Though offensive camp battles tend to get more attention because that side of the ball is sexier, the Detroit Lions are going through some interesting personnel decisions on defense. Whether it be the intense competition at defensive tackle or the scrambling for players at linebacker, a lot is still left to be decided on the defensive portion of the roster. Here’s where things stand right now.
Camp battle: Anthony Zettel vs. a roster spot
The Lions essentially have their top four defensive ends in Ezekiel Ansah, Devin Taylor, Wallace Gilberry and Brandon Copeland, so the decision remaining is what to do with rookie sixth-round pick Anthony Zettel. The Lions could probably afford to keep a fifth defensive end, but given all of the talent at defensive tackle, they may want to free up a spot on the defensive line.
Zettel had a solid debut in the preseason, notching his first career sack, but he’s been somewhat quiet throughout camp, which is to be expected for a late-round pick. Zettel would likely slip through waivers and onto the practice squad if the Lions thought they had someone they needed on the roster in the future.
Leader right now: Zettel to the practice squad. I just think the Lions are going to want that extra defensive tackle, and Zettel is expendable.
Camp battle: Who wins the fifth — and sixth (?) — roster spots? Khyri Thornton vs. Gabe Wright vs. Stefan Charles
We’re going to go ahead and presume Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, Caraun Reid and A’Shawn Robinson are safe. The only player that isn’t arguably a lock is Reid, but I would be shocked to see him go.
That leaves three legitimate contenders for either one or two roster spots. Out of those three players, only two are Bob Quinn guys: Stefan Charles and Khyri Thornton.
Charles was the only player actually signed by Quinn to the Lions, but he hasn’t been all that impressive in camp yet and he failed to make any visible impact in the first preseason game — aside from one QB pressure on a stunt.
Thornton isn’t technically a Quinn signing in Detroit, but he was added to the Patroits practice squad while Quinn was the director of pro scouting there. Thornton has been a beast in training camp and has shown a lot of discipline, losing 30 pounds between OTAs and training camp.
Wright is the enigma of the group. He is entering his second season after being selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Wright had a disappointing rookie year and hasn’t made a name for himself in camp, but his physical traits are undeniable. Though some consider him a bit undersized, he has shown signs of burst off the snap... on occasion. A little more consistency would go a long way for Wright.
Leader right now: I have Thornton ahead of the other two with Wright and Charles in a dead heat. I’m giving the nod to Wright simply because of age.
Camp battle: Who will take the fifth linebacker spot? Antwione Williams vs. Khaseem Greene vs. Jon Bostic
Yes, I am making a big assumption here that Kyle Van Noy makes the team. Van Noy has been the starting strongside linebacker all camp, and at this point you have to assume he’s going to stay there. Outside of him, Josh Bynes and Detroit’s two other starters — DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead — there is a lot of uncertainty.
Jon Bostic was the clear leader of this group, but suffered a major injury that could put him out up to three months. As of Wednesday, though, the Lions had not placed him on the injured reserve list. Considering the drastic need for depth at linebacker, it would be a risky move to carry an injured player on the active 53-man roster for a month or two into the season.
Antwione Williams stepped up this week in the absence of several players. Williams even got some time with the ones as the weakside linebacker when Levy and Bynes sat out of team drills. That sort of versatility could go a long way for a fifth-round draft pick.
But his other competition, Khaseem Greene, has been equally impressive. Greene led the defense with five tackles in the preseason opener and added a sack, to boot. Greene recently missed a practice but returned after just one day of rest.
Leader right now: Williams. I just don’t see the Lions having the patience to carry Bostic on the roster while he heals from surgery. The next man up is Williams, who is coincidentally getting more reps with Bostic sidelined.
Camp Battle: Which two cornerbacks will make it? Alex Carter vs. Johnson Bademosi vs. Crezdon Butler vs. Adairius Barnes
Already in: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs, Darrin Walls
Darrin Walls appears to have already won a roster spot given both his play and the trust Lions coaches have shown in him by having him take reps with the first team when one of the starters sits out.
Of all the candidates, none have run more hot-and-cold than Alex Carter, and that’s probably being generous. Carter, who lost all of his rookie year to injury last season, just can’t seem to get his feet off the ground yet. By most measures he’s having a very turbulent training camp, and he’ll have to really show a big improvement over the next two weeks to justify a roster spot.
Johnson Bademosi is probably the safest of the group due to his reputation as a special teams beast. The Lions signed him to a huge deal for a special teams guy, so despite the fact that Bademosi hasn’t shown much as a cornerback, he will probably make the team.
That leaves Crezdon Butler and Adairius Barnes. Both players provide very different things. Butler brings a ton of experience, including one season with the Lions in which he appeared in eight games. Barnes, on the other hand, is an undrafted rookie who looked pretty good on special teams in the two joint practices with the Steelers.
Leader right now: Bademosi and Butler. Carter is just way too inconsistent right now, and while Bademosi and Butler haven’t proven much as corners, they can at least contribute on special teams while the starters take care of business. Barnes just isn’t there yet.
Camp battle: Who gets the fifth safety spot? Don Carey vs. Isaiah Johnson vs. neither
The Lions are pretty set with their top four safeties: Glover Quin, Rafael Bush, Miles Killebrew and Tavon Wilson. The question is whether the Lions believe carrying a fifth safety is worth it.
Don Carey recently returned to practice after starting camp on the Non-Football Injury list. Since then, he’s looked like his normal self, making occasional plays as a safety but showing his real worth as a special teamer.
Isaiah Johnson is probably a longshot at this point, especially after laying a huge hit on teammate Zaviar Gooden in the first preseason game.
But there is something to be said about keeping neither player. Carey’s special teams role could be taken over by Wilson, who also excels at special teams.
Leader right now: Carey. Since coming off the NFI list, Carey has been on a mission to justify a roster spot and had been a beast during practice. I find it hard to believe the Lions will quickly part ways with their special teams MVP from 2015.
Camp battle: #LongSnapperWatch2016 - Don Muhlbach vs. Jimmy Landes
If there is a leader in this battle between veteran and rookie, the Lions aren’t tipping their hand. If you want, you can read into the fact that Don Muhlbach was the special teams captain for the preseason opener. But the two received nearly the exact same amount of snaps against Pittsburgh and neither of them made a mistake.
Leader right now: ???