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2023 Detroit Lions 53-man roster projection: Pre-training camp edition

Jeremy Reisman and Erik Schlitt join forces to project Detroit Lions' 53-man roster ahead of training camp.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is upon us and that means it’s time to release another installment of our 53-man roster projection.

We published our first projection of the season following the conclusion of the NFL Draft, but since then have seen the current group of players go through OTAs and minicamp in the spring and have made some adjustments in our current update—which we will note in italics.

Things have a way of changing dramatically once training camp and the preseason begin in the fall, but for now, this is how Jeremy Reisman and I (Erik Schlitt) see the roster shaking out.

Note: An asterisk (*) denotes the player is a rookie

Quarterback (2)

Jared Goff
Nate Sudfeld
Adrian Martinez*

NFI list: Hendon Hooker*

Changes from post-draft projection: None

Jeremy: There shouldn’t be much drama here. Hendon Hooker is officially on the NFI list now, and while there’s certainly a chance for him to come off the list at some point during training camp, the Lions won’t be operating with any urgency to get him on the field. They like Nate Sudfeld.

Erik: When we last saw Hooker in the spring, he was getting in some training reps before practice. And while the movement was encouraging, he also has a significant hitch in his lateral movement (expected at this stage of recovery), so I expect him to stay on this list for a while.

Running back (4)

David Montgomery
Jahmyr Gibbs*
Justin Jackson
Craig Reynolds
Jermar Jefferson
Mohamed Ibrahim*
Greg Bell

Changes: Jackson IN, Ibrahim OUT

Erik: The recent addition of Jackson—though mildly expected—shook things up a bit in the running backs group, as Ibrahim takes a step off our projected roster. The UDFA rookie still has a legitimate shot at earning a role, but for now, it’s hard to bet against Jackson and Reynolds, who were the preferred reserve choices last season.

Jeremy: Jackson immediately becomes the favorite for the RB3 job, seeing as they preferred him over Reynolds at the end of last season. I think Reynolds is the most in danger here, and if I had to pick the back who is likely to threaten his job the most, it’s Jermar Jefferson. I think this coaching staff still believes in him, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him slip into that final spot. Of course, I’m not counting out the guy who just broke a ton of Minnesota records (Ibrahim) the year after tearing his Achilles, either.

Wide receiver (5)

Amon-Ra St. Brown
Josh Reynolds
Kalif Raymond
Marvin Jones
Antoine Green*
Denzel Mims
Trinity Benson
Tom Kennedy
Maurice Alexander
Chase Cota*
Dylan Drummond*

Suspended list: Jameson Williams

Changes: None

Jeremy: We had a healthy debate about Denzel Mims here, and it’s hard to really know how good of a chance he has to stick here in Detroit without seeing him play. However, after my conversation with John B. of Gang Green Nation, I don’t exactly feel confident about Mims’ future. A change in scenery can always help, but a turnaround of this magnitude is extremely rare. He’ll have to show something he hasn’t shown in the last three years—and he’ll have to do it quickly.

You were pushing a little to include Mims here. What do you like about him, and was there anyone else you seriously considered to either challenge Antoine Green or squeeze onto the roster as WR6?

Erik: It may be a case of liking the “shiny new toy in the toybox,” but Mims’ size, speed, and untapped potential are appealing to me. I also liked him in the draft process quite a bit—he was a top 5 WR in a loaded 2020 class at the time—but this may be a case of me hoping he turns into what I thought he could be, rather than accepting what he actually is. The sleeper for the WR6 spot—if the Lions keep that role—is Alexander, who is another speed option with starting kick returner range.

Tight end/Fullback (4)

Brock Wright
Sam LaPorta*
James Mitchell
Jason Cabinda (FB)
Shane Zylstra
Derrick Deese Jr.

Changes: None

Erik: No changes here. The Lions have invested in LaPorta and Mitchell, while Wright has earned a spot ahead of Zylstra on the depth chart. The wildcard is Cabinda, who may be closer to off the roster than previously thought. He is a dynamic special teams player and has a specific role on offense, but as this team gets deeper, players with small, specified roles may have to expand their game or risk being cut.

Jeremy: Yeah, for as underwhelming as Cabinda has been on offense—both as a blocker and receiver/runner—I think he’s been a pretty darn good special teamer, and he’s just too much of a Dan Campbell prototypical football guy for me to believe they’re ready to move on.

Offensive line (9)

Taylor Decker
Jonah Jackson
Frank Ragnow
Halapoulivaati Vaitai
Penei Sewell
Graham Glasgow
Matt Nelson
Colby Sorsdal*
Ross Pierschbacher
Obinna Eze
Germain Ifedi
Kayode Awosika
Logan Stenberg
Darrin Paulo
Max Pircher
Conor Galvin*
Ryan Swoboda*
Brad Cecil*

Changes: Pierschbacher IN, Eze OUT

Jeremy: We’re pretty firm on the top six (top seven, if you include Sorsdal), but we still had a few debates here. First, we debated OT3 between Nelson, Eze, and Ifedi. That was a relatively short debate because we’ve really only seen Nelson in action.

But then we had to debate whether to keep a fourth tackle or a sixth interior offensive lineman. Explain our thought process there.

Erik: It really came down to how the Lions may react if one of their starting tackles is injured. Would they prefer to simply elevate Nelson/Eze/Ifedi, or is it a better use of resources to shift Vaitai to tackle and promote Glasgow? We believe the Lions would opt for the latter and decided to increase the offensive line depth by adding the most talented reserve instead of the top remaining player at a specific position, and based on the spring, that means Pierschbacher—who was repping with the starters as Ragnow rested—gets the nod over an OT4.

Interior defensive line (4)

Alim McNeill
Isaiah Buggs
Brodric Martin*
Christian Covington
Benito Jones
Cory Durden*
Chris Smith*

PUP: Levi Onwuzurike

Changes: Covington IN

Erik: The Lions leaned on Covington to take some starter reps in the spring, and have previously mentioned the desire to lighten the load on Buggs. Is Martin ready to do that? That’s a lot to ask of a rookie, which could lead to Covington finding his way to the 53.

Jeremy: This was one of the easier positions to discuss. For a while we debated keeping just three interior defensive linemen, seeing as some of the edge players can slide inside. However, those defensive ends really only play on the interior in subpackages and passing downs—which is far less often than you may think. Detroit needs more pure, base defense interior defenders and Covington brings too much experience there to pass over right now.

EDGE (6)

Aidan Hutchinson
John Cominsky
James Houston
Josh Paschal
Romeo Okwara
Charles Harris
Julian Okwara
Zach Morton*

Changes: Julian Okwara OUT

Jeremy: I think we’re both really sold on the top six here, but the debate is whether there’s both a player and a roster spot available for a seventh. Julian Okwara is the obvious player for the job, but in the end, it’s hard to see him getting much time on game days with the success of James Houston last year.

What does Julian have to do in training camp to convince you he deserves a roster spot?

Erik: For starters, Julian needs to show he can do more than just pass rush because Houston is simply better than him at it. We have seen Julian show promise dropping into zone coverage but he needs to be more proficient at it. He would also benefit from expanding his presence on special teams.

But the biggest path for Julian to get snaps may require the Lions changing their defensive approach—which is something they have shown they’re not afraid to do but we haven’t seen any evidence of at this time. In their current base formation, the SAM position is basically a niche role that is used in specific instances, thus not really requiring a reserve. But, if the Lions decide they prefer to use the SAM more often—like they did in Weeks 17 and 18 in 2022—the role increases in value and there is a clearer path to more snaps and a reserve spot.

If there is no shift in defensive philosophy and the SAM role can be filled by Houston alone, the Lions may be comfortable with Charles Harris filling the role as a reserve if Houston can’t play in a given week.

Linebacker (5)

Alex Anzalone
Jack Campbell*
Malcolm Rodriguez
Derrick Barnes
Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Anthony Pittman
Trevor Nowaske*
Isaac Darkangelo*

Changes: Anthony Pittman OUT

Erik: Pittman is an example of a deeper roster limiting the opportunities of players with a specified role. Despite being one of the top special team players each of the last two seasons for the Lions, that role may not be enough to keep his spot. Reeves-Maybin gets the nod here because he has shown he can contribute both on special teams and as a reserve defender.

Jeremy: I hate letting go of PIttman here, but I think it makes sense to free up a spot elsewhere on the roster. I would have to imagine, though, that Pittman would clear waivers and Detroit would jump on the opportunity to bring him back on the practice squad. As you said, he’s a core special teamer and would be one of the first guys to get back on the 53-man roster in case of injury.

Outside cornerback (6)

Cameron Sutton
Emmanuel Moseley
Jerry Jacobs
Will Harris
Chase Lucas
Starling Thomas
Jarren Williams
Khalil Dorsey
Steven Gilmore*

Changes: Thomas IN

Jeremy: Again, the top four seem pretty secure here, but I think we both came away from OTAs impressed with what Starling Thomas V brought to the table, so we had to find a way to squeeze him in. He ultimately was added with the aforementioned Pittman taking the fall. It’s a definite special teams risk, but we both see Thomas with some serious upside in that phase, particularly at the important gunner position.

We also had a healthy debate about Lucas fitting on this roster. Ultimately, I gave in. So why don’t you explain what Lucas would bring to the roster?

Erik: I just can’t quit on Lucas yet. I love his quickness, anticipation, voice on the field, and intelligence in understanding the Lions’ scheme. Lucas can play in the slot and on the outside at corner, and could win a starting gunner role on special teams—where he would pair with Thomas in my current vision. In the end, we were down to two players, CB5/6 and S5/6, and I pushed for the more valuable position.

Hybrid defensive back (2)

C.J. Gardner-Johnson
Brian Branch*

Changes: None

Erik: The two potential catalysts that could change how the Lions' back-7 is constructed, Gardner-Johnson and Branch’s positional ranges give the Lions the luxury to alter positions around them by keeping the best player, not just the best reserve at a specific position.

Jeremy: Both of these players’ ability to play safety (Gardner-Johnson is obviously more ready in the immediate) could very well impact how we look at the rest of the defensive backfield. In fact, that’s why we’re only keeping three...

Safety (3)

Tracy Walker
Kerby Joseph
Ifeatu Melifonwu
Saivion Smith
Brady Breeze
Brandon Joseph*

Changes: Melifonwu IN, Smith OUT

Jeremy: I’ve been pretty down on Melifonwu for the past couple years, but doing his roster preview this year, I got a new perspective on him. He’s been dealt a tough hand through two years. First, he was forced to make a position change, and then he dealt with an injury that slowed that transition. This quote from Dan Campbell this spring has stuck with me.

“We see growth, he is—he’s coming along. And look here’s the thing, Ife’s a pretty smart player, he really is, like he gets it. He just needs time. He needs time on task, he needs reps, like a lot of young guys do. And particularly when you’re talking about a new position – now here’s the beauty of Ife too, he continues to train there but you’ve seen he’s played some corner too.”

Smart, versatile player that just needs some time to actually play. This is an important training camp for him for sure.

Who is the biggest threat to Melifonwu’s roster spot? Is it another safety here, or—because there are so many other corners who can play safety—is that threat at another position?

Erik: I think we would probably both agree that Smith is the biggest threat. It’s easy to forget that the Lions benched DeShon Elliott in Week 5 in favor of Smith, but that opportunity was cut short after two plays and a scary injury. If he is fully recovered from injury and can return to form, he should have a legitimate shot at the roster—whether that is passing Melifonwu on the depth chart, or pushing a young corner off the roster.

Special teams (3)

Jack Fox (P)
Parker Romo (K)
Jake McQuaide (LS)
Riley Patterson (K)
Scott Daly (LS)

Changes: Romo IN, Badgley Released

Erik: The release of Badgley was a bit of a surprise—as the incumbent, he was the anticipated leader of the kicker competition—but the reality is, the Lions brought in two other kickers to challenge him, so his spot was clearly in jeopardy. Romo gets the nod for us based on his leg strength, but let’s be honest, this competition is far from settled, and we’re just speculating based on the coaching staff’s previous preferences.

Jeremy: I’m just praying we don’t get to the end of training camp and have ourselves a 2021 situation where the Lions are cutting both kickers and starting over.

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