At the start of Sunday’s game between the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers, the two teams will be showcasing their top-tier talent. It will be an opportunity for coaches to see where their teams stand after a week of actual game-planning. For the players, it will be a chance to shake off some rust and feel ready for the opener, which is just two weeks away.
But for the reserves, the stakes are much higher. They’re not just trying to stay sharp, they’re fighting for their football careers in Detroit. There are plenty of jobs still to be won on this Lions roster, and only a small amount of opportunities that will be available in the team’s preseason finale.
Here’s a look at eight* players who have the most on the line for Sunday’s exhibition game.
QB Tim Boyle
The backup quarterback battle is neck-and-neck between Boyle and David Blough. While Boyle getting the start against the Steelers likely indicates a slight edge in the battle, that also puts significantly more pressure on Boyle to perform. He’s going to get the benefit of Detroit’s starting offensive line and the full lineup of Detroit’s impressive set of weapons. If he can’t move the ball with all of that at his disposal—even going against the Steelers’ first-team defense—it will be a major red flag on his resume.
WRs Quintez Cephus/Tom Kennedy/Maurice Alexander/Trinity Benson
I tried to pick one of these wide receivers who are likely fighting for one or two spots, but the truth is all four of them have a lot to prove on Sunday.
Cephus is the most regular season proven of the bunch—which the coaching staff has said it values—but he has yet to play this preseason due to injury. A reminder of what he is capable of on offense against the Steelers could go a long ways toward him being the receiver Detroit keeps.
Kennedy has met every challenge the Lions have placed in front of him as an offensive weapon. He’s won in the slot, on the outside, and in the red zone. Now, he must prove that he can be a special teams weapon now that he’s been getting increased reps there.
Speaking of special teams, Alexander jumped onto the scene last week after two big kick returns against the Colts. The returner role has become so specialized—and, quite honestly, minimized by NFL rules—that in order to make the team, Alexander will have to prove he’s truly an irreplaceable talent as a returner.
Benson has shown up to camp much better than he was last season, and he’s capable on special teams, too. However, we’re still waiting for a breakout performance on offense.
TE James Mitchell
Recovery from his ACL injury has slowed Mitchell’s development this camp as he has only played in one preseason game. And while it would be a mild surprise if the Lions cut their fifth-round pick without giving him much of an opportunity to prove himself, he does need to show signs of improvement to justify the long-term investment when young players like Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra have already shown drastic improvement from last year.
G Logan Stenberg
Stenberg is starting to build some momentum late in camp with a fantastic week in Indy followed up by one of his best in-game performances against the Colts. It’s going to be tough for him to jump someone like Tommy Kraemer on the depth chart considering Kraemer’s versatility, but if Stenberg can show some serious consistency—and open up some lanes in the run game—the Lions may have a hard time cutting him.
DT Jashon Cornell
There is no guarantee Cornell plays in this game after missing Friday’s practice, but he needs to. After a strong start to camp, Cornell has slowly faded into the background while defensive tackles like Isaiah Buggs and Demetrius Taylor have provided more consistent play at a high level. At this point, Cornell may be on the outside looking in, but a strong preseason finale could make all the difference for the third-year player.
LB Josh Woods
Woods has always been a solid special teams contributor, but all throughout training camp, he’s been repping with one of the last linebacker teams on defense. Quietly, his defensive game has improved, and he’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. Would the Lions keep a sixth linebacker if Woods proves valuable enough, or will he have to beat out someone like Chris Board or Anthony Pittman?
CB Chase Lucas
Unfortunately for Lucas—the Lions’ seventh-round pick—he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove himself in the preseason, playing just 25 defensive snaps over two games. He looks to be a distant third in the Lions’ nickel camp battle behind Mike Hughes and AJ Parker.
But if Lucas can show out in the preseason finale—both on defense and special teams—he could potentially prove to be the more valuable commodity as a backup behind whomever wins on the starting job.
K Riley Patterson/Austin Seibert
Seibert has been the leader of this camp battle all offseason, but he’s been unable to seal the deal due to some serious inconsistencies throughout August. Patterson hasn’t had as many opportunities to prove he’s the superior option, but with inconsistencies of his own and a clearly weaker leg, he’ll have to be perfect on Sunday to edge out Seibert.