The Detroit Lions have completed two preseason games, so once again, it’s time to revisit the roster and project which players have the inside track for the 53-man team.
This offseason, Jeremy Reisman and Erik Schlitt have been joining forces for these projections and have been sharing their thoughts on why they made the decisions they did. Let’s take a look at the results.
Starter: Jared Goff
Reserves: David Blough
Out: Tim Boyle
Erik: Boyle was the better quarterback against the Colts, and I think he has the higher level of physical traits of the duo. And if we’re being honest, I think that ability to make high-level throws makes him the more appealing option to the coaches. But he’s also a gambler, can get reckless with the ball, and is far more inconsistent—and that’s a hard pill to swallow for a team that prioritizes not making mistakes.
Meanwhile, Blough is an asset in the film room, has positive relationships throughout the team—including with Goff, which is significant—and has the ability to lift up the offense. He lacks the arm talent the other quarterbacks possess, but he makes up for it with intelligence and anticipation.
Jeremy: Prior to this last game, I agreed with everything you just said, and to a certain degree, I still do. But Boyle played his most steady game against the Colts, and his poise on the final drive was especially impressive to me, converting three first downs—all of 6 or more yards.
I still have Blough above Boyle, but this one is coming down to the wire.
Erik: Agree, I could see it going either way.
Running back (4)
Starter: D’Andre Swift
Reserves: Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike
PUP: Jason Cabinda (Superback)
Out: Jermar Jefferson, Justin Jackson
Jeremy: At this point, the top three are locks, in my opinion. But Justin Jackson just made the RB4 conversation very interesting. Before we get into him, can we both agree that Jermar Jefferson has the most work of any to make this roster?
Erik: I hate to agree, because I really like what I saw from Jefferson last season, but he hasn’t been able to take advantage of his opportunities, while the rest of the group have all taken their game up a notch.
Jeremy: I will say he’s grown on special teams. He had a key block on both of the long kickoff returns Saturday, and special teams growth was an emphasis for him this offseason. That gives him a fighting chance still.
But let’s talk about Igwebuike. The Lions have almost completely taken him off special teams this preseason, but they’ve admitted this is because they simply want to get other players in on those roles. As a four-phase special teamer last year, an above-average kick returner, and a somewhat reliable rusher, is there anything Jackson can do to catch him?
Erik: I do think Jackson is ahead on offense, but in order to take Igwebuike’s spot, I think he’d have to show he can do all those special teams things at a high level as well. With just one preseason game remaining, he might have a better shot at the roster trying to beat out Reynolds, which seems like a daunting task.
Ironically, Jackson’s best opportunity to jump Igwebuike would be if someone else beats him out for the kick returner role. But we’ll get to that in a second.
Wide receiver (6)
Starters: Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds
Reserves: Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Tom Kennedy
PUP: Jameson Williams
Out: Trinity Benson, Maurice Alexander, Kalil Pimpleton
Change: Kennedy IN, Benson OUT
Erik: We do our best at POD to not be too reactionary to any one practice, game, or week of football. But Kennedy stepped into the top-six after Cephus went down three weeks ago, showed the positional versatility to play in the slot and on the outside, and has consistently produced day-in and day-out.
I still have my concerns over where he fits on game days and his special teams work still needs to improve, but what he has been able to accomplish recently is impossible to ignore.
But, this battle is far from over, right Jeremy?
Jeremy: I think Campbell put it perfectly when he said Kennedy “won’t go away.” It was easy to pass him over when he was a pure slot receiver with little-to-no special teams value—even when he was carving up third-string secondaries. But he’s expanded his game, is starting to do more special teams, and just keeps making plays.
But, no, it’s not over. Trinity Benson has done his part, too, looking much better than he did last year, making consistent plays on offense—including the one bomb during team drills at joint practices—and he’s also very capable on special teams.
And despite his unique physical skill set, I think Cephus still has work to do, too. He’s battled with injury his entire NFL career, and that makes him hard to trust right now. I was a bit surprised to see the Lions scratch him on Saturday, but he’ll undoubtedly get some work in the finale, and he’s going to have to show out because I wouldn’t have a problem keeping both Kennedy and Benson ahead of him if the situation warrants it.
And we haven’t even talked about Maurice Alexander and his fantastic kick return abilities yet. His battle is more with Igwebuike than anyone in the WR room. So how close do you have that race?
Erik: Closer than Igwebuike would like, that’s for sure. From the moment Alexander arrived in Allen Park, he has looked the part. A natural returner, there is a spark to his game that only certain players possess and we got to witness that firsthand against Indianapolis—four returns for 152-yards and a 38.0-yard average.
The biggest obstacle for Alexander to overcome is the fact that he’s not a four-phase special teamer, like Igwebuike. And if it’s a close competition at returner, it’ll come down to intangibles, and my guess is the team will prefer an RB4/KR/four-phase special teamer over a WR7/KR.
Tight end (4)
Starters: T.J. Hockenson
Reserves: Brock Wright, James Mitchell, Shane Zylstra
Out: Devin Funchess, Derek Deese
Change: Zylstra IN, Garrett Griffin released
Jeremy: We misfired on Garrett Griffin last week, thinking he was the Lions’ best fullback option with Jason Cabinda still sidelined. The fact Griffin was released is either a good sign for Cabinda’s health or a show of confidence in Brock Wright in the fullback role. Given Dan Campbell’s uncertain comments on Cabinda’s health, I believe it’s more the latter—especially since I got word from other Lions reporters that Wright had a few fullback reps during joint practices this week.
But Shane Zylstra vs. James Mitchell makes an interesting debate. Zylstra is certainly more ready right now, but I think the Lions believe Mitchell may have more long-term value. So... keep both?
Erik: For sure, and with Cabinda still on the shelf, it’s a luxury we can afford to make. Zylstra is a player that has been in the conversation all offseason but he’s felt like he has always been just on the fringe.
“You need somebody like Zylstra that you think can do – he’s a jack of all trades, he can do a little bit of everything,” coach Dan Campbell said. “You know if something happens to one of those (other tight ends), he can step in and produce in a game for you.”
With the circumstances being what they are, Zylstra has had an opportunity to show off his unique skill set, and with his blocking improving—remember he was a wide receiver just two years ago—he’s deserving of a spot.
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), Darrin Paulo (T/G), Kendall Lamm (OT)
Erik: We keep toying with the idea of adding a ninth offensive lineman and the biggest challenger in this conversation is Stenberg. I feel confident in saying that his performance against the Colts was the best he has ever looked in a Lions uniform.
Stenberg’s biggest obstacle is the numbers game in front of him. With the three interior starters locked in place, Brown solidified as the reserve center, Stenberg is battling Kraemer for OL8. Kraemer—who has taken reps at both guard spots, center, and right tackle—is considerably more positionally versatile than Stenberg, plus he has been performing equally as well and for a longer period of time. And if Stenberg is IOL6/OL9, he, unfortunately, became a victim of how the roster was constructed.
If we could find an extra spot, I think we could make a case that Stenberg deserves it, because there’s not really a tackle who has consistently stood out.
Jeremy: Man, it hurts to cut Stenberg. He may be 54 on this roster right now. We know Campbell loves his attitude, and with his game now potentially turning a corner, it’s hard not to reward that.
As for anyone else, I went into Saturday thinking maybe Kendall Lamm could contend for an offensive tackle spot, but he was one of the few reserve offensive linemen that stuck out for all the wrong reasons against the Colts.
Interior defensive line (5)
Starters: Michael Brockers, Alim McNeill
Reserves: Levi Onwuzurike, Jashon Cornell, Isaiah Buggs
Out: Bruce Hector, Demetrius Taylor
Jeremy: This unit did a complete turnaround from last week, and now I don’t really know what to do with it. Demetrius Taylor had a breakout performance that finally matched some of the flashes we saw in camp. He fits in pretty nicely as a Levi Onwuzurike replacement, but Detroit is going to have to carry Onwuzurike on the roster (at least initially) unless they want to IR him for the entire season. So... I think the idea here is that we hope Taylor gets through waivers, and Onwuzurike is a candidate to go on IR after making the initial 53-man, creating a spot to immediately promote Taylor.
But I suddenly don’t feel so confident in having Cornell in anymore after a quiet week and seeing him rep pretty late against the Colts. How close were you to just slotting Taylor in over Cornell?
Erik: If it was based on just preseason games, I’d probably have Taylor in, but as we all know, it goes beyond just the games. Cornell has been consistently repping in place of Onwuzurike in practices (and games for the most part) and has been the preferred choice of coaches for the entire offseason. Now, that being said, he has not shown up when the lights have come on and that does carry weight.
So to answer your question Jeremy, it was pretty darn close.
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
Erik: No changes with this group. Julian Okwara’s injury forces us to stay at five, but even if he was healthy, Cominsky has stepped up as Hutchinson’s positional backup. His pressure on the two-point conversion play was a great effort play and he’s been real solid overall, but at the same time, I think he’ll struggle to hold off Paschal or Romeo when either of them gets healthy.
We’ve always said we wanted to see if there was a way to make space for Houston on the roster, but that stance is getting harder to justify, isn’t it?
Jeremy: It is, sadly. Houston’s game just looks too unrefined at this point. He’s repping late, and he’s failing to make much of an impact against third-string offensive linemen. I still think he has enough physical traits to be a good practice squad addition, but he’s just not ready right now.
Starters: Alex Anzalone, Malcolm Rodriguez
Reserves: Derrick Barnes, Chris Board, Anthony Pittman
Out: Jarrad Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Josh Woods
Jeremy: I think Josh Woods has been quietly putting together a couple of nice weeks here, but I haven’t seen enough to change my mind about this room right now.
Erik: I really like what Woods has done too, but we also have to acknowledge that of the eight stack linebackers to see the field, he is often the eighth one, which is telling about what the coaching staff thinks about where he is in his development at the position. Now, he remains a dynamic special teams player, and that can go a long way, but can he beat out Pittman, who played more special team snaps than any other Lion last season, and is also more position versatile? Probably not.
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
Erik: The nickel corner is one of the hardest positions to project. Parker has been the starter for basically every snap throughout camp, but against the Colts, Hughes got the start and Parker was still on the field in the third quarter. Both guys are clearly ahead of Lucas right now, but I am absolutely all in on Lucas’ upside and future with the team.
So, Jeremy, was that a demotion for Parker or a challenge to Hughes, because in the past we have noted that Hughes might need to win the starting role or he might not make the roster. Do you still feel that way?
Jeremy: I do, because I can’t shake what happened last year. We all assumed Nickell Robey-Coleman was going to make the team because, like Hughes, he was an experienced guy (though admittedly four years older than Hughes) who could play at an acceptable level. But the Lions opted to use his roster spot on a young, promising player.
But I don’t think AJ Parker has won this job outright either. I’m fascinated to see how the Lions will treat this nickel competition in the final week of the preseason.
Starters: Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott
Reserves: Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kerby Joseph, C.J. Moore
Out: JuJu Hughes
Jeremy: Lingering injuries to Melifonwu and Moore have given JuJu Hughes a chance to prove himself in both preseason games, including playing every snap against the Colts. However, I don’t think he’s shown enough to unseat either of those players... but at some point very soon, this room needs to get healthy, because Kerby Joseph isn’t ready to be the primary backup.
Do you think this room is relatively set, or do the injuries give JuJu Hughes—someone who has actually played relatively well—a chance to sneak on the roster?
Erik: I think it’s set. Walker and Elliott are entrenched as starters, then they have their last two third-round picks in developmental situations. The only one who might be vulnerable is Moore, and that’s only because, as you pointed out, he is recovering from injury. When he is healthy, Moore is arguably the team's best non-kicker special teams player. It’s a tough road for JuJu.
Special teams (3)
Starters: Jack Fox (P), Scott Daly (LS), Austin Seibert (K)
Out: Riley Patterson (K)
Erik: Seibert continues to get the first opportunities to see the field and against the Colts, he attempted three field goals (making from 28 and 40-yards, while missing from 55-yards), while Patterson was limited to just extra points.
Let’s take a look at the hit/miss chart. Take note that I pulled the attempts while in Indianapolis into a separate line.
There was more red while in Indianapolis but that’s not overly surprising considering the environment and most were from distance.
Jeremy: Even though he didn’t look great on Saturday (even in his makes), I still trust Seibert out there more for a 50+ yard kick than Patterson, and that’s what matters to me the most when games can be decided by a last-second field goal.