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Detroit Lions Bubble Watch, Week 4: Updating the defensive position battles

Friday’s preseason game proved to be an opportunity for Lions defenders to make—or break—their roster chances.

Buffalo Bills vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Friday night wasn’t a bad night for the Detroit Lions defense. They managed to hold the Buffalo Bills to just 16 points. Now, of course, Josh Allen didn’t play. Nor did Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, and other starters. But overall, Detroit managed to make a handful of defensive plays, put a little pressure on the quarterback, and hold the Bills to field goals for most of the evening.

Some individual players on the Lions defense managed to make a huge impression. Others put themselves in a big hole as roster cuts loom just weeks away.

So after Friday’s preseason game, the Pride of Detroit staff convened and gave their latest predictions for players on the defensive roster bubble. Here are the results:

Bubble Watch Week 4: Defense

Player Jeremy Reisman Ryan Mathews Mike Payton Hamza Alex Reno Erik Schlitt John Whiticar Jerry Mallory TOTAL Change from last week
Player Jeremy Reisman Ryan Mathews Mike Payton Hamza Alex Reno Erik Schlitt John Whiticar Jerry Mallory TOTAL Change from last week
DT John Penisini IN OUT IN IN OUT IN IN IN 5 -2
DT Bruce Hector OUT IN OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT 1 N/A
DT Kevin Strong OUT IN IN IN IN OUT OUT IN 5 +5
DT Da'Shawn Hand IN IN IN IN IN IN IN IN 8 0
EDGE Austin Bryant IN IN IN IN IN OUT IN OUT 5 +2
EDGE Charles Harris OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT IN OUT OUT 1 -4
EDGE Robert McCray OUT OUT OUT OUT IN OUT OUT OUT 1 +1
LB Shaun Dion Hamilton IN IN IN IN IN OUT IN IN 7 +1
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin IN IN IN IN IN IN IN IN 8 +1
LB Jahlani Tavai OUT OUT IN OUT OUT IN OUT OUT 2 -3
LB Tavante Beckett OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT 0 0
CB Jerry Jacobs OUT OUT IN IN IN OUT OUT OUT 3 0
CB Corn Elder OUT OUT IN IN OUT IN IN IN 5 -3
CB AJ Parker OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT 0 0
CB Nickell Robey-Coleman IN IN IN IN IN IN IN IN 8 N/A
S Bobby Price IN IN IN IN IN IN IN IN 8 0
S Jalen Elliott OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT 0 0

NEW TO BUBBLE WATCH:

DT Bruce Hector: With half of the interior defender depth chart still sitting out, Hector made quite the impression on Friday against the Bills, leading the entire defense with an 81.6 PFF grade. It’s a tough hill to climb, though, so only one of us has him in right now.

CB Nickell Robey-Coleman: Signed last week, Robey-Coleman could be off the roster by next month. He could be the team’s starting nickelback. As of now, we’re all leaning towards the latter, but we’ll see as training camp goes on.

OFF THE BUBBLE:

S D’Angelo Amos: Cut last week.

CB Alex Brown: Cut after Friday’s preseason game.

Trending up

DT Kevin Strong (+5) — Strong put together a fantastic preseason performance that included a team-high six tackles, a third-down stop (while shedding a double team), and a forced fumble. No one helped his case more than Strong, even though the depth at defensive tackle seems almost impenetrable for him.

EDGE Austin Bryant (+2) — In his first real opportunity to show he can play in a game situation, Bryant certainly helped his case on Friday night. Though he only had two tackles on the game, he graded out second-best among Lions defenders according to PFF. Combine that with the fact that one player he’s competing with for a roster spot didn’t play on Friday, and it’s no surprise to see him jump up a couple of spots.

EDGE Robert McCray (+1) — McCray likely gets a small bump due to Charles Harris’ absence in the preseason game.

LB Shaun Dion Hamilton (+1) — Hamilton didn’t have a memorable performance on Friday, but he also didn’t have the kind of day that Jahlani Tavai did. So he gains one more voter by proxy.

LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (+1) — Reeves-Maybin is now a consensus in, and that feels like a long time coming. After returning from the reserve/COVID list, the veteran linebacker has already assumed first-team special teams reps and he immediately made two tackles on that unit on Friday night.

Trending down

EDGE Charles Harris (-4) — Being skipped over for a preseason game without an apparent injury is always curious. Sometimes it can mean you’re safe and they don’t want to risk it. Sometimes it means the team wants to give more reps to players that will be a part of the team. It’s hard to say where Harris lies. He hasn’t particularly stood out for positive reasons in camp, and he’s nowhere near the first-round talent that everyone expected when he was drafted. But it’s hard to ignore the money right now—all of Harris’ $1.75 million contract is fully guaranteed. That’s a lot of money to part with.

LB Jahlani Tavai (-3) — Tavai is down to just one IN vote, and it’s easy to see why after a disastrous preseason opener. But if you listen to Lions coaches, they still really seem to like the guy. Here’s linebackers coach Mark DeLeone from Monday:

“I think he’s in a really good position right now. I think he’s had a really good camp.”

And here’s head coach Dan Campbell:

“He’s a smart guy. He works at it. He puts everything out that he has into it. I think there are certain things he does well. He’s really a hammer.”

Now maybe this is just coaches protecting their guy after making an obvious mistake and is getting railed for it, but this praise has been pretty consistent throughout the entire offseason.

CB Corn Elder (-3) — Elder hasn’t practiced for over a week, and a player who was once believed to be the favorite for the starting nickel job is now firmly on the bubble. The Lions signed Nickell Robey-Coleman last week, a player who is fully capable of starting. Plus, Mike Ford had been repping ahead of Elder even when the two were healthy. Robey-Coleman and Ford may be the only depth the Lions need.

DT John Penisini (-2) — Like Edler, Penisini has just missed too much practice to be considered a roster lock at this point. Though he’s undoubtedly the best reserve nose tackle on the roster, it’s unclear how important of a position that is to Detroit, especially one who is dealing with an injury. The solid play of both Strong and Bruce Hector has made it harder to justify a spot for Penisini.