Football is back!
It has been a long offseason with a lot of change, but we finally got to see this new-look Detroit Lions team suit up for an official game. The preseason is rarely edge-of-your-seat entertainment, but it is a critical time for sorting out the roster. With so many new names on the team, it also gives fans an opportunity to look at the players that may play a key role in the season ahead.
Who shined in the Lions’ first game, and who had a rough debut?
Stock Up: Craig Reynolds, RB
Who? The player signed just this Thursday had an incredible performance in his limited action. He led the team in rushing with 49 yards on six carries, but two of them were spectacular. Near midfield, he turned what looked like a nothing play into a 10-yard gain thanks to some excellent balance and a few broken tackles. He capped off the drive with a 24-yard touchdown run. Reynolds spoke about the tumultuous events that led to his remarkable performance during a post-game interview, a position he likely never expected to be in 24 hours ago—it’s not often that you’re introducing yourself to your teammates in the huddle. Not only has Reynolds thrust himself into the RB4 conversation, but he might even have a shot at dethroning Jermar Jefferson for the RB3 spot. It is a great story, and we can only hope he continues his play.
Stock Down: Victor Bolden, WR/Ret
Few players needed to make an impact like Bolden, and unfortunately, Friday’s outing was one to forget. Bolden failed to secure his two targets, one of which was a drop on a makeable catch. Special teams weren’t positive either. He averaged just 1.8 yards on his four punt returns. On one of them, he stepped out of bounds early despite having a bit of room. He muffed another one of his, too. With Kalif Raymond the frontrunner for the return spot, this hurts Bolden’s chances. If he wants to make it as a receiver, this was a bad game too because...
Stock Up: Tom Kennedy, WR
I still think Kennedy is a long-shot for the roster, but he was quite impressive from the slot. He led the team with 46 receiving yards on four catches and made some space on multiple occasions. This reminds me of when Brandon Powell made the 53-man roster thanks to some solid preseason performances from the slot. Amon-Ra St. Brown looks to be the starter, but Kennedy could compete for a backup spot, especially with Bolden’s struggles.
Stock Down: Backup offensive line
Aside from Logan Stenberg, the backup offensive linemen struggled mightily on Friday, giving Tim Boyle and David Blough little time to work with. Matt Nelson was getting some looks at guard, so there could be some unfamiliarity, but the likes of Dan Skipper and Darren Paulo got pushed around often. Add in an injury to Evan Boehm, and the offensive line depth is muddied.
Stock Up: Kevin Strong, DT
Of all the Detroit Lions players, Strong gets the biggest stock up. While he benefited from a defensive line missing many of its starters, Strong certainly made up for it by wreaking havoc. He totaled a tackle for loss and a forced fumble, while exerting pressure all night. The Lions have some good depth along the defensive line, but Strong is making a strong push for a roster spot. He plays a similar role to Levi Onwuzurike and Da’Shawn Hand, so it will be worth watching if the team values him enough.
Stock Up: Julian Okwara, LB
The younger Okwara was on the field seemingly the entire game. Normally, this is a bad sign, especially for a former third-round pick. However, it could be that the coaching staff wanted to give him extra snaps after a very limited rookie season. As a pass rusher, Okwara looked like the prospect he was billed to be, often in the face of Bills quarterbacks. He beat a reserve left tackle with speed for a great sack. While this is coming against backup linemen, it is a very encouraging sign. Okwara might become the pass rushing specialist to spell Trey Flowers and brother Romeo. However...
Stock Down: Julian Okwara, LB
It was an overall mixed bag for Okwara. While his pass rushing presence was phenomenal, he was brutal in run defense. The Bills pounded the ball throughout the first half, and when Okwara was on the field, the Bills were having great success running at him. The reason why Okwara gets a stock up and a stock down is that Friday was an excellent showcase for him as a pass rushing specialist, but a bad showing for him as a fulltime edge defender.
Derrick Barnes, LB: He showed off the sideline-to-sideline speed that made him a coveted prospect. He also notched a pressure on a blitz. The Lions won’t run three off-ball linebackers often, but Barnes is making a case for him to be that guy.
Randy Bullock, K: Kicking was a problem for the Lions during their scrimmage, but this was a perfect outing for Bullock. He attempted all the kicks, knocking home three kicks. They weren’t long—the longest was 28 yards—but it is something positive at least. Newly-signed Zane Gonzalez did not attempt a kick.
Tyrell Williams, WR: He had a nice sideline catch and finished the day with two catches for 30 yards. Modest, but productive.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB/ST: He continues to be the stout special teamer the Lions need. He didn’t make much of an impact on defense, but that isn’t his calling.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR: He officially had just two catches for 12 yards—a third 13-yarder was called back due to penalty—but his route running is a major plus. He could be a big factor for the offense.
Dedrick Mills, RB: Mills had some tough runs, especially a fourth-and-1 that turned into a huge gain. Unfortunately for Mills, he got upstaged by Reynolds.
Javon McKinley, WR: He had a beautiful 35-yard dime from David Blough, hauling in the over-the-shoulder catch. Forty receiving yards on two catches is a decent performance for an undrafted rookie fighting for a spot.
Robert McCray (LB) and Bruce Hector (DT): McCray’s pressure caused a sack, and Hector was there to wrap it up. Good for them to make an impact on the stat sheet.
Darius Jennings, WR: He doesn’t show up on the scoreboard, but Jennings made the critical block to spring Reynolds on his touchdown run. Without him blocking off his defender, Reynolds doesn’t make a dive for the pylon. Coaches really appreciate this type of effort.
Jared Goff, QB: While he boasted a good completion percentage, it amounted to just 56 yards. I’m not surprised the Lions were playing it safe early on in the preseason, but I would have liked to see Goff test the defense downfield more often. My primary concern about Goff heading into the season is that he isn’t a downfield threat, and Friday’s game didn’t do much to alleviate that. Additionally, his first pass was nearly intercepted.
Backup linebackers: The Lions will likely roll with Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone as their top linebacker pairing, along with Derrick Barnes as the primary reserve. Who follows that is a mystery, and Friday was not an impressive outing for the backups. Jahlani Tavai continues to look out of place, and Shaun Dion Hamilton had a few misreads, one of which led to a sizeable scramble by the Bills quarterback. The Bills touchdown came on a play where the running back was untouched in the flat, and it looks like one of Tavai or Hamilton were supposed to cover him.
Backup tight ends: Nobody stood out in a positive way. Alizé Mack had a catch for a single yard, but the remaining tight ends were often victimized as blockers. After T.J. Hockenson and Darren Fells, there is a steep drop-off.
Jamaal Williams, RB: He had nine carries for just 15 yards. The run blocking wasn’t great early on, so he isn’t solely at fault.
Frank Ragnow, C: He had a holding call, which took away a first down catch. Inconceivable.
I won’t be giving any coaches a stock up or stock down, since it is unlikely that they are executing a real game plan. The goal of preseason is to see what you have on your roster—the outcome of the game doesn’t matter that much.
The Lions didn’t call anything impressive on offense, but they were never going to dial up anything fancy. There was the aforementioned miscommunication on defense that led to the Bills touchdown, but it is unclear if that’s a player mistake or a coaching mistake—I’m leaning towards a player mistake.