The Detroit Lions have made most of the offseason moves they will make, and with the (still unofficial) additions of the undrafted free agents, the roster is right up against their 90-man roster.
Erik Schlitt already provided a projected depth chart for the team, but let’s take it one step further. Let’s try to make a way-too-early projection at what the Lions’ 53-man roster will look like come September.
Note: We’ve included the reported UDFA signings in our roster projections, but it’s worth noting that those are still not official. It’s entirely possible that a few of these players have only gotten tryouts or changed their minds about joining Detroit.
PUP: Hendon Hooker*
Jeremy: Last year, the Lions carried two quarterbacks for most of the season, but that could change this year. Everything pretty much relies on the health of Hendon Hooker. His ACL surgery happened on December 13, which certainly gives him a shot to get on the field by training camp. He recently tweeted videos of him dropping back for the first time since the injury.
So... what are you thinking? Are the Lions going to play this one safe?
Erik: My gut says the Lions take a very similar path with Hooker as they did with Jerry Jacobs last season. If you recall, Jacobs was expected to be physically ready within the first few weeks of the regular season, but he remained on the PUP as difficult roster decisions loomed. I expect the Lions to take it very slowly with Hooker, allowing him to heal physically while also absorbing the playbook and day-to-day life of a quarterback in the NFL.
Running back (4)
Jermar Jefferson Greg Bell
Erik: Last year the Lions kept four backs, with RB3 seeing some light duty on offense and full-time work on special teams, while RB4 saw time due to injury or was simply a game-day inactive. This season, the Lions figure to get a lot of special teams contributions out of their backs, but what is unclear is who gets used where.
We are both big Ibrahim fans, and I think he will have a legitimate shot to unseat Reynolds’ projected RB3 role. Do you agree with me or do I just have starry eyes for the (reported) UDFA?
Jeremy: Ibrahim was a guy I liked as a late-round pick, so I’m with you. My only concern is how effective of a special teams player he’ll be. He had almost no experience in college, so I think Reynolds is firmly RB3. Then it becomes a question of whether Ibrahim is worth keeping an RB4, and even if they do, don’t sleep on Greg Bell. The Lions liked him a lot last year before he suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp.
Wide receiver (5)
Amon-Ra St. Brown
Trinity Benson Tom Kennedy Maurice Alexander Stanley Berryhill Chase Cota* Keytaon Thompson*
Suspended list: Jameson Williams
Jeremy: The top four receivers are basically a lock, and then it comes down to what the Lions want in WR5 (and possibly WR6). Obviously, special teams will play a big part, and it’s why Tom Kennedy just couldn’t eke out a spot last year. I’d probably give the edge to seventh-round pick Antoine Green, simply because they drafted the guy, but feels like the last spot or two will truly be won in camp.
Do you have a strong feeling about any of the reserves here?
Erik: I agree this will come down to camp contributions. But at the same time, we kinda know what they have in most of their reserves, and the more I watch Green, the more I understand his fit in the roster. So, I’m with you with Green as WR5, and I’m comfortable capping it there until Jameson Williams returns.
Tight end/Fullback (4)
Jason Cabinda (FB)
Shane Zylstra Derrick Deese Jr.
Erik: Zylstra is the odd man out to start the season, but I honestly think it’s possible he sneaks in, especially if the Lions only keep six receivers. We only kept 24 players on the offensive side of the ball, but if they keep 25 (which is common) I think Zylstra is probably the choice addition.
Do you have any different thoughts at tight end?
Jeremy: Zylstra was definitely one of our tougher cuts, but I can’t shake the discovery that the Lions website has him now listed at 215 pounds instead of 240. If he’s switching back to wide receiver, there’s maybe a chance he sneaks in there, but a position change can sometimes be a death sentence in this league. And if he stays at tight end, I don’t see much of a need for a TE4, especially when you’re carrying a fullback.
Offensive line (9)
Kayode Awosika Logan Stenberg Ross Pierschbacher Darrin Paulo Conor Galvin* Ryan Swoboda* Brad Cecil*
Jeremy: Last year, the Lions carried nine offensive linemen. If that’s the case again this year, it may only be the final spot that is up for grabs. Matt Nelson seems safe with the OT3 job, and Graham Glasgow and Colby Sorsdal are comfortably the top two interior reserves. Of course, Obinna Eze or one of the UDFAs could surprise, but we don’t really know how Eze has progressed, and we’ll have to wait to see whether any UDFA can separate from the pack.
So what is your thinking right now with that final OL roster spot?
Erik: Yeah, Eze or maybe even Kayode Awosika or Logan Stenberg should be the front runners for the ninth spot if the Lions keep that many offensive linemen. The reason I like Eze here a bit more than the rest of the pack is that he has the highest projected upside and I am anticipating that a year in the system helped unlock some of that potential. We may not get clarity on this until the fall.
Interior defensive line (3)
Benito Jones Demetrius Taylor Cory Durden* Chris Smith*
PUP: Levi Onwuzurike
Erik: I don’t have a good feel for this spot. I’ve spent most of the offseason preaching that they need four interior defensive linemen if only to guard against injury, but the lack of attention to the position also makes me think they’ll roll it back and only keep three.
Benito Jones could sneak in here if the Lions want a fourth nose tackle, but the real question is: Will Levi Onwuzurike be recovered from injury and ready to play?
Jeremy: I know this team wants to stop the run badly, but four nose tackles seem like overkill here. We had a long conversation about trying to fit Onwuzurike on the roster, but even though the latest news—him present at offseason workouts—seems positive, there’s just no real indication from the staff that they expect him to be ready this year. If he’s healthy, though, the Lions would almost assuredly make room for him, likely at the expense of an extra edge (Julian Okwara) or a linebacker (Anthony Pittman).
Jeremy: Outside of UDFA Zach Morton, the Lions didn’t add anyone to this group, and I’m still in awe by how good the depth looks here. Detroit could be in for a tough cut or two with this group. But the versatility of Josh Paschal and John Cominsky allows them to carry more than they did last year.
Buuuut... it does feel like this could be the year the Okwara brothership is broken up. Is James Houston to blame?
Erik: Contractually, Hutchinson, Cominsky, Paschal, Romeo Okwara, and Harris will cost more to release than to keep on the roster, which gives those five some job security. Houston and Julian aren’t afforded that same luxury, so if the Lions were to reduce their roster count here it would likely come at the expense of one of them. I think it’s pretty clear, Houston has earned a bigger role moving forward, while Julian is a draft pick from the old regime (which has spelled bad news of late) and has not played a full season of football in the last four years (dating back to his senior year at Notre Dame). Julian will have to level up his game in training camp to justify keeping seven edge rushers—and that may mean more special teams work.
Trevor Nowaske* Isaac Darkangelo*
Erik: Last season the Lions kept six off-the-ball linebackers, with the top three fighting for snaps on defense and the bottom three contributing on special teams. This year six could once again be the magic number, but the usage distribution could be altered as the upgrades continue.
Do you see the Lions keeping six, and if so, who contributes where?
Jeremy: We fought a little on this one, because six linebackers does seem like a little much, and it’s fair to wonder if they’ve outgrown the need for that much depth and special teams now that the ceiling of this room has been raised with the addition of Campbell. Now the Lions have legitimate depth players—Rodriguez, Barnes—who will also contribute on special teams. Given that Reeves-Maybin is a potential special teams captain, Pittman is in a lot of danger right now. But he’s a loyal player, strong special teamer, and he can give some versatility on the edge, too, so we squeezed him in.
Outside cornerback (4)
Mac McCain Jarren Williams Starling Thomas V*
Jeremy: We’ve separated outside corners from the nickels here, since it seems like we’re destined for a lot of players capable of playing both corner and safety. While Will Harris is one of those players, the relative lack of depth at outside corner has us moving him back to this position.
Typically teams only carry about 10 defensive backs, so four outside corners seems safe and straightforward here, no?
Erik: I do think the top four are clearly set. Sutton and Moseley were early targets in free agency for a reason, Jacobs was arguably the Lions best starter last season, and Harris was in the mix on the outside last training camp before ultimately losing out to Jeff Okudah and shifting inside to nickel.
I know Harris is not a fan favorite but the coaches love him, he is position versatile and his cap number is very team-friendly. The Lions took advantage of the four-year veteran qualifying benefit and get a hefty discount to keep him on the roster. If they keep him, he has a cap hit of around $1.2 million, but if they release him, it would cost them almost $2.6 million. Expect him to stick around.
One more note: keep an eye on Starling Thomas V, who is a sneaky sleeper because of his 4.3 speed, ability to play inside and out, as well as a starting gunner on special teams.
Nickel/Dime defensive back (3)
Erik: The Lions struck gold not once, but twice in adding a slot defender this offseason. Gardner-Johnson and Branch are both tremendous talents and locks for the roster. The big question for me here is: What happens to “my guy” Chase Lucas?
Allow me to pitch my case. Lucas is not only capable of manning the slot in nickel and dime situations but he is also a very capable special teams defender. We have seen up close how natural the Lions split-zone defense is for him, he is an incredibly vocal leader on the field, and I still believe he has loads of untapped potential.
So are you on board? Or maybe just feeling altruistic?
Jeremy: There may be some favoritism happening here, because we didn’t really see much of Lucas last season (six games). But you laid out a nice case, and Lucas is certainly a vocal and smart guy, which the coaching staff loves. I would’ve liked to spend the roster spot elsewhere, but as you’ll see when we get to the safeties, there’s not an obvious defensive back I’d rather have on the roster than him.
Ifeatu Melifonwu Brady Breeze Brandon Joseph*
Jeremy: You can really feel the absence of C.J. Moore here. Detroit doesn’t have much experience behind their starters here, and that includes on special teams. Ifeatu Melifonwu did a little bit last year, but I wasn’t impressed by his work on that unit. This is why I listed Brandon Joseph as my UDFA most likely to make the final Lions roster, but I think it’s safe to say there will be a healthy competition here to support the two clear starters here.
Erik: The big advantage for the Lions, and subsequent challenge for the depth players in this group, is that both Gardner-Johnson and Branch can play safety. This is problematic for pretty much all four reserves, meaning this battle likely comes down to special teams. I still think Melifonwu has champions in his corner, but there is no doubting Smith worked his way up to a significant role before being injured—remember he was starting over DeShon Elliott when he suffered his season-ending injury.
Special teams (3)
Jack Fox (P)
Michael Badgley (K)
Jake McQuaide (LS)
Scott Daly (LS)
Erik: We reached Jeremy’s favorite part of the list: the specialists. Fox is a lock, Badgley has an advantage over John Parker—who is reportedly trying out at rookie mini-camp and doesn’t even have a NFL contract yet—leaving us with #LongSnapperWatch2023.
So who ya got, ole’ long snapper guru?
Jeremy: There are only two reasons to bring in a 35-year-old, former Pro Bowl long snapper. Either he’s going to be your starter, or you’re going to cut him and ask him to be part of your coaching staff. The Lions already did that with Don Muhlbach, so McQuaide is the logical choice to win #LongSnapperWatch2023. I am concerned, though, that this will just result in looking for a new long snapper in a year or two when McQuaide eventually retires.