The Detroit Lions have officially wrapped up their organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp for the offseason. For the next month or so players and coaches will be away from their training facility, returning in late July for training camp, with the NFL season right around the corner.
Personally, I (Erik) only got a chance to witness about half of the practices this spring due to schedule conflicts, but Jeremy—who is in the room every day—per usual, was in attendance for every practice.
Together, we have gathered our collective thoughts on the happenings in Allen Park this offseason and have collaborated on a 53-player roster projection based on what we have seen this spring.
Starter: Jared Goff
Reserves: Tim Boyle, David Blough
Erik: This one is pretty straightforward. Goff is the clear starter and the backup jobs are up for grabs. Both Boyle and Blough looked good with the second-team offense and bad with the third-team, so it’s hard to give an edge based on camp, but Boyle is the likely leader based on last season.
The real debate is: Will they keep 3 quarterbacks?
Jeremy: They did last year, and I don’t see how that changes this year. Perhaps there is less of a COVID concern this year, but I think the Lions like both Boyle and Blough, and both provide different things. They likely still believe Boyle’s physical talents can lift him to a point where they don’t have to change the game plan if he steps in. And they like Blough’s veteran presence and contributions in the quarterback room.
I will say the fact that Blough seems to be gaining ground on the backup job could be bad news for Boyle, but I’m still sticking with three.
Running back (4)
Starter: D’Andre Swift
Reserves: Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike
Out: Jermar Jefferson, Greg Bell
Jeremy: The top two jobs are settled, but everything after that is up for debate. Running backs are pretty difficult to evaluate when there’s no contact—as the Lions barely ran the ball during OTAs. So when it comes to these reserve positions, I’m more focused on special teams right now. Igwebuike was the team’s starting kick returner last year. That last spot, though... I don’t have a strong feeling on at all.
Erik: I’m with you, beyond Williams, I am not confident which of the remaining reserves makes the roster, and as you pointed out, that’s not over surprising this time of year. Of the days I was there, Jefferson looked solid, but based on conversations I had with others in attendance on the days I was not, they suggested Reynolds was the sharpest. The fall will likely sort things out here.
Wide receiver (6)
Starters: Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds
Reserves: Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson
PUP: Jameson Williams
Out: Tom Kennedy, Kalil Pimpleton, Corey Sutton, Josh Johnson
Erik: The hierarchy here is pretty clear. St. Brown, Chark, and Reynolds are the clear starters with Williams waiting to get healthy to challenge to take someone's job. Raymond is a solid veteran receiver, the leading candidate for the punt return job, and has a contract that is more expensive to cut than keep, meaning he probably has a WR4/5 spot locked up. For now, Cephus and Benson have shown the most in spring camp and should be the front runners for WR5/6.
The question for me is: Who gets bumped when Williams is healthy enough to play?
Jeremy: It certainly feels like we’re heading for a Cephus vs. Benson training camp battle, even if there’s room to keep both while Williams is on PUP. I think Benson brings a little more as a special teamer—the Lions said they like him as a gunner—but Cephus is the more polished (and more unique) receiver. If we’re talking WR6, I think special teams may take precedent.
Your thoughts? And do we want to get into whether we think Williams will start the regular season on PUP or not?
Erik: I’m still leaning toward Cephus as WR6 because they simply don’t have another receiver like him. He’s the most physical of the bunch, he can play all three spots, and when the pads come on in the fall, I expect him to separate himself.
As far as Williams, I get the team is going to be uber cautious with their first-round investment, but if his work ethic truly rivals St. Brown’s, as has been suggested, I’m not sure they’ll be able to keep him off the field in camp.
Tight end/fullback (4)
Starters: T.J. Hockenson, Jason Cabinda (Superback)
Reserves: Brock Wright, James Mitchell
Out: Garrett Griffin, Shane Zylstra, Derek Deese, Nolan Givan, Devin Funchess
Jeremy: Hockenson, Cabinda, and Mitchell are essentially locks, assuming that Mitchell is ready to play by September. Considering he tore his ACL in late September, I’m going to say that’s a safe assumption.
That leaves one or two spots amongst a sea of unproven talent at tight end. Wright gets the leg up here for being the most balanced between blocking and catching. But who is his biggest competition right now? Does Griffin’s previous time with Dan Campbell give him an edge? Does Devin Funchess have a chance?
Erik: Honestly, I feel like with all the injuries at tight end this spring, Zylstra was the one who showed the best, so maybe he’s Wright’s top competition. For now, Wright is a solid option and gets the nod.
Offensive line (8)
Starters: Taylor Decker (LT), Jonah Jackson (LG), Frank Ragnow (C), Halapoulivaati Vaitai (RG), Penei Sewell (RT)
Reserves: Matt Nelson (OT), Evan Brown (C), Tommy Kraemer (IOL)
Out: Logan Stenberg (LG), Dan Skipper (OT), Obinna Eze (T/G), Kevin Jarvis (OG), Zein Obeid (OG), Ryan McCollum (C)
Erik: The starting five are real and they’re spectacular. Nelson is at his best when the Lions go big and add a sixth offensive lineman, and also offers some insurance at tackle. Stenberg made some noise this spring—remember, no pads on yet, so let’s temper our expectations—even stepping into a starting role at left guard when Jackson needed time off. But we gave Kraemer the edge based on the fact that Stenberg has four career snaps on offense, while Kraemer has 238 snaps and three starts under his belt, and has been cross-training at center.
We wanted to keep more than eight offensive linemen on the active roster but couldn’t find the room at this time. But even if we did free up a spot, the depth is solid enough that there still isn’t a clear front runner for that spot.
Jeremy: I really pushed for Stenberg here, but the fact remains is he’s still pretty much an unknown commodity right now. Repping with the first-team offense when Jonah Jackson was out is a great sign for his progress, and the staff seems to be impressed with how he responded to his injury last year. Kraemer vs. Stenberg is going to be an underrated training camp battle.
Interior defensive line (4)
Starters: Michael Brockers, Alim McNeill
Reserves: Levi Onwuzurike, Jashon Cornell
Out: Bruce Hector, Demetrius Taylor
Jeremy: This is one of the more straightforward camp battles. Because Detroit has so much inside-outside versatility amongst their edge defenders, they can afford to go light on this position. The top three are locks, and Jashon Cornell has been getting first-team reps in practice and has made the most of those opportunities.
Is there anyone even close to challenging Cornell for a spot? Are you a believer in UDFA Demetrius Taylor?
Erik: Hector has a lot of Brockers-like skills, and maybe John Penisini retiring creates a path to the roster for Taylor—he was repping at reserve nose—but Cornell is the clear choice here, and the coaching staff has high aspirations for him.
Edge rusher (5)
Starters: Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris
Reserves: Julian Okwara (LB), Josh Paschal, Jarrad Davis (LB)
PUP: Romeo Okwara
Out: James Houston (LB), Austin Bryant, John Cominsky, Eric Banks
Erik: With Romeo likely starting the season on the PUP list, the Lions will likely have to lean heavily on starters Hutchinson and Harris. But, based on what we saw in the OTAs/minicamp, Julian is going to get a lot of usage in a lot of different situations. If Paschal returns for camp—he missed most of the spring—he should make a nice option as a third big defensive end, but if his injury lingers, look for the Lions to supplement that time by leaning on Brockers and Onwuzurike at that spot situationally.
I fully expect the biggest pushback from fans on this projection to be our keeping of Davis over Houston. But right now, coaches have begun to scale back Houston’s exposure, while Davis is expanding his. Could this situation flip in training camp? Absolutely. But for now, Davis is outplaying the rookie for this depth hybrid role.
Jeremy: We probably had a 20-minute conversation about Houston vs. Davis, and we kept looking for ways to get Houston back on the roster, but Davis just has an uncanny ability to endear himself to a coaching staff. Just listen to the way linebacker’s coach Kelvin Sheppard (who used to be teammates with Davis) talked about him last week:
“You could give JD any challenge. You could tell him, ‘you’re playing at nose tackle, spot today,’ and his crazy but would be in there trying to do it. He’s literally a man’s man.”
The Lions are going to be hoping and praying Houston makes it through waivers to bring him back on the practice squad, but I don’t think it would be a disaster if he didn’t.
Starters: Alex Anzalone, Chris Board
Reserves: Derrick Barnes, Malcolm Rodriguez
Out: Josh Woods, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman, Natrez Patrick
Jeremy: The starting roles are truly as much up for grabs as any of the reserves, but it almost feels like these four are locks. Anzalone and Board took most of the first-team reps in practice, while Derrick Barnes got his fair share of starter looks, as well. The Malcolm Rodriguez hype train is off the rails, so I think he’s as close to a lock as you can get with a sixth-round pick.
Do you think any of these four could realistically be in trouble? Sheppard intimated that even Anzalone’s spot isn’t safe. Are you buying that? Who is closest to challenging them?
Erik: Coming out of the spring, these four are the clear top options for me, but adding pads has a way of shaking things up. If James Houston beats out Jarrad Davis on the edge, they may need to add another depth player at this position, as neither Houston nor Julian Okwara are ready for consistent off-the-ball reps.
As far as Anzalone, I think the closest to knocking player to knocking him off his spot is Rodriguez, who despite acclimating to the NFL on the third string, Sheppard said he had “Green Dot” potential, indicating he has the ability to be the player who relays the defensive calls.
This group is truly up for grabs at every spot.
Starters: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, AJ Parker (NB)
Reserves: Will Harris, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Mike Hughes, Jerry Jacobs, Chase Lucas
Out: Bobby Price, Mark Gilbert, Saivion Smith, Cedric Boswell
Erik: Right now, we have the Lions keeping eight corners, but the reality is, two of them are hybrid defensive backs (Harris, Melifonwu), which allows us to go a bit lighter at safety. We could just as easily have placed the hybrid players with the safeties, but I believe they’ll get their first looks at corner, especially with Okudah and Jacobs working their way back from injuries.
I’m also not sold on Parker keeping the nickel starting role. Don’t get me wrong, he looks good, but Hughes is also playing well—both on the inside and outside—and Lucas has been impressively smart and vocal with the scheme coverages/adjustments, I really think the role is far from settled.
Jeremy: If there’s somewhere on the roster we could trim, it’s probably here. Keeping three nickels is a bit redundant, but who do you get rid of? Parker and Hughes are both very capable starters, while Lucas is another guy who has stood out for his smarts and leadership. He may not be ready to start right away, but he’s clearly separated himself from the third-team defense he’s repping with. He should carve out a special teams role immediately. It’s very possible that AJ Parker and Mike Hughes are battling for the starter job, and the loser is off the team.
The other factor here is Jerry Jacobs. We could have easily put him on PUP, and made this decision a lot easier, but all indications seem to point to him being ahead of schedule in his rehab, and we could even see him at the start of training camp.
Starters: Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott
Reserves: Kerby Joseph, C.J. Moore
Out: Brady Breeze, JuJu Hughes
Jeremy: There’s been a little buzz here and there about Brady Breeze and JuJu Hughes, but I think these four are pretty straightforward. You’ve got your two starters in Walker and Elliott. You’ve got your rookie developmental player in Joseph. And you’ve got your special teams ace in Moore. Safeties coach Brian Duker basically locked in Moore’s spot on the roster last week by saying this about his special teams value.
“We really don’t talk about C.J. enough. C.J. is really a useful asset for us. In addition to being a great special teams player, he’s a really good veteran, a really good leader, but has always been ready when his number is called.”
Am I missing anything?
Erik: The only thing that I wanted to add here was that I believe Melifonwu’s cross-training at corner and safety is so that he can play a matchup role on tight ends and running backs—a role typically assigned to the safeties. Here’s Duker on Melifonwu learning both positions:
Let’s say it’s a really good tight end, typically the safeties match up with the tight ends more often, right? So it’s easier for him if he knows the safety communications, it’s kinda of a seamless transition. It’s, ‘OK, Iffy, you’re just going to operate as the safety right now and get you in the best matchup for us.’ That’s why you want to do it, so that way you can kind of utilize him the best.
Not only will this expansion of Melifonwu’s roles help with matchup football, but he will also essentially operate as the third safety in three safety sets, meaning the four true safeties in this position group can focus solely on their split safety assignments, and in turn, make their jobs easier.
Special teams (3)
Starters: Jack Fox (P), Scott Daly (LS), Austin Seibert (K)
Out: Riley Patterson (K)
Erik: Fox and Daly aren’t facing any competition for their jobs, making those decisions easy. But I’m going to need to see a lot more of the kicker battle before making a definitive decision on who the front runner is. In fact, on the days I was in Allen Park, neither player attempted a field goal, so the decision to keep Seibert rested solely with Jeremy. So, what made this decision for you?
Jeremy: Seibert has simply been more consistent than Patterson all offseason, and significantly so. It was the same in college, where Seibert made 79.7 percent of his kicks, while Patterson was at 77.1. Neither has been very good from long distance in their career, but at this point, I simply trust Seibert more.