“It’s an extremely important game,” Jim Caldwell said of the fourth preseason game on Tuesday. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Beat writers are notoriously sick of the preseason by the end of the first quarter. Fans don’t get much of a look at the team they’ll likely see during the regular season. And, typically, with backups and backups of backups in the game, the result is a pretty sloppy game with little excitement.
But on the sidelines and in the huddles, drama is unfolding. People are fighting for employment, and their future literally hangs in the balance of every individual play. “In some cases this might be the final interview for some, so they want to put on a great showing,” Caldwell said.
So who needs this final interview more than others? Which players’ performance has the biggest impact on their football futures? Here’s a look at the five players with the most to prove Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills.
Going into the 2016 offseason, it seemed unlikely Carter’s roster spot would be up for grabs, but after the Lions added Johnson Bademosi and Darren Walls in free agency, the second-year corner suddenly has a lot to prove in a little amount of time.
Carter entered the offseason fully healthy for the first time, and was hoping to prove why Detroit drafted him in the third round last year. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. Carter struggled throughout training camp and failed to prove much of anything during the preseason. It would still be a little premature for the Lions to cut ties with the 21-year-old, but with the depth chart the way it is, they may not have a choice.
Coming off an 0-6 performance in limited time during the Lions’ third preseason game, Rudock has some work to do to justify a spot on the 53-man roster. Though it is still highly unlikely Rudock wins the backup job, if he wants to be on the active roster and avoid the practice squad, he still has some work to do.
Rudock will likely have a good chance to show off his skills against the Bills. With Matthew Stafford unlikely to get more than a series, if that, Rudock will get a good chunk of playing time. “He’s going to get more than he’s gotten,” Caldwell said. “I think he can benefit from it. That’s for sure.”
Caldwell has been extremely complimentary of Rudock lately, explaining that he has shown improvement in nearly every aspect of his game. “You name it, he’s gotten better [at it],” Caldwell said. Now, he’ll need to show it in a game.
While Rudock would almost certainly return to the team on the practice squad if the Lions chose not to keep him on the active roster, it would still be a significant accomplishment to make the final 53-man roster, and it would point to the Lions’ faith in Rudock being the backup of the future.
Like Alex Carter, Wright is desperately clinging to a roster spot, despite being a significant draft pick in last year’s draft. Unlike Carter, Wright has to deal with a depth chart full of talented players.
After a rookie year spent mostly on the inactive game day list, Wright was expected to break out this year and show his worth as a former fourth-round pick. However, all throughout the offseason, he’s been outplayed by the likes of Khyri Thornton and Caraun Reid. Up until this game, Wright has played mostly in the second half, and sometimes not until the very end of the game.
But Thursday night, the Lions are expected to take a long, hard look at Wright. At the very least, he’ll have to outplay Stefan Charles, who was once presumed to be a roster lock. But since Bob Quinn has already cut ties with a few of his bigger free agency signings, nothing is guaranteed for Charles.
The Detroit Lions’ tight end situation is a mess with no clear solution. With Eric Ebron, Tim Wright and Brandon Pettigrew all missing the entirety of the preseason, the Lions have desperately been looking for a tight end to fill in. Detroit already cut ties with Matthew Mulligan, while the team probably doesn’t want to rely on undrafted free agents Cole Wick or Adam Fuehne to start if Ebron isn’t fully healed by Week 1.
That leaves Quarless, who was picked up less than a month ago and is facing a two game suspension, in competition with former Bengals fourth-round pick Orson Charles. Detroit has taken a pretty good look at Charles this preseason — he’s received the second-most snaps of any tight ends behind Wick, but Quarless has only had the opportunity to play in one preseason games, and saw just two offensive snaps.
It’s hard to tell what the Lions’ plan is at tight end, especially considering Quarless’ looming two-game suspension. But one thing is for certain, Quarless still needs to prove he was worth the PR nightmare he caused Bob Quinn and Thursday night is his biggest opportunity to do so.
Zettel has been fairly quiet since drafted by the Lions in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Once hyped as a guy who can roundhouse kick any beverage thrown at him or tackle any tree in his way, the excitement quickly faded away as Zettel was buried on the Lions’ depth chart at defensive end.
But the tide is starting to turn back in Zettel’s favor. Last week, Zettel tallied a forced fumble to go along with his four solo tackles in just 24 snaps on defense. “He’s one of those guys that just keeps improving every single day, he gets better,” Caldwell said of Zettel this week.
If Zettel can pull off another impressive performance Thursday night, he’ll give Lions coaches a tough decision this weekend. The Lions are loaded with talent at defensive tackle, which may cause the team to cut an extra defensive end, even though the Lions have very little depth on the edges. Zettel will have to prove to the Lions that they have a future rotational player on their hands if he wants to avoid being among the cuts on Saturday.