The Detroit Lions will play football at Ford Field in downtown Detroit for the first time since New Year’s Day coming up on Friday, August 11. The long winter and spring months are over, and summer is in its final stages with fall a little over six weeks away. Training camp has been ongoing in Allen Park since the end of July, and with two joint practices with the New York Giants in the books, the time is now to transition from practice to a game.
The 2023 NFL preseason for both teams kicks off with position battles at almost every position. A team of 90 players will have to be cut down to 53 by August 29 and nothing shows more than game film compared to practice. The Lions roster is improving and getting close to where good players aren’t good enough to make the roster anymore and that’s something that hasn’t happened in a very long time.
In the first preseason game, there are players all around trying to prove their worth to the coaches and the front office. Luckily this is the first of three preseason games, but you don’t want to waste any opportunity when you are playing in the NFL. Not every player is a lock to make the roster and even though you are a veteran, your spot could be replaced. Here are the five Lions players I want you to focus on in the preseason opener against the Giants.
WR - Jameson Williams
No player on the Lions is under a microscope more than wide receiver Jameson Williams. Williams was drafted in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft while recovering from a torn ACL and appeared in six games last season. He only had one catch for 41 yards and a touchdown, along with one carry for 40 yards. 2023 needs to be a big season for Williams and it’s already limited once again as he is suspended for the first six games of the season for gambling.
With Williams suspended, he needs all the reps he can get with the team to get himself ready for when he is back on the field in Week 7. For him to get those reps, he needs to play in every preseason game and Lions coach Dan Campbell said he would have plenty of reps in preseason.
“We’re going to douse him with a ton of game reps. He needs that, you know? As he does practice. And I’m telling you, as with anybody, the more reps he gets, the more time on task, the more consecutive practices and reps he can put together, he’ll just grow — I really believe that.”
So in the first preseason game, Williams will be on the field for a good portion of it. He could certainly showcase his skills now that he has had a full offseason of training and workouts to get him on track before he sits on the sidelines for six weeks.
LB - Derrick Barnes
Last season, linebacker Derrick Barnes saw his role on the defense take a step back with the emergence of rookie Malcolm Rodriguez. Despite Rodriguez playing well, Lions GM Brad Holmes still drafted help at the position by taking Jack Campbell in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. With Rodriguez playing well last season, and Campbell being a highly touted player in college at Iowa, it seemed that the Lions were giving Barnes a final chance to make the team.
Barnes has taken the challenge and has answered positively. Barnes has impressed coaches and fans during these training camp practices, as he has been recently repping with the starters. He could very well start for the Lions against the Giants and show why he should be starting alongside Alex Anzalone come Week 1. The linebacker position has three to four possible starters in that room and if Barnes wants to stand out, he needs to show it on the field in a game situation.
If Barnes has a strong showing, he could instill himself as a starter once the regular season starts on Thursday, September 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs. If not, Barnes might find himself further down the depth chart, giving Rodriguez and Campbell the chance to upend him and take over the starting role.
RG - Halapoulivaati Vaitai
After missing the entire 2022 season due to a back injury, left guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai is back and healthy. Vaitai has been rotating in practice with guard Graham Glasgow for the starting right guard spot, but with center Frank Ragnow missing practice recently as he awaits his wife giving birth, Glasgow has had to slide over to center, giving Vaitai no true competition for that spot. Vaitai should start at right guard in this game against the Giants, but next week could be a different story.
Vaitai hasn’t played a full football game since January 2022 and practice is a whole lot different than playing at full speed in a game. Vaitai is in the last year of his contract, and this competition with Glasgow could be his last chance at being a starting offensive lineman in the NFL. Vaitai needs to play well this week or else the Lions could let Glasgow start with Vaitai moving to a backup role.
Back injuries are serious and they aren’t easy to come back from. And for that reason, the Lions may take it easy with him this preseason. But, hopefully, a whole year off was enough to give Vaitai time to heal and get back into the swing of things. This preseason will be a big test for him, and it starts with the Giants who have a solid defensive line with former Lion A’Shawn Robinson, Dexter Lawrence II, Leonard Williams, and Kayvon Thibodeaux.
CB - Starling Thomas V
The only rookie on this list isn’t even one that Detroit drafted back in April. Thomas has been climbing up the Lions' depth chart as he has been impressing everyone in training camp. It has also been a good thing for him that cornerback Emmanuel Moseley has been out recovering from his injury from last season, giving Thomas more time to play and show the coaches what he can do.
The Lions have reworked their secondary in the offseason and Thomas could be a piece of that with a strong performance in the preseason. Detroit already has an undrafted cornerback who has made the team in Jerry Jacobs, so the organization is used to having someone rise to the challenge. Thomas isn’t likely to start against the Giants, but he will see plenty of playing time.
When the season rolls around, Thomas will almost certainly not be in the starting lineup, but he just needs to make the roster overall to show his worth. He has a good chance to make the team, but a poor performance could open the door for someone like Khalil Dorsey or Steven Gilmore to inch in there and take his spot, or the team could decide to not carry an extra corner and move Thomas to the practice squad.
DT - Levi Onwuzurike
The final player that you should focus on is another person who missed all of the 2022 season due to a back injury in defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. Onwuzurike has a lot more to prove compared to Vaitai as he has only played in one season since being drafted in the second round back in 2021. He missed parts of training camp in 2021 due to the same back injury that forced him to miss all of 2022.
Onwuzurike will be like Vaitai and will play in his first game since January 2022 and it couldn’t be more important. He surprised people when he wasn’t listed on the PUP list heading into training camp this year and he has done well in camp. He hasn’t cracked the starting lineup yet, but he could still be a helpful contributor as the number three or four option at defensive tackle.
One of the biggest needs for the Lions heading into 2023 was help at the defensive tackle position. The Lions drafted Brodric Martin and signed Christian Covington to help fill that role in case Onwuzurike wouldn’t be ready. It appears he is ready and going up against an above-average offensive line in the Giants. It should be a good test for him as he tries to bounce back and prove he was worth being a second-round pick.