staff, and Fuller got both this year.

9. Fallen roster stock - Mikel Leshoure: For about a week into training camp as a rookie in 2011 Leshoure looked like he would be plugged into the backfield and remain there for eight to 10 seasons as a versatile runner who could fill a variety of roles.

One play in a routine drill changed all that. Leshoure’s left Achilles was torn, ending his rookie season. So much was expected of Leshoure that his loss left a cloud of gloom over the practice field.

The late Tom Kowalski analyzed Leshoure’s loss this way: “The season-ending injury is a huge blow to the Lions’ offense because of all the roles the power-running Leshoure was going to handle.”

When Leshoure returned from the injury in 2012, he never performed as expected when he was drafted in the second round out of Illinois. He wasn’t as quick and powerful, and not as sure-handed.

Leshoure’s situation is another example of how fast things can change – good and bad.

10. Receiver roster roulette: How much talent have the Lions really had at receiver the last few seasons?

Not as much as many think, based on this year’s roster moves.

Nate Burleson and Patrick Edwards, were the opening-day starters last year.

Burleson was released after the season and signed by the Browns. Edwards and Burleson were both let go on the final cut.

Kris Durham, a backup on opening day who went on to start 13 games and catch 38 passes, also was cut.

Signing Golden Tate to start opposite Johnson reshuffled the depth chart and changed some roles. Ryan Broyles produced in the preseason in his recovery from a season-ending Achilles injury. Jeremy Ross has the return job. Fuller’s development won a job. And Kevin Ogletree is a special-teams contributor.

That left Durham without a roster spot in another classic case of the numbers game not adding up in a player’s favor.