ALLEN PARK, Mich. – NFL Nation reporter Michael Rothstein assesses which players on the Detroit Lions could earn a starting berth this season.
Why Laken Tomlinson could start: This isn’t a “could start” scenario. It’s a should start expectation. The Lions took him in the first round with the expectation that he would be the team’s starting left guard for this season and potentially the decade to follow. It’s another reason the Lions didn’t bring in a dedicated guard during late free agency, instead trading for Manny Ramirez, who can play both guard and center. Tomlinson should be the Game 1 starter for Detroit against San Diego in September. The good news for him is fellow guard Larry Warford, who was a Game 1 starter in 2013 as a rookie, said he believes Tomlinson is ahead of where he was during offseason workouts.
Tomlinson was one of the most pro-ready prospects in the draft as the best guard in the country last season. He had pro-level coaching at Duke from John Latina, who has placed many interior linemen in the pros, including Eric Olsen (now with Cleveland) and former first round pick Chris Spencer. Latina told ESPN.com after the draft that Tomlinson compared to Spencer, who has been in the league since 2005.
Why Ameer Abdullah could start: Abdullah’s chances of starting for the Lions at the beginning of the season sit mostly with the health of starting running back Joique Bell. The veteran has missed all of offseason workouts, and while he believes he’ll be at full strength by the time the season begins, the Lions won’t know that until they see him run with pads in practice. Until the Lions see Bell, though, they have to give some consideration to starting Abdullah.
Even if Bell returns, whether Abdullah gets the “start” or not might depend on play calls and packages. He’ll have a role in the Detroit offense this season and should be the team’s starting back by 2016 if he progresses as anticipated. Abdullah has the ability to be a pass catcher and a guy who can make cuts and run upfield, so his value is high for Detroit. While not a technical offense or defense starting position, Abdullah could be the team’s kick and punt returner as well, giving him another pivotal role.
Why Michael Burton could start: Of all the players Detroit drafted, Burton is the best bet to be a “starter,” although his role will be fairly small. Detroit should not keep more than one fullback and as the team’s fifth round pick, he’s going to be the guy who is on the roster as a fullback. So barring injury or something extremely unforeseen, pencil him as the starting fullback for the next few seasons.
Why Quandre Diggs could start: Like Burton and Abdullah, Diggs could be a starter in a non-full-time role. Don’t expect him to be one of Detroit’s outside corners – those will be Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay barring injury – but Diggs could easily win the starting slot corner job. This is an important gig considering how pass-happy teams in the NFL are, including a particular Aaron Rodgers-led team in Green Bay.
Diggs has taken a lot of first-team reps during spring workouts, and while part of that has to do with injuries to Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson, he is making enough of an impression that he should be in the competition to start throughout training camp. With Bentley and Lawson still returning, it has been Diggs and veteran Josh Wilson as the main slot cornerbacks for now. Expect Diggs to be in the starting conversation for a while into August as well. While Wilson might end up passing him this season, he could end up as the nickel of the future for Detroit. Diggs’ size is his biggest limitation right now, but coaches like his toughness, his knack of being around the ball, and his willingness to hit. He also has pretty good hands and strong instincts.