We are now halfway through the preseason schedule for the Lions, and enough has happened to form opinions about who might hold the upper hand in battles for roster spots. One of the most interesting positions to watch is wide receiver. The Lions will keep at least five receivers and possibly six depending on how players perform through the remainder of camp. So let's take a look at where the battles stand after the game against the Cleveland Browns.
The Sure Things
Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, and Titus Young are going to make the roster. It is set in stone. Barring injuries, these three will get the vast majority of snaps in the offense during the upcoming regular season. We know Calvin Johnson is arguably one of the top five receivers in the NFL, if not top three. Nate Burleson is effective, and makes some tough catches. It also appears that Nate is seriously fired up about the upcoming season and he is playing like a man with a mission. We haven't see much of Titus Young yet, due to injury, but there is no way that the Lions cut a second round draft pick without giving him a couple years to see what he has.
The Bubble Busters
The Lions selected Williams in the third round (82nd overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft. Because a draft pick was spent for him, the Lions have given Williams every opportunity to develop and become a contributor. So far, it has not worked out.
Williams was initially drafted to return kickoffs and punts. When he was used in that role, he was tentative and ineffective. Williams made poor decisions and regularly fumbled kicks and punts. He was eventually relegated to the bench and Stefan Logan replaced him as the return man. With the arrival of other players that can return kickoffs and punts, such as Stefan Logan, Rashied Davis and Nate Burleson, the opportunity for Williams to become the return man has closed.
After failing to impress in the return game, the Lions wanted Derrick Williams to become a speed receiver that could stretch the field. He has the physical skills to play that role quite well, except for the ability to catch the ball. Since a large part of Williams failure in the return game was fumbling the ball, this appears to be an innate problem. He does appear not have good hands, which is a fatal flaw for a receiver in the NFL.
It is likely that Derrick Williams has fumbled and dropped his way off the roster in 2011. Unless he can make a dramatic turnaround, he is likely to be a casualty in the final round of roster cuts. Derrick needs to catch everything that comes his way, except the flu, in the remaining preseason. He has used up his grace period from being a draft pick and he is squarely on the bubble to be cut.
Maurice Stovall is a big body receiver at 6'5" and 220 lbs. He had been acceptable, but not special, up till the preseason game with the Cleveland Browns. During that game Stovall made a strong case for a roster spott. He caught pretty much everything that came to him and combined with Drew Stanton to be the spark plug of the Lions offense.
What is so inttriguing about Stovall is the ability to pair him with Calvin Johnson when the Lions are close to the goal line. They would represent a physical mismatch for both cornerbacks. If the opponent chooses to double both CJ and Stovall, the Lions will have Nate Burleson, or a tight end, on a linebacker in the center of the end zone. If the opponent uses a nickel package to counter that, the Lions will have an easier time running the ball into the end zone. Both Megatron and Stovall being big receivers, could make some important blocks to get a running back into the end zone. In theory this could be an extremely effective goal line package if the interior of the offensive line does the job by keeping people out of the backfield.
If Maurice Stovall continues to make impressive plays in the remainder of the preseason, he will be very difficult to cut. He is definitely one of the players to watch. Look to see if Stovall can make some blocks as well as catches.
When the Lions signed Rashied Davis they got a player with a ton of versatility. He can play as a regular receiver and performed well for the Chicago Bears in that role. Davis is a special teams dream that can return kickoffs, return punts, and can also play on coverage teams. In fact, Rashied Davis is likely to be one of your top tacklers on special teams and will make some big plays for you there. In a pinch, Davis can even play cornerback if injuries force it.
The Lions coaches love versatility and Rashied Davis is the poster boy for versatility. He has been a passable wide receiver for the Lions in preseason, but his special teams play has been outstanding. Rashied Davis has positioned himself as one of the favorites, out of the bubble players, to make the roster.
I am not really sure we should classify Stefan Logan as a wide receiver since he is rarely used in that role. The value that Logan brings to the Lions is mainly in the kick and punt return role with an occasional carry as a running back in the offense.
Whether the Lions list Logan as a running back or a wide receiver, it is a distinction with little difference. If Logan stays on the roster, and that is likely, then he will be there primarily as a return man. He was the only player in the NFL last season to finish in the top five in both kick and punt returns.
There has been some concern that the rule changes for kickoffs would lessen the value of Stefan Logan, but after two preseason games I feel that the opposite has become true. Logan has been able to return the ball consistently enough to make his returns a factor in field position. It appears that the kickoff changes could actually make the truly special kick returners an even more valuable commodity in 2011. If you are one of the teams that has a guy that can get the ball out past the 20 yard line despite the new rules, then you will have an advantage in the field position battle.
The question on Logan comes when you consider that Rashied Davis could also fill the return role. This decision will also come down to the performance of bubble players at other positions. For example, if it comes down to cutting Logan or Ashlee Palmer, the Lions will have a difficult decision. The linebackers get a lot more play and therefore they are a lot more prone to injury. If Jim Schwartz feels that Rashied Davis is an acceptable option in the return game then Logan could find himself in a numbers game, and then on the outside looking in. Though I feel the Lions will make every reasonable effort to keep Logan .
When the Lions fans got a look at Demario Ballard an immediate love affair arose for some. Ballard is intriguing for all the same reasons that Maurice Stovall is, except that Ballard appears to have more speed. The problem with Ballard is that he played at a very small college where the competition was inferior and the offenses were not very complex. Ballard was a standout player at college based almost entirely on his size.
While every Lions fan would love to find another Calvin Johnson lurking in the flotsam of Division II football, that is just way too much to expect from Ballard. He is not quite as fast as Calvin and he is not nearly as strong. Ballard is a tall and lean guy with a bit of speed that needs a lot of development, both physically, and in learning how the pro level of football is played. Demario Ballard is a long shot to make the final roster, but he could end up on the practice squad. He may survive the cut down to 80 players, but get cut later when the Lions can hide him in the vast wave of final roster cuts.
All the Best, For All the Rest
The receivers that are likely to be cut soon are Dominique Barnes, Marcus Harris, Nate Hughes, and Tim Toone. Some of these guys will not survive the cut down to 80 players. One or two might make it until final cuts. But when the final cuts come, it is likely that all of them will be gone. I wish the best for them in their lives after the Lions.
Tim Toone has one more year of eligibility for the Lions practice squad and he might get a position there based on his experience in working as part of the Lions scout offense in practices. It might come down to a choice between keeping Ballard or Toone on the practice squad, if there are not enough spots for all the guys the Lions would like to keep.
So What Does All That Mean?
Based on our discussions, I predict that the Lions will keep Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Maurice Stovall, Rashied Davis, and Stefan Logan on the final roster. If the Lions opt to keep only five receivers then Stovall or Logan could be out, but I feel the Lions will find room for all of them. Obviously things could change because of future performances in preseason, but that is what I see at this point.