Earlier on Friday, Mike Payton identified five players to watch in the Detroit Lions’ preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills. It’s a good list that focuses on a few players who will likely have a big impact on the 2021 Lions season. But for the most part, the players in that list are unlikely to play more than one quarter.
The majority of the preseason is saved for the depth players. These are guys who could very well impact Detroit’s season, but they’ll have to get through training camp first. The preseason is their opportunity to show that they aren’t just camp warriors or practice phenoms. They need to show they can do it when the bright lights are on.
Given Detroit’s thin depth all over the roster, these players could end up being drastically important. So once the game turns over into the second, third and fourth quarters, here are seven players you should keep a close eye on.
G Logan Stenberg (#71)
The Lions interior offensive line depth has been, in a word, concerning. With all the injuries going on, the Lions have mostly used their reserve tackles as guard depth in camp.
If there’s one person who needs to make a positive impression among the Lions’ guard depth, it’s 2020 fourth-round pick Logan Stenberg. The learning curve for Stenberg is high due to Kentucky’s one-dimensional offense in college, but Stenberg’s fiery mentality should be a good fit under the new regime.
Unfortunately, Stenberg has only stood out for bad reasons in training camp. But this will be his first real opportunity to prove it in a game situation, seeing as last year’s preseason was cancelled.
CB Mike Ford (#2)
Calling Ford depth may be cheating because he’s been the starting nickel corner all training camp. But with the addition of Nickell Robey-Coleman and the release of Quinton Dunbar, it appears Ford is going to get more time on the outside going forward. That could make him both the primary backup at outside corner and nickel. Don’t be surprised to see him get a lot of playing time on Friday night, as he has suddenly become one of Detroit’s most important depth players on defense.
CB Jerry Jacobs (#39)
The Lions need to find some depth on the outside. Moving Ford helps, but they need more than that. Jacobs, an undrafted rookie out of Arkansas, has made some plays in training camp and even gotten the attention of head coach Dan Campbell.
“Jerry Jacobs has open our eyes a little bit,” Campbell said earlier this week.
Because it looks like Ifeatu Melifonwu is headed for a situational role in dime and nickel packages early, Detroit will need to find some young outside depth elsewhere and Jacobs may be the most likely source.
LB Derrick Barnes (#55)
Obviously any draft pick is going to draw some attention in their first preseason game, but that’s especially true of Barnes considering he’s barely participated in training camp. Barnes told the media this week that he is playing on Friday, which means it’s really everyone’s first opportunity to see the speedy rookie play.
Detroit is likely taking a long-term approach with Barnes. It would be surprising to see him much on the field at all in 2021, but the future of linebacker is up in the air and Barnes figures to be a part of it. His development starts on Friday.
DL Jashon Cornell (#96)
Nick Williams — Reserve/COVID-19 list
Michael Brockers — Using the “veteran day” to its fullest extent
Levi Onwuzurike — Injured
John Penisini — Injured
Da’Shawn Hand — Injured
That’s the state of the Lions’ interior defenders right now. As a result, Jashon Cornell has been getting work with the first-team defense for the past week in camp. The second-year player missed all of his rookie season with an injury. So, like Stenberg, this is truly his first opportunity to make a gameday impression.
Because he’s already suspended for the first three games of the 2021 season, Cornell needs to use this time to make an impression. Expect him to see the field early and often.
EDGE Austin Bryant (#94)
Bryant is firmly on the roster bubble after injuries derailed his first two seasons in the NFL. But this year, he was able to spend the entire offseason training instead of rehabbing, and we’ve already seen some positive signs in training camp.
“I got a chance to holistically get better, from the weight room to the field, without having to worry about a rehab process or anything like that,” Bryant said this week. “So that’s been awesome for me. Been able to dedicate a lot of time to perfecting my craft and being the player that I want to be. So now that I finally get to showcase it and show people what I already know about myself, that’s been the most fulfilling thing this camp.”
The Lions likely have an open roster spot for one or two edge defenders beyond the Okwara brothers and Trey Flowers. A solid preseason could lock Bryant into that spot and even give him some rotational play during the regular season.
WR Sage Surratt (#15)
Surratt enters the first preseason game as a pretty big longshot to make the roster. Not only are there minimal spots up for grabs for an undrafted rookie, but Surratt just has not made much of an impression during training camp.
But Friday will be a huge opportunity for him. The Lions are shorthanded at wide receiver with Damion Ratley, Chad Hansen, Breshad Perriman and Quintez Cephus all nursing injuries. If Surratt can prove he’s the kind of player that shows up under the spotlight, maybe he can make a late play for a roster spot or at least a place on the practice squad.
TE Charlie Taumoepeau (#43)
Earlier this week, Campbell called Taumoepeau the “farthest away” in the Lions’ tight end race, but he also seemed very intrigued by the second-year player out of Portland State.
“He’s young, but man, he’s a pretty good athlete,” Campbell said. “He’s a pretty good athlete. He’s crafty and he’s tough. I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t quite know about that. Is this kid going to be tough enough to do some of those things that we’re going to ask our tight ends to do? And when he’s been out there, it’s been encouraging. He’ll mix it up.”
The Lions are looking for a guy who can fill in both tight end spots, and Taumoepeau has shown promising signs as a blocker and route runner. His biggest issue? Lack of reps and polish. Well, no better time to earn that shine than in the preseason.