The Detroit Lions entered training camp with most of their starting positions already assumed. There was some shifting here and there—like rookie Brian Branch working his way into the starting lineup—but for the most part, the Lions didn’t mess with their first teamers much of any in training camp.
There are three exceptions, though. The Lions had three clear positional battles happening at camp, and despite being just a few days from the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, it’s unclear who has won those battles.
The first is at right guard. Veterans Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Graham Glasgow shared reps all offseason, with neither looking clearly better than the other. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson refused to reveal which had won the battle, expressing confidence in both players.
“We’ve got six guys that we believe are starters, or at least I believe that,” Johnson said. “Six guys that can go out at any time and function at a really, really high level ... I’m not going to say who’s going to be the starter, I just know I have a lot of confidence in Big V and Graham.”
There have been hints along the way. In general, Vaitai has usually been first up in the rotation. Additionally, during Saturday’s practice—of which media was able to watch only the first 15 minutes—Vaitai appeared to be the one practicing combo blocks alongside starting center Frank Ragnow. Meanwhile, Glasgow was still splitting his reps between guard and center. Of course, the Lions were well aware that media was watching during that small portion of practice, so they could very well be playing games.
Another unsettled position is kick returner. During the preseason, six different players logged kick returns: Jermar Jefferson, Maurice Alexander, Starling Thomas V, Antoine Green, Dylan Drummond and Khali Dorsey. Of those six, only two are on the current 53-man roster (Green, Dorsey), while Drummond and Alexander are on the practice squad .
Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp confirmed that Kalif Raymond would be the team’s punt returner, but did not say who would return kicks this year.
“I’m not going to totally answer that one. I apologize,” Fipp said.
Instead, Fipp said the team’s focus is getting the right 11 guys out there on the field for returns. That strategy seemed to work in the preseason, because the Lions found a good amount of success no matter who was out there on returns. Detroit averaged 25.9 yards per kick return in the preseason, good for third best in the NFL.
“For me, it really comes down to how we can get the best 11 guys and it’s not always (about) the returner,” Fipp said. “If we had some guy who was exceptional, maybe. But it’s really how do we get the best 11 on the field? Sometimes it’s not like, ‘Which returner do we want?’ It’s more like ‘Who do we want blocking for the guy?’”
The last position is at MIKE linebacker. Alex Anzalone has shifted to the WILL linebacker spot and seems to have that locked down. However, that MIKE job has fluctuated between third-year linebacker Derrick Barnes and first-round rookie Jack Campbell. Barnes held the position for most of the preseason—including at the end—suggesting he’ll likely start on Thursday. However, the starting designation may not be all that important, as defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn made it pretty clear that most of Detroit’s linebacker depth was going to get time on the field via both subpackages and special teams.
“All those guys deserve to play, all those guys will play,” Glenn said. “The thing is they have a role on special teams also, so that’s a good thing because you have your best players out on the field. So, man, I’m looking forward to those guys playing throughout the season. I can’t tell you exactly how much they’re going to play, but they’re going to play.”