PITTSBURGH – The Detroit Lions finished pre-season with a 19-9 loss on Sunday against the Steelers. With that, they come home in just a couple of days to see how 27 players have carved out what appears to be one of their best rosters in years, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Here’s my final estimate on what to expect heading into the 53-man cap that will be enforced at 4pm on Tuesday.
in: Jared Goff
Outside: Tim Boyle and David Plow
they change: Boyle outside
Separation: This system opened last season with carrying exactly zero kickers on their initial 53-man roster, knowing they’ll be adding one later in the week. Could they take a similar approach in the middle this year, forgoing backup altogether until adding a better option that another team is ignoring? It would be really unusual, but I’m not sure what else to do with Tim Boyle and David Plouffe. Both were given opportunities to play and win the job, but neither could manage even a whiff of a professional quarterback against Pittsburgh. Boyle’s passing rating with the entry-level Arctic was 6.8, and the Blow wasn’t much better and they combined for zero points on six engines with those.
“That’s what I’m going to say,” Campbell told me a few minutes into the game. “I think it has become very clear. I think we have answers, and I will leave it at that.”
Well, this is ominous. Campbell didn’t even try to bury him in the usual speech either. I asked him directly if the Lions would be looking to add another reserve quarterback this week. His response: “I don’t even want to go that far. I’m sorry. I feel like we’ve gotten a lot of clarity.”
Again, ominous. He’s obviously not going to come out and say these guys are going to be cut this week, because he and Brad Holmes need to talk about these decisions first, and then talk to the guys about it. But doing it for as long as I do it’s hard to read tea leaves any other way than these guys get pink slips. Whether that happens today, Tuesday, or week 4 remains to be seen. But I don’t think any of the guys are going to stay in Detroit for long.
The Lions could resort to exemption wire, which Brad Holmes did successfully last year. One of the team’s top receivers, Josh Reynolds, was required to concede averaging 16.1 yards per catch last year. Of course, Holmes also bypassed the compromise completely this time last year by engineering a trade for a receiver he really liked (Trinity Benson). If he finds the right quarterback at the right price, Holmes can look to deal from deeper positions (such as the offensive line or receiver) to support problems behind Jared Goff under the center.
running backwards (5)
in: D’Andre Swift, Jamal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike
Outside: germar jefferson
The injured: FB Jason Cabinda
they change: Jackson is inside, Jefferson is outside
Separation: I thought I had to deal with this situation. Then I watched Germar Jefferson start the pre-season final, Craig Reynolds finish it (never a good sign) and now I don’t know what to think. For the record, this is what Campbell had to say after the game: “I feel like there’s been some process going in there as well, which is good to see. I need to go back and watch the tape and see. So you can (see) really, ‘Well, was that a bad cut or was it? That, didn’t we block it right, right?” But I’d say, look, these three (in Jefferson, Reynolds, and Justin Jackson) did something really good. Craig Reynolds comes into the game and something happens. And JJ is on edge. And Jefferson had some running in there. In the middle. But I think there was a breakup that happened in that room, which is good to see.”
Where the separation occurred remains to be seen. I will only trust what my eyes have seen in practice. D’Andre Swift and Jamal Williams are basically starters with well-defined roles, while Craig Reynolds is the best reserve player on the bench. I also like Justin Jackson more than Jefferson, and I think the coaches do too. Driving the Lions into the rush (44 yards on eight carts) and throwing (39 yards on two catches) at the end wouldn’t hurt Jackson either.
As for Godwin Igwebuike, there may not be a tougher call on the entire list. He was the comeback player from the start last year, and just last week Campbell said he’s remained the starter this year. But Igwebuike also didn’t return the kick throughout pre-season, barely returned the kicks in practice and barely saw the field at all in the final against Pittsburgh. In the end, it’s hard to get Campbell’s words out of my head just a day ago saying he was the return for the club – plus he provides value to every other private team. He finished third on the team last year in team shots. This is much more valuable than an additional receiver like, for example, Tom Kennedy, who hardly plays in attack and is hardly in special teams.
in: DJ Shark, Josh Reynolds, Amon Ra St. Brown, Calif Raymond, Quintess Syphus
Outside: Trinity Benson, Tom Kennedy, Clayle Pembleton, Maurice Alexander
The injured: Jameson Williams
they change: Benson
Separation: The Lions was traded for Trinity Benson this week last year due to his height and speed. He still has the height and speed – and he still hasn’t done much with it. I just don’t see it. I think it’s outside. I also think Tom Kennedy went out despite all those yards he got in his first preseason game and then their touchdown last week in Indianapolis. There is no doubt that Dan Campbell loves him. But Dan Campbell has been talking a lot lately about talent needing attention, too. As this team improves, guys like Kennedy – who may have made this list in previous years, and made it last year – won’t be good enough to cut it. This is progress, no matter how difficult a week like this may be.
narrow end (4)
in: TJ Hawkinson, Brock Wright, Shane Zilstra, James Mitchell
Outside: Devin Funches and Derek Desi Jr.
they change: no one
Separation: TJ Hockenson and Brock Wright locks, and I still think Shane Zylstra is in good shape, too. His hands are pretty good—as you’d expect from a previous receiver—but he went a long way in blocking him, too. He put in good things in both of the last two shows, one of which fell out. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine Lions cutting a newbie they really love about James Mitchell. The fifth round selection has been limited for most of the off-season as he works his way back from the AFC Champions League, but he has also astounded coaches with his understanding of the situation in boardrooms and movies. In this menu construction, the four narrow ends make it up.
offensive line (9)
in: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragno, Halapulivati Faytay, Benny Sewell, Matt Nelson, Dan Skipper, Evan Brown, Tommy Kramer
Outside: Kendall Lam, Obinna Eazy, Darren Paulo, Logan Stenberg, Kevin Jarvis
they change: no one
Separation: They only carried eight men up front to open last season, but Matt Nelson’s injury could force the Lions to go a little deeper into the gate this year. Which is a good thing, because they have better depth here than anywhere else. A lot of coaches like Dan Skipper are offensively approachable, while Dan Campbell might have a picture of Tommy Kramer on his fridge at home. The unanswered question here is Logan Stenberg, a former fourth-round pick who struggled to find a foothold in Detroit. He has a chance to make the team, but Kramer’s chances are better.
defensive line (10)
in: Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, Michael Brookers, Alem McNeill, Levi Onuzurik, John Kominsky, Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara, Demetrius Taylor, Isaiah Bags
Outside: Jason Cornell Eric Banks, Bruce Hector
The injured: Romeo Okwara and Josh Paschal
they change: Buggs in, Cornell out
Separation: Throw the spare inner men into a hat and draw some names. This guess would be as good as mine. John Kominsky, Bruce Hector and Isaiah Bugs started the pre-season finale. Demetrius Taylor and Jason Cornell have just as good a chance as they are. In the final drop, just go with the most productive guys in camp.
On the edge, it will be Aidan Hutchinson and Charles Harris rushing to open the season against Philadelphia. Romeo Okwara and Josh Paschal will eventually join them, but not after he missed at least the first month of the season in the PUP game. Meanwhile, Austin Bryant looks like he’s heading into a breakout season in the fourth year. He just added a forbidden kick to an already awesome resume from the summer.
Lenny Packer (6)
in: Alex Anzalone, Malcolm Rodriguez, Chris Board, Derek Barnes, Anthony Bateman, Josh Woods
Outside: James Houston, Jared Davis
they change: Woods Inn
Separation: Alex Anzalone will start at one point from inside the centre-back, and it certainly looks like Malcolm Rodriguez will start alongside him. The sixth-round pick was the camp’s biggest surprise, and it continues to outperform everyone else in that competition. At the back end of the course, Josh Woods emerged as a strong candidate to make up the team because of what he can do on special teams. It was hard not to notice how many teams he was in with the first team last week.
high school (10)
in: Amani Orori, Will Harris, Jeff Okuda, Mike Hughes, AJ Parker, Jerry Jacobs, Tracy Walker, Deshaun Elliott, Kirby Joseph, Bobby Price, CJ Moore
Outside: Chase Lucas, Cedric Boswell, Mark Gilbert, Sivion Smith, Jojo Hughes
The injured: Ifeatu Melifonwu
they change: Jacobs V, Milifuno injured
Separation: Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah will start the season from the outside, while Mike Hughes is giving AJ Parker a serious run for the job in the slot. Will Harris faded to start a mission on the outside, but he still served a purpose as a versatile piece of depth at the back end of defense and in special teams. The interesting name here is Jerry Jacobs, who emerged as one of the league’s best notorious rookies until he knocked out the AFC Champions League in December. But he was not included in the injured list last week, which is a strong – if not guaranteed – indication that he could turn 53 to open the season. This will allow him to practice as soon as he is ready, and it looks like the time is near. A light transition to the middle and a running back allow this to happen.
Safely, the top line is settled with Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott up front. There is less certainty behind them. Ifeatu Melifonwu, only round three of last year, has not trained for weeks. Maybe he’ll be fine going forward, but it looks like he could miss the start of the season. At this point, it’s hard not to ask if he’s bound on the injured list to open the season.
in: B Jack Fox, K Austin Seibert, LS Scott Daly
Outside: K Riley Patterson
they change: no one
Separation: No changes. No drama. just right.