Predicting the 53-man roster in July is often a tough task, but this 2021 edition could prove to be more difficult than usual.
Many factors are at play this year. The Detroit Lions have an overhauled coaching staff and front office, with a new general manager, head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator. This leads to uncertainty about the roster makeup. How similar will Dan Campbell, Anthony Lynn, and Aaron Glenn’s team look to the the Saints and Chargers of last season? Will Brad Holmes build a team much like the Rams? Training camp is as much practice for the players as it is for the coaches, and it seems like this staff has some good chemistry.
The offseason departures also play a role in predicting the roster. The Lions have a lot of new names, so not only is the depth a question mark, but so, too, are the starters. Special teams is an underrated aspect of constructing a roster, and with the Lions losing special team contributors like Jamal Agnew, Miles Killebrew, and Tony McRae, expect some surprises.
Seeing how Jared Goff performs in Detroit will surely be of interest, but the decision to keep two or three quarterbacks is the battle to watch. Tim Boyle received a $2.5 million deal this offseason, and that figure should indicate how high the team is on him. David Blough has shown himself to be a serviceable backup quarterback, but whether or not that justifies a roster spot is unknown. Right now, I have him on the outside. However, not only could Blough make a push for a spot on the roster, but he could even challenge Boyle for the backup role too.
Running backs (4)
Jermar Jefferson (R)
Dedrick Mills (UDFA) Michael Warren II
Jason Cabinda (FB)
The departure of Kerryon Johnson seemingly locks Jermar Jefferson into the roster despite his status as a seventh-round pick. His competition of Mills and Warren aren’t out of the running by any means, but their path to the roster is likely as the RB4 if the Lions choose to keep one. Jason Cabinda has no competition at fullback following the release of Nick Bawden, though the team could opt to keep an h-back tight end instead of a fullback.
Wide receivers (6)
Amon-Ra St. Brown (R)
Geronimo Allison Chad Hansen Tom Kennedy Javon McKinley (UDFA) Damion Ratley Sage Surratt (UDFA)
A lot of new names, and many of them are unimpressive. Williams and Perriman are the top options going forward, and the rookie St. Brown is a roster lock and likely starter in the slot. In a normal year, I think Cephus would be on the bubble, but he simply doesn’t have a lot of competition. Fans like to see UDFAs make the initial roster, but McKinley and Surratt haven’t impressed enough to edge out Cephus.
Raymond and Bolden are speedy, smaller players with return abilities. While it seems redundant to keep both of them, the Lions are also lacking speedsters. Ratley is another option with the added benefit of size, but Bolden and Raymond have impressed as receivers and returners, and I think keeping both is not out of the question. I think Chad Hansen could be a dark horse to make the team, but I’m not confident enough to add him yet.
Tight ends (3)
Jake Hausmann (UDFA) Charlie Taumoepeau Hunter Thedford Brock Wright (UDFA)
The top two is set in stone, but everything beyond that is up in the air. Hockenson is obviously the starter, while Darren Fells takes the role vacated by Josh Hill following his retirement. For the TE3 spot, Mack likely has the edge based on his performance in OTAs and minicamp, though things could easily change once the pads come on. As mentioned in the fullback section, an h-back could be an option for the Lions too, which could add an extra level to the tight end decision. This could even mean keeping a fourth tight end too. I have only Mack as in right now, but we could see some shuffling.
Offensive Tackles (4)
Penei Sewell (R)
Darrin Paulo Dan Skipper
Offensive tackle is perhaps the most locked-in position on the team. Decker and Sewell are obvious starters at left and right tackle, respectively. Tyrell Crosby, barring a trade, is the top backup as the swing tackle. Matt Nelson is the fourth stringer with developmental potential, and he performed decently last season when he stepped in due to injuries—not bad for a former defensive lineman.
Paulo has some potential to earn a practice squad spot, while Skipper is a journeyman tackle that might have reached his final stop in Detroit.
Drake Jackson (UDFA)
Evan Brown Evan Heim (UDFA) Tommy Kraemer (UDFA)
Much like at tackle, the interior of the offensive line is fairly set, but there are a few depth pieces to consider. Jackson, Ragnow, and Vaitai are the likely starters, although Stenberg could push Vaitai if he performs well enough. After barely playing as a rookie, Stenberg could be on the bubble, but the lack of established depth behind him likely means he makes the roster.
Another spot could be used on a backup center, and I have Jackson beating out Evan Brown for that spot. Jackson is a center-only prospect, which limits his value, but he was pretty well regarded as a prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the Lions could get some good value with the UDFA. Brown was with the Lions in 2020 and got some late-season looks. One of the few returning coaches for Detroit is offensive line coach Hank Fraley, so there is a chance he gets the nod over Jackson. The Lions could even keep both Jackson and Brown, especially if Crosby gets traded—Vaitai is a former tackle, so he could swing outside if injuries arise. As for the other UDFAs, Heim and Kraemer have a good chance to make the practice squad.
Defensive line (6)
Levi Onwuzurike (R)
Alim McNeill (R)
Jashon Cornell (suspended) Brian Price Kevin Strong
With a new defensive coordinator, it was no surprise to see the Lions revamp their defensive line. Michael Brockers was acquired for almost nothing, while the Lions spent two of their first three picks on defensive tackles. Brockers, Onwuzurike, and McNeill figure to start, depending on the rotation. Interestingly, the three players acquired by the Lions mirror the other three players on this list. McNeill is a nose tackle like Penisini, Onwuzurike and Hand are three-techniques, while Brockers and Williams have some versatility to play three-, four-, or five-technique. Of these names, I think Hand is the least secure, and Kevin Strong is a solid challenger for his spot.
Austin Bryant Robert McCray
The edge defenders for the Lions will likely be operating like rush linebackers in 2021, so I’ll keep them separate from the off-ball linebackers. Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara are the well-paid starters for Detroit. Julian Okwara did not play much as a rookie, but he figures to be the top backup with plenty of potential. The fourth edge rusher is a battle between Harris and Bryant, but I give Harris the edge due to the $1.75 million deal he received and Bryant struggling to overcome injuries. Bryant was just recently placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and while the length of that stay is unknown, it’s another disappointing step for a guy that can’t seem to stay healthy.
Derrick Barnes (R)
Shaun Dion Hamilton
Tavante Beckett (UDFA) Reggie Gilbert Anthony Pittman Jahlani Tavai
Collins and Anzalone are well entrenched as the starters at linebacker—this scheme is expected to only use two starters—but the depth is questionable. Barnes is a rookie, but 2021 is likely going to be a developmental year for him. Special teams ace Jalen Reeves-Maybin surprised a few, myself included, by re-signing with the Lions. While he is a better fit in Glenn’s defense than Matt Patricia’s, don’t expect him to start very often.
My final linebacker spot goes to Shaun Dion Hamilton. Jahlani Tavai made a lot of progress this offseason dropping weight, but I don’t think it will be enough to secure himself a roster spot. Hamilton is a quicker, coverage-based linebacker that I think the Lions will value more. Elsewhere, Beckett is a strong candidate to make the practice squad.
Ifeatu Melifonwu (R)
Alex Brown Jerry Jacobs (UDFA) A.J. Parker (UDFA)
I feel like the cornerbacks are set, but the starters are not. You could make an argument for nearly every player to start or sit. Okudah struggled as a rookie, but he is still a prized prospect. Oruwariye has had ups and downs, but his experience is probably worth starting. Dunbar is the veteran of the unit, but his upside could be questionable. Melifonwu is a project, but his traits could push him into a starting role quickly if he progresses. Meanwhile, Ford and Elder will battle for the starting role as the slot corner. At least one of Brown, Jacobs, and Parker will likely make the practice squad, but none of them seem like threats for the 53.
D’Angelo Amos (UDFA) Jalen Elliott Alijah Holder Godwin Igwebuike
The safety position is perhaps the worst group on the Lions for both starters and depth. A combination of Walker, Harris, and Marlowe will start a majority of snaps on defense, but nobody from that trio is impressive. Walker has perhaps the highest ceiling, and we can only hope he finds the success from his early seasons in a new defense. Harris has been an extreme disappointment since being drafted, while Marlowe has limited starting experience. The remaining spots are filled by special teamers Moore and Price, both benefitting from the demand for special teams players, especially if Mike Ford sees more action on defense. Amos is in contention for a kick return spot as well, although he is likely behind Raymond and Bolden. With how poor this group is, don’t be surprised if someone balls out during training camp to earn not only a roster spot, but a starting role.
Special Teams (3)
K Randy Bullock
K Matthew Wright
P Jack Fox
LS Don Muhlbach
LS Scott Daly
The Lions struck gold with Jack Fox last season, as he went on to earn a Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod. The Lions have also stuck with old by keeping the ageless Don Muhlbach at longsnapper. Anything could happen, but Scott Daly usurping Muhlbach’s spot seems unlikely. I expect that role belongs to Muhlbach until he hangs up the cleats.
The biggest change on special teams happened with the departure of Matt Prater. His shoes will be filled by one of Randy Bullock, the veteran previously with the Bengals, or Matthew Wright, the former UDFA that made four kicks for the Steelers last year. Bullock is the frontrunner for the position, although his 2020 campaign boasted a lackluster 80.8 percent on field goals. Wright is technically perfect as a pro, but his leg leaves much to be desired, having never kicked a field goal beyond 50 yards in college or the NFL. The Lions had incredible success with Fox as a former UDFA, but Wright has a tough road ahead of him to make the team. Still, all it takes is a few kicks to change the position battle.