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Detroit Lions 53-man roster prediction 2.0: Post-Preseason Game 1 edition

Jeremy Reisman and Erik Schlitt join forces to project the Detroit Lions’ 53-man roster based on what they saw at training camp and the first game of the preseason.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons At Detroit Lions Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions have 13 training camp practices and one preseason game under their belt, so now is a good time to revisit their roster and project which players have the inside track for the 53-man team.

Just like after spring practices, Jeremy Reisman and Erik Schlitt sat down and debated what they have seen during their time at camp, and developed a joint projection. Let’s take a look at the results.

Note: If you want to see our previous 53-man roster prediction prior to the start of training camp, check it out here.

Quarterback (2)

Starter: Jared Goff
Reserves: David Blough
Out: Tim Boyle
Change: Reduced to keeping just two quarterbacks

Erik: We came out of the spring thinking it made sense to keep all three quarterbacks, but as we have been working our way through training camp, it sure seems like they may only end up keeping two, thus our move to reduce here.

Here’s what coach Dan Campbell had to say when Jeremy asked him about keeping three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster:

“Are you keeping a quarterback three versus a stud special teams player? Or, someone you know is going to play 30 snaps for you on defense, he’d be a critical role player, or what – I think that’s what it’s going to come down to honestly.”

And we opted to keep the extra spot for a stud special teamer.

So in turn, the debate now shifts to which backup we liked better and we let Preseason Game 1 help us with this decision.

Jeremy: Blough’s night was spoiled by a late fumble, but he actually looked like a legit backup quarterback to me on Friday. He navigated the pocket well, looked in command of the offense, and was relatively accurate all night. Boyle, on the other hand, was erratic both in accuracy and pocket presence. That kind of player seems hard to trust. Give me Blough.

Running back (4)

Starter: D’Andre Swift
Reserves: Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike
PUP: Jason Cabinda (Superback)
Out: Jermar Jefferson, Justin Jackson
Change: Cabinda added to PUP

Jeremy: No changes at the running back position, as I think we both believe Jermar Jefferson still has some work to do to catch Craig Reynolds—who is clearly RB3 right now—and Godwin Igwebuike—who appears to be the team’s top kick returner right now.

The big question here is the status of Jason Cabinda. We’ve heard nothing about his injury status, and he hasn’t even been on the field during training camp. That’s usually not a good sign. I don’t have a strong feeling either way on his regular season status. Knowing how much Campbell loves fullbacks (and Cabinda, specifically), is this potentially a pretty big deal that no one is talking about?

Erik (Aggressively nods head): At this point, Cabinda is truly an unknown and the fact that he isn’t even getting any work in with the trainers on the practice field is concerning, so I think we made a smart decision in finding a replacement in an upcoming section.

I am curious to see if Igwebuike’s absence as a kick returner Friday night was just a strategy to give other players looks, or if that role is in jeopardy for him. If he’s not the starting kick returner, I think it's pretty clear, based on usage in the Falcons game, that coaches like Jefferson better as a runner.

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, Maurice Alexander, Kalil Pimpleton, Josh Johnson
Change: Corey Sutton retires

Erik: This section seems pretty straightforward through the first four or five players, then it gets a bit complicated. The starters are entrenched, Raymond is valuable on offense and as a punt returner, Cephus has separated himself in my eyes, and for now, Benson’s speed is proving valuable on offense and special teams. I see two potential wrinkles that might force us to change things up: 1) injuries to Cephus and Benson, and 2) the reliability of Kennedy.

Do you agree with those concerns?

Jeremy: Yeah, and I would even start to bring Maurice Alexander into the conversation. He’s surprised me with how polished he looks both as a receiver and returner option.

However, we have to talk more about Kennedy. He just had a big week—not just on Friday. With Benson and Cephus missing time in practice, he’s been starting to get more reps on the outside, and a 100-yard performance on Friday night was impressive any way that you put it. And apparently, that kind of performance is what Campbell expects out of Kennedy.

“Yeah, I would just say I’m not surprised,” Campbell said. “That’s Tom Kennedy. He’s just dependable, that’s all he is just dependable. He’s just very dependable, that’s all he is.”

Benson, on the other hand, didn’t stand out despite getting almost as much playing time—including kick return reps.

Ultimately, though, Kennedy played exactly zero special teams snaps on Friday, and that’s a big problem because Kennedy simply isn’t better than St. Brown or Raymond, and he’s not better outside receiver depth than Cephus. So... what exactly would he do on the roster? Benson may not be as good as a receiver, but he’s more versatile and, in my opinion, is better on special teams. Let’s stick with him for now, but it’s very close.

Tight end (4)

Starters: T.J. Hockenson
Reserves: Brock Wright, James Mitchell, Garrett Griffin
Out: Shane Zylstra, Devin Funchess, Derek Deese, Nolan Givan
Change: Garrett Griffin IN

Jeremy: Pretty simple here: the Lions need a fullback, and Griffin is the most capable. That said, I’m curious how close to a roster spot Shane Zylstra is. He’s consistently repping with the first and second teams, and while I view him mostly as the receiving type, I can’t help but shake when Campbell referred to him as a “hybrid.”

Do you think he’s got a chance to unseat Wright or maybe even Mitchell?

Erik: First off, I think they really like Mitchell’s upside and probably would prefer to keep him as the ‘hybrid” option, even if he’s not ready to contribute just yet. But things get complicated after that.

I think Wright is ahead of Griffin, but not by a ton. And if Griffin is making the roster because of his H-back range, then there is a case to be made that the two are a bit redundant. Then, if Mitchell isn’t ready to contribute, you could argue that having Zylstra—who is ready to contribute immediately—is more valuable than keeping a second, redundant blocking tight end. And in that scenario, you could see Wright—who is arguably TE2 on the roster right now—get bumped from the roster.

Long story short, I don’t think the reserve spots are as clear as they may seem because of the specific roles each tight end plays.

Jeremy: We should probably mention Funchess here, due to his solid performance on Friday night. His receiving skills are definitely apparent, but it’s everything else that makes him a tough add right now. It’s always good to perform under the lights, but it’s worth noting Funchess has had a very quiet training camp, so there’s still work to do there.

Erik: Funchess has a chance to make the roster for all the same reasons Zylstra does, and after his game against the Falcons, could he have jumped him on the depth chart? Maybe. But he is also still on the outside looking in for now.

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 (OT), Kevin Jarvis (OG), Ryan McCollum (C), Darrin Paulo (T/G), Kendall Lamm (OT)
Change: Zein Obeid retires

Erik: Keeping just eight is tight, and we had a healthy debate on how to keep a ninth player but it really came down to the talent of the depth players at other positions. The big question for me revolves around Decker’s foot, and if they feel like they need depth there. If there are concerns, Skipper versus Eze would be the next debate, then weighing the winner of that group versus Stenberg.

Do you have a favorite if we kept nine?

Jeremy: Sadly, no. I’d like to say that this is the year Logan Stenberg has advanced to reliable backup, but I haven’t seen it yet. Kevin Jarvis is a guy who has gotten some surprisingly high reps, but, again, I haven’t been overly impressed with him. Darrin Paulo has probably been the best of the bunch, especially during one-on-ones, but given the Lions just signed him, practice squad makes the most sense for him.

Interior defensive line (5)

Starters: Michael Brockers, Alim McNeill
Reserves: Levi Onwuzurike, Jashon Cornell, Isaiah Buggs
Out: Bruce Hector, Demetrius Taylor
Change: Isaiah Buggs IN

Jeremy: It’s hard to know what the Lions are going to want with their interior defensive line depth. Levi Onwuzurike’s injury situation could warrant more three-tech depth like Demetrius Taylor. However, we ultimately decided that the Lions could use an Alim McNeill backup after the retirement of John Penisini. Campbell’s quote about needing more “girth” on the defensive line was the thing that ultimately swayed me:

“I do think that we may need a little bit more girth up front. I wouldn’t say that we’re not looking for that or won’t be.”

Any thoughts on Buggs?

Erik: Buggs isn’t flashy but as a backup interior defender, he doesn't need to be. The Lions’ run defense is still very problematic, and amongst the remaining reserves, he likely gives the team the best chance to improve in that area. He could also be the first player in our 53 that gets replaced during waivers.

Edge rusher (5)

Starters: Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris
Reserves: Julian Okwara (LB), Austin Bryant, John Cominsky
PUP: Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal
Out: James Houston (LB), Eric Banks
Changes: Paschal added to PUP, Bryant IN, Jarrad Davis moved to linebackers

Erik: It turns out the injury to Paschal was greater than we thought in the spring, and now with more information, adding him to the PUP seems realistic. We were also maybe too high on Jarrad Davis, who showed us a lot of potential on the edge in the spring, but hasn’t taken a snap there in training camp—so we moved him back to the linebacker group.

Those two decisions opened us up to add two spots, and we quickly filled one with Bryant, who has dominated his opposition on the second team. After that, the debate became the versatile defensive linemen in Cominsky versus the upside athlete in Houston. Again, we let the preseason game help us with this decision.

Jeremy: Curiously, Houston got very little playing time on Friday (17 snaps), while Cominsky had 24 snaps. I think Cominsky brings more versatility, more experience, and is a more direct replacement for Paschal in the interim while he remains on PUP. Houston needs more seasoning, and the Lions are likely hoping they can stash him on the practice squad.

Linebacker (5)

Starters: Alex Anzalone, Chris Board
Reserves: Derrick Barnes, Malcolm Rodriguez, Anthony Pittman
Out: Jarrad Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Josh Woods
Change: Pittman IN, Davis OUT

Jeremy: Pittman and Davis have essentially changed spots both on our 53-man roster and in practice. Pittman is getting reps at the MIKE, WILL, on the edge, as a solo backer in subpackages, and is overall showing his versatility on defense. Additionally, as Campbell noted, Pittman’s biggest value to the team right now is on special teams—something Davis has yet to display consistently.

It seems odd to say given how wide-open the competition is for a starting job, but the depth here actually seems pretty clear to me. Am I missing something? Should we be giving more consideration to someone like Shaun Dion Hamilton?

Erik: I could see a scenario where Hamilton wins over the coaches with his game reps, but he was repping with the fourth string on Friday, and didn’t really stand out. He’ll have two more chances to impress. Davis does seem a lot closer to taking the fifth spot, but Pittman’s massive positional range both on defense and special teams has been recognized and rewarded by coaches, and he is clearly ahead in my eyes.

Corner (6)

Starters: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, AJ Parker (NB)
Reserves: Will Harris, Chase Lucas (NB), Bobby Price
PUP: Jerry Jacobs
Out: Mike Hughes, Mark Gilbert, Saivion Smith, Cedric Boswell
Change: Jacobs added to PUP, Price IN, Hughes OUT

Erik: In the spring we went with seven corners, including keeping Jacobs. But after hearing that Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes are debating placing him on the reserve/PUP list at the cut down to 80 players, it makes us think he won’t be ready for the regular season. Here’s what Campbell said about considering placing Jacobs on reserve/PUP:

“Yeah, look, it’s a hard one. We go back and forth here. There’s a couple of moves that we could make, between 85 and 80, as it pertains to PUP, and that’s one of those we’re talking about right now.”

Instead of replacing Jacobs with another corner, we opted to add to the defensive line. Then the next debate came between keeping Price or Hughes. This was one of the biggest debates we had this time around, so here’s a small excerpt from our conversation:

Erik: How strong do you feel about Price over Hughes?
Jeremy: Not very. I don’t really like the idea of keeping 3 nickels though and I’m not sure I feel very good about Hughes on the outside.
Erik: Even if he’s number four on the outside and maybe gunner depth?
Jeremy: What’s more valuable: Hughes as OCB/NCB depth or Bobby Price’s ST?
Erik: It’s a very close debate. But you’re right, Price is consistently with the ones in all special teams phases.

In the end, I still think finding a spot for Hughes is a debate we will have moving forward. He’s steady and has shown some special teams skills, but at the same time, he really hasn’t done anything to stand out during camp.

Jeremy: I was a bit surprised to see Hughes play so much nickel in the preseason opener, forcing Lucas to take just a handful of snaps. Is that because the Lions value him at nickel or they need a long look at him to properly evaluate him?

Either way, it looks like the starting nickel is AJ Parker’s job to lose, and Lucas already looks playable there with high upside and good special teams value. So if we’re viewing Hughes as an outside corner, I think Price has much better value as a specialist and about equal value on defense.

Erik: I do think coaches view Hughes ahead of Lucas inside right now, but the beauty of Lucas is that he is always making the most of his opportunities and is very close to turning a corner. Over the next two and a half weeks, as the roster narrows, I have confidence that Lucas’ developmental arc will catch and pass Hughes.

Safety (5)

Starters: Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott
Reserves: Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kerby Joseph, C.J. Moore
Out: Brady Breeze, JuJu Hughes
Change: Melifonwu officially moved from corner to safety

Jeremy: Like a lot of these positions, injuries have complicated things a bit. Melifonwu has missed a week of practice, and Moore has returned from the Non-Football Injury list but he did not play on Friday. Melifonwu and Joseph still feel like safe bets among the reserves, but do the Lions keep a fifth? And if they do, are they going to value the special teams' value of Moore or want someone with a little more potential at the safety position like JuJu Hughes, who has played moderately well in camp?

The Lions' depth here is a bit scary. Right now, who do you trust to step in the most should one of the starters go down?

Erik: The gap between the reserves isn’t that great right now, as the young players are still developing. But I think based on the coach's past approaches, they’d go with one of the young guys they’ve invested in, and that means Melifonwu or Joseph. Additionally, as crazy as it sounds, if the Lions did want to lean on a veteran reserve, Moore is the most seasoned amongst them, with 45 games played, including one start last season.

Special teams (3)

Starters: Jack Fox (P), Scott Daly (LS), Austin Seibert (K)
Out: Riley Patterson (K)
Change: None

Erik: In the spring, I reluctantly sided with you wanting to keep Seibert over Patterson, but after the team's scrimmage at Ford Field, Seibert clearly separated himself. I should have known better than to question someone that is so heavily invested in special teams, like yourself.

Jeremy: Apology accepted.

EriK: In case anyone is curious about the results of the kicking battle so far in camp, I made a quick chart, with green representing made field goals, and red indicating a miss:

Jeremy: For me, power carries a lot of weight, and Campbell did a great job of explaining why it matters.

“We get in those end-of-game situations, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get the 35, we got to get to the 30.’ If you knew – it’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, he’s pretty good even at 40,’ which that’s a long kick, 58 yards, but yet he’s pretty good at 40. Or, ‘Man, if we can get to the 42, 43, he’s got a chance to swing away and give us a chance.’ It does make life a little bit easier.”

Seibert clearly has the stronger leg, so he gives the Lions the best chance at the end of games.

At a glance 53-man roster projection: Preseason Game 1 edition

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