While the Detroit Lions as a whole haven’t done much to make fans optimistic two weeks into NFL preseason, there still have been a few individual players that have stuck out. One of the biggest standouts so far has been undrafted rookie wide receiver Brandon Powell out of the University of Florida.
The receiver doesn’t have the look of your typical NFL wideout. He measures in at only 5-foot-8 and is just under 200 pounds. The former Gator isn’t the physically imposing specimen that you usually see on an NFL field, which makes his surprise contributions these past few weeks stand out even more.
Powell made most of his impact lined up as a slot receiver. The rookie is incredibly shifty and is great at finding and creating space. Detroit loved running him over the middle on quick slant routes where he could quickly chew through any cushion opposing cornerbacks give him pre-snap and get underneath zone coverage over the middle.
He is also a great route runner at the intermediate level. His footwork and quick twitch make him a nuisance for his opposition. The receiver can shake off defenders in man coverage and doesn’t need much room to operate. When facing zone coverage, he can find space between zones to create a throw for his quarterback.
While he is a great route runner out of the slot and has shown some of the ability necessary to succeed at the NFL level, contributing in the regular season may be an issue. Teams are not game planning for their preseason opponents and especially not for UDFA receivers who won’t come on to the field until the second half.
A receiver as small as Powell will not realistically be able to line up in the slot on a regular basis during the regular season. Teams would line up against him in press coverage on every snap and bully him at the line of scrimmage. None of his fancy footwork will matter if he’s getting thrown to the ground on every snap.
Moving to running back is an option for him, though. The Chicago Bears Tarik Cohen is a natural running back who takes many snaps out of the slot or split wide to create mismatches against opposing defenses. Cohen usually will start a play lined up in the backfield and motion out wide to get a favorable matchup against a linebacker outside in man coverage, or force a defense to show its hand in zone coverage and possibly create a favorable matchup inside.
While Powell can fill a Cohen-esque role in Detroit, the Lions already have other players that can do those things while also adding more to the team. Running back Theo Riddick is arguably the best route-running back in the NFL and has already shown his ability out of the slot this preseason. Cornerback Jamal Agnew took a few snaps as a gadget offensive weapon last season, is a better returner than Powell and provides the obvious defensive utility that Powell does not.
There is potential for the undrafted free agent to find a role as a gadget offensive player if he switches positions to running back but it would be hard to justify keeping him on the 53-man roster with Riddick and Agnew already around. Powell will be eligible for the practice squad this season, but it is unlikely that the Lions stand out star will contribute at all in his rookie year.