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Breaking down the Detroit Lions’ Senior Bowl roster on offense

The Senior Bowl has released the names of the offensive players the Lions will coach in Mobile, Alabama.

NCAA Football: LendingTree Bowl-Eastern Michigan at Liberty Robert McDuffie-USA TODAY Sports

Senior Bowl practices are less than two weeks away, and for the last several days, they have been announcing the players who will be on the rosters that will be coached by the Detroit Lions and New York Jets. So far, the Senior Bowl has released all of the offensive players on each team, and the Lions will have a pretty eclectic group of players to work with down in Mobile, Alabama.

The Lions and Jets do get to request specific players they would prefer to have on their rosters, and the Senior Bowl does their best to appease the NFL coaching staffs, while also keeping rosters balanced and competitive.

With that in mind, it’s worth paying close attention to which 2022 NFL Draft prospects get selected for the Lions roster, as coaches will get an up-close look at them through practices and in the game on February 5.

Quarterbacks

  • Malik Willis, Liberty
  • Sam Howell, North Carolina
  • Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky

This was the first group to be announced and I broke the signal-callers down, both in an overview piece and as part of or 2022 Draft Watchlist series (Willis, Howell) during the season.

The short version is, Willis and Howell are both high upside, potential first-rounders who have above-average arm strength, are willing to use their mobility to gash defenses (Willis more so), but both display questionable decision making that needs to be corrected before they can step on an NFL field. Zappe is highly accurate, but lacks arm strength and may be close to developmentally maxed out. If he can prove there’s more there, he could turn into a starter, but for now, projections point towards him being an early Day 3 option who is a 10+ year backup in the NFL.

Running backs

  • James Cook, Georgia
  • Dameon Pierce, Florida
  • Brian Robinson Jr, Alabama
  • D’Vonte Price, Florida International
  • FB/H-back, Connor Heyward, Michigan State

Cook—the younger brother of Vikings’ Dalvin Cook—is the top back on the Lions roster and may end up being a top-five running back in this class. Even with the higher ranking, Cook (5-foot-11, 190) is a bit undersized and stylistically he is more of a complementary back than a top option. He runs with vision and speed to the outside, but he has shown to be a bit injury-prone and has never been asked to carry a workload by himself. His best weapon is his passing game skillset (hands, routes, blocking), which is above-average for an NFL player.

Pierce, Robinson, and Price are bigger options (all over 215 pounds) who are more bruising, between-the-tackle types. All have enough upside to become the second option in a backfield rotation and should hear their names called on Day 3.

Heyward is a name Lions fans need to keep an eye on. A former running back, Heyward (6-foot-0, 230 pounds) converted to a hybrid fullback/H-back role and has seen his stock rapidly rise. If the Lions aren’t able to re-sign Jason Cabinda, Heyward is a natural replacement option. But given coach Dan Campbell desires to run the ball and have players who can create mismatches, Heyward could still be a target even if they retain Cabinda.

Tight ends

  • Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina
  • Daniel Bellinger, San Diego State
  • Greg Dulcich, UCLA
  • Grant Calcaterra, SMU

Tight end is another position the Lions will be looking at in the draft, as they will likely be in the market for a third option to complement T.J. Hockenson and Brock Wright (assuming he is brought back on an exclusive right free agent deal).

Bellinger (6-foot-6, 250) is the most versatile and reliable of the group. And like Heyward above, can fill multiple roles including tight end and H-back. Bellinger is the best blocking tight end option amongst the group—and arguably the best blocking tight end in the entire draft—and will likely be a player this coaching staff falls in love with.

The rest of the tight ends are more TE-F types (pass-catchers) with Likely being the one with the highest upside. Dulcich is a former receiver who added 25 pounds over the past two seasons and converted to tight end. His route running gives him a key advantage and could buy him time to further develop his blocking skill set. Calcaterra was off to a solid career at Oklahoma, but after suffering several concussions he stepped away from football in 2019, only to return in 2021 at SMU.

Wide Receivers

  • Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama
  • Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU
  • Calvin Austin III, Memphis
  • Velus Jones Jr., Tennessee
  • Dontario Drummond, Mississippi
  • Tre Turner, Virginia Tech
  • Danny Gray, SMU

If I had to make an early guess, Tolbert, Roberson, and Austin will be the starters for the Lions’ American team.

Tolbert (6-foot-2, 195) is arguably the best of the receiver group and should hear his name called on Day 2 of the draft. A vertical threat, he doesn’t separate like some of the top receivers in this draft cycle, but he routinely wins the 50/50 ball with reliable hands and body control.

Roberson (6-foot-0, 197) is also a vertical option, but he wins differently than Tolbert, gaining separation with foot quickness, explosiveness, and speed. For more, I profiled him during the season.

Austin (5-foot-9, 165) is undersized but is one of the fastest and most explosive players in this draft cycle. He’s going to remind people of Tutu Atwell (the Rams’ 2021 second-round pick) but he is heavier, more polished as a route runner, and his quickness can be devastating. A legitimate playmaker who can break open games as a multipurpose gadget option. He will push Tolbert to be the first receiver drafted from this group.

Jones is a developmental outside receiver with some slot potential, and his game relies on speed and route running. Drummond and Turner are more run-after-the-catch options, with Drumond likely working best out of the slot in the NFL. Gray is a possession receiver who will need to stand out in Mobile if he wants to be drafted.

Offensive line

Projected starters

  • LT Jamaree Salyer, Georgia - NFL role: guard with tackle experience
  • LG or C Dylan Parham, Memphis - NFL role: can play either G spot, possibly center
  • LG or C Lecitus Smith, Virginia Tech - NFL role: all three interior spots
  • RG Darian Kinnard, Kentucky — NFL role: RG with RT availability
  • RT Max Mitchell, Louisiana — NFL role: can play either tackle spot

Anticipated reserves

  • LG/RG Ed Ingram, LSU
  • T/G Spencer Burford, Texas San-Antonio
  • LT Braxton Jones, Southern Utah
  • T/G Chris Paul, Tulsa
  • LG Justin Shaffer, Georgia
  • C Justin Fortner, Kentucky

The prevailing theme amongst the offensive line prospects on the Lions roster is that most are very position versatile. All five of the projected starters above could hear their names called on Day 2 of the NFL draft.

Salyer was the National Champs’ starting left tackle, but his lack of foot quickness and ability to win in a phone booth makes him a projected guard in the NFL.

Either Parham or Smith will likely start at center at the Senior Bowl, with the other playing left guard, and them rotating spots seems like a real possibility. Smith has double-digit starts at left guard, right guard, and right tackle, but projects to the interior in the NFL, possibly starting at all three spots. Smith has guard (36 starts at LG) and tackle (1 start at LT) experience in college but also projects as capable of starting at all three interior spots at the next level.

Kinnard has 36 starts at right tackle (2 at LT) but projects as a people-moving right guard, following a similar career path as Lions’ Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Kentucky's run-based offense produces appealing offensive lineman, and the Lions have shown interest in their program in the past (drafting Logan Stenberg and adding Drake Jackson as a UDFA last draft).

Mitchell has the foot quickness to stay at tackle in the NFL and would make an ideal swing tackle early in his career, possessing starter upside with development.

The reserves are all Day 3 options, with LSU’s Ingram being the most established player.

At a glance projected depth chart

The Senior Bowl will begin announcing which roster the defensive players will play on this week, but for now, here’s a look at my projected American roster (Lions coached) depth chart: