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Detroit Lions roster battles: Examining the 15 remaining jobs up for grabs

Exploring the Detroit Lions top battles as the team works towards establishing their 53-man roster.

Detroit Lions v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

As the Detroit Lions head into their final game of the preseason, and with final roster cuts looming on Tuesday, now is a good time to take a look at some of the roster battles facing coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes.

“I mean, eight to 10, somewhere in there probably,” Campbell said of roughly how many roster battles remained. “I mean it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a tough deal this year.”

At this time last season, the Lions’ starters were essentially established and only the last few back-end roster spots remained in flux. But this season the Lions have starter battles at WILL linebacker, outside corner, nickelback, kick returner, and kicker—even though the returning starter remains on the roster—as well as several ongoing depth battles, which speaks to the rise in overall talent.

“We’re a lot farther ahead than we were last year,” Campbell said on Friday. “We’re much more competitive. The talent has been upgraded, and it’s tough... Brad (Holmes) and I went through it again last night. I mean, you’re going through these scenarios but you’re doing the bouncing. You’re juggling the (player’s) durability, the dependability, the all these ‘they do it right but are they good enough?’ Are they truly good enough? Versus the talent, flash player, (but you) can’t trust them—but you know they’ve got the talent to do it if the light comes on, and so, it’s hard. It’s hard but that’s the task that we’re given.”

While Campbell noted eight to 10 undecided spots, it’s harder to get a full picture of which ones those might be. So to be sure we don’t miss any key decisions, let’s take a look at all the top battles currently going on in camp right now.

QB2: Tim Boyle vs. David Blough

All offseason, Boyle and Blough have rotated reps behind starter Jared Goff, but neither has been able to separate themselves leading Campbell to make the following statement last Thursday:

“We need somebody to really take the reins here.”

In Pittsburgh, both Campbell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson have confirmed that Boyle will get the start with the first unit—Goff will not play—but neither would commit to him seeing every starter rep. That suggests it’s possible that the quarterbacks will rotate series with the starters so coaches can see each player with upgrades surrounding him.

Even though it appears that the team is favoring Boyle—the more physically gifted of the two—this competition could come down to the wire, because if he fails to find success with the top unit, that will be a huge red flag.

RB4: Jermar Jefferson vs. Justin Jackson vs. Godwin Igwebuike

The above listing is the order in which they took snaps against the Colts in Game 2 of the preseason, but with likely only one spot available, this competition could come down to special teams.

“There’s always a tie-breaker, it’s going to be special teams,” Campbell said on Friday. “That’s the first, and I mean if it’s close at all, it needs to be somebody we know can help us on special teams.”

If things are close, as they appear, the above statement would seem to favor Igwebuike, who is a four-phase special teams contributor.

WR5/6: Quintez Cephus vs. Trinity Benson vs. Tom Kennedy

With the first four spots set and Jameson Williams on reserve/NFI, the Lions likely have two open wide receiver spots and three legitimate candidates.

Cephus is unique in his skill set than what the other Lions wide receivers possess, but he has also been bit by the injury bug of late, and availability is an issue.

Benson possesses terrific speed and the Lions have been putting him in positions to help him make a name for himself. His ability to contribute on special teams could be a deciding factor for Benson.

Kennedy is the darling of the preseason and has already registered a game with over 100-yards receiving and another with two touchdown receptions. Kennedy’s lack of consistent special teams contributions could be an issue, but the team has been trying to find a spot for him in the third phase. Additionally, it’s hard to put a price on trust, and that’s something he has earned from the coaching staff.

TE3/4: Shane Zylstra vs. James Mitchell vs. Devin Funchess

With Jason Cabinda on the reserve/PUP to start the season, the Lions likely have the luxury to keep a fourth tight end on the roster. Mitchell got a late start to camp as he recovers from an ACL injury, and it’s made evaluating his place on the team a difficult task. He’s improving, but there are areas that need to improve for him to be a consistent contributor.

“He’s coming off the injury, and we’ve given him more every week, and he’s continued to get better,” Campbell said of the rookie. “But like, to be able to say you’re going to have a true evaluation of (Mitchell), it’s impossible to say right now. The best we can say is that he has improved every week and every day, and we love where he’s going. That’s really the best I can say about it.”

Mitchell’s arrow is pointing up but still learning, so if the Lions can plug him in at TE4 and let him develop some more, it might be the best-case scenario for everyone.

If that’s how TE4 plays out, the Lions will need an instant contributor at their TE3 spot and that means Zylstra vs. Funchess. If we look at what each has done in camp/preseason, this is really no contest. Zylstra has been running with the first and second teams every week, showing athleticism as a receiver and improvement as a blocker. While Funchess flashed in Game 1, but has been injured (three times) or invisible for the majority of the time.

So what makes this a competition? Simply put, Funchess’ athleticism is rare for a matchup tight end and if he can stay healthy, he could be a big factor. Problem is, we have only seen it once or twice in the last month, while Zylstra has consistently performed.

OL8/9: Tommy Kraemer vs. Logan Stenberg

Both players have performed well this fall, and preseason Game 2 against the Colts was arguably the best game of Stenberg’s career as a Lion. But Kraemer has also played at a high level, over a longer period of time, and has shown the positional versatility to play both guard spots, center, and right tackle.

The big question likely is can the team construct the roster in a manner so that they can keep both? If they do keep a ninth offensive lineman, the Lions might consider keeping a fourth tackle instead of a guard-only prospect, but Stenberg has been better than any of the remaining reserves and he should hold an advantage.

IDL4/5: Isaiah Buggs vs. Jashon Cornell vs. Demetrius Taylor

The starters are set with Michael Brockers and Alim McNeill, but their DT3, Levi Onwuzurike, is injured which makes this battle an important one. For the majority of the offseason, Cornell has been filling this role, but with him struggling during the preseason, we have seen a lot of Buggs working with the first team.

With Buggs occupying the nose tackle spot, it has allowed McNeill to option to spend more time at the three tech, where he has been causing problems. With no other nose tackles on the roster, that’s a pretty solid spot for Buggs to be in.

Taylor is the real wild card here. He has been slowly elevating his game and was a big problem last week for the Colts, but he still remains largely unproven. With Cornell and Taylor seemingly headed in opposite directions, the Lions have a decision to make: veteran stability vs. youth and upside.

EDGE5: John Cominsky vs. James Houston

With Josh Paschal on reserve/PUP, the Lions could use an edge player capable of replicating what Aidan Hutchinson can do positionally—line up at big end, rush end, and push inside to the three tech in pass rushing situations. A lot of that role was being picked up by Austin Bryant, but with Julian Okwara still injured (hopeful to be ready by Week 1), Bryant has spent more time as a hybrid player. That has led to more playing time for Cominsky and he has seized the opportunity. With Eric Banks, the only remaining competitor for the role injured last week, it’s looking like Cominsky’s job to lose.

The primary competitor for Cominsky and the presumed last edge spot is Houston, a sixth-round pick who has flashed in camp but looks to have a significant learning curve to overcome. If the Lions are looking for a more natural replacement/reserve for Okwara’s role, and don’t want to lose the developmental upside of their rookie draft pick, he could find his way onto the team.

Starting WILL: Malcolm Rodriguez vs. Derrick Barnes

One of three defensive starting roles up for grabs, the WILL linebacker position looks like it has come down to the two linebackers selected in the last two drafts. Barnes opened up the spring as the starting WILL—next to Alex Anzalone at the MIKE—but saw his role expand to MIKE duties, and eventually faced competition from Chris Board for a starting job. Entering training camp, the Lions leaned mainly on this trio, but it wasn’t long before Rodriguez entered the mix.

Rodriguez, the darling of “Hard Knocks”, stacked day after day of consistent, heads-up play, and eventually linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard had no choice but to put him into a starting role.

“I’m (expletive) sick of saying this about a rookie,” Sheppard said in the first episode of “Hard Knocks” during a positional meeting. “What do y’all want me to do, put him out there (with the) first (team)? Cause that’s what’s about to happen. This ain’t nothing against you, Rodriguez. Matter of fact, you’re (expletive) playing your ass off, dude. But it’s a rookie who I’m doing everything I can, not to put out here first.”

Rodriguez has held a pretty firm grasp on the role over the last two weeks, and he has started both preseason games at the WILL, but things have started to click for Barnes, which could open this competition back up. Barnes—who started both games at the MIKE—has more experience than Rodriguez but he’ll probably need to prove he has truly turned a corner in order to unseat the rookie.

LB5: Anthony Pittman vs. Jarrad Davis vs. Josh Woods

After Anzalone, Rodriguez, Barnes, and Board, the Lions will probably keep a fifth linebacker—like they did last season—for special teams purposes and situational work on defense. For most of camp, Pittman has been the first of this group off the bench, seeing reps as a stack linebacker, an edge rusher on obvious passing downs, and gotten some subpackage coverage work. Add in the fact that he led the Lions in special teams snaps last season, and he is in a solid spot entering the preseason finale.

Davis has a similar role to Pittman, and plenty more experience, but he has consistently been repping behind in the rotation. He has flashed at times, especially when blitzing, but has he done enough? Based on snaps counts/rotation, probably not.

The sleeper for this role is Woods, who has routinely been the last linebacker to get reps on defense but is a starter in all four phases of special teams. If the Lions are truly focused on special teams as a primary tiebreaker, Woods has a case to make the roster, the real question becomes, is he “close enough” on defense to make this a tiebreaker situation?

Starting cornerback: Jeff Okudah vs. Will Harris

The second starting battle on defense is at outside corner for the job opposite Amani Oruwariye and features Jeff Okudah, a former third overall pick, and converted safety Will Harris.

“I do like the battle,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “I would say this, and man, I’m not just saying this just to be saying it, but both of those guys have been showing some really good things on the field, in practice, and in games. This is an ongoing battle and it will be an ongoing battle.”

Okudah, who is less than a year removed from Achilles surgery, has slowly been re-acclimating to the game and improving each week. Harris had a strong beginning of camp and initially looked to be the sharper, more physical of the pair. But recently, Harris has struggled and arguably has been headed in the opposite direction of Okudah.

Both will have a role this season, but Okudah could close this competition out with another strong game in Pittsburgh.

Will Jerry Jacobs return?

While the Lions moved four players onto reserves lists earlier this week—making them ineligible to play during the first four weeks of the regular season—Jacobs remained on the active/PUP list for further evaluation.

“Certainly he’s closer (to returning),” Campbell said of Jacobs. “Now, what does that mean (for when he can return)? I don’t know... A lot of it is not so much ‘We’re going to have him Week 1, Week 2, Week 3’, it’s more (about), can we begin to get him some practice reps? Just slowly implement him into what we are doing in practice.”

If he is healthy and the Lions feel like he can return quicker by keeping him on the active roster, then they’d love to do that. But they also need to roster space to do that and with several other injured players on the roster—especially on defense—that room may be difficult to come by.

“And that (plan works) bearing we feel good about the roster and are able to do that” Campbell continued. “There’s still a chance we put him on PUP, next week. That could happen.”

And there’s the rub. For Jacobs to make the 53-man roster and avoid reserve/PUP, he not only needs to be on the right path health-wise but there also needs to be room to allow him to re-acclimate.

Starting nickelback: AJ Parker vs. Mike Hughes

Parker held the starting role for most of training camp, but Hughes has challenged of late, even starting over Parker last week against the Colts. The biggest concern for Parker, the returning starter, is his ability to stay healthy through contact. The Lions expect their nickelback to be strong against the run, and despite putting on 10 pounds of muscle this past offseason, Parker needs to prove he can stay healthy enough to last the season.

CB5/6: Jacobs vs. Parker/Hughes vs. Bobby Price vs. Saivion Smith vs. Chase Lucas

With Oruwariye, Okudah, Harris, and the nickelback winner taking up the top four spots, there may only be one or two corner spots remaining and several candidates in the mix for the jobs.

Obviously, the nickel corner who doesn't win the starting role will have a chance, but they will also have to hold off Lucas, a seventh-rounder with plenty of upside. Keeping three nickel corners seems like it would be challenging for roster construction, but keeping a second is logical, meaning two of the Parker/Hughes/Lucas trio likely make the roster.

That probably leaves one open spot on the outside. Is that the spot for Jacobs? Or will the Lions once again need to turn their attention to special teams? Adding special teams makes the most sense based on what coaches are saying, and that would mean Price and Smith are firmly in the mix.

S5: JuJu Hughes vs. C.J. Moore

Moore is a dynamic special teams player and has been a fixture in the third phase for several seasons, but he has also had a really hard time staying healthy this offseason and appeared to have a setback this past week and needed to wear a walking boot at times.

Meanwhile, Hughes has been steady, and more importantly healthy.

“He certainly has made a case to take a spot for us, to earn a spot for us,” Campbell said of Hughes. “He’s made that argument. He’s improved since he’s been here, and I mean I thought he was another guy who had a really good week last week. And really his camp has been good, but I thought last week, he really even progressed even more, so he’s a steady player back there. You don’t have to worry about him doing the wrong thing, he’ll be where he’s supposed to be. He’s going to make the right calls, and he’s a player that I think everybody trusts – has a lot of trust for right now.”

This could be a situation where the Lions cut Hughes, hoping he passes through waivers, and keep Moore on the roster, then place him on the regular season injured reserve, giving him an opportunity to return to the field later in the season. That would then free up a spot to re-sign Hughes and allow him to be the teams fourth safety.

Of course, if they don’t feel like one of these players will make it through waivers, or simply don’t want to risk it, they may just pick the player they like better.

Starting kicker: Austin Seibert vs. Riley Patterson

This competition has been going on all offseason, and while it seems close at times, Seibert appears to be the player coaches have more confidence in. Seibert has always been first through the rotation, has the bigger leg, and has been a tick more accurate through camp.

“I thought they both did a good job,” Campbell said ahead of Game 2. “But I felt really good about (Lions K Austin) Seibert. I feel like he’s, right now, if you’re asking me today, he’s a tick better. I thought he did a hell of a job in there, just kicking. His kickoffs were outstanding. Now that being said, (Lions K Riley) Patterson, Patterson’s still not banging away. It’s not like he’s not in there, and we still have a long camp to go. So, Patterson’s doing a good job, but I really like where Seibert’s at.”

Starting kick returner: Godwin Igwebuike vs. Maurice Alexander

The Lions have yet to put Igwebuike in the game as a kick returner this preseason, but that is because, as the returning starter, he has enough regular season film for coaches and they wanted to get a look at some other non-tested talent.

Enter Alexander, who has shined as a kick returner this preseason, returning nine kicks for 174 yards for an average of 34.8 yards per attempt.

But as impressive as Alexander has looked, there is more to the job than just the returning role. Like most special teams roles, it’s not just about performing well in one phase, a starter needs to perform well in all four phases, and that’s where Igwebuike shines.

Alexander will have another chance to prove himself against the Steelers, but he’ll need to bring it on every snap, because, right now, Campbell made it clear who is in the lead for the starting role:

“Yeah, I would say right now Godwin (Igwebuike) would be the kick returner.”

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