Dave Birkett’s way-too-early Detroit Lions 53-man roster prediction

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions report for training camp in a little over a month. When they do, they will have a number of position battles to sort out.

Some are obvious. The No. 5 receiver spot and starting safety job opposite Tracy Walker seem completely up for grabs. Some may not even materialize (looking at you, Todd Gurley).

This year, NFL teams will make roster cuts in three phases: from 90 to 85 players on the Tuesday after the first full week of preseason games; from 85 to 80 on the Tuesday following the second week of the preseason; and from 80 to 53 players after the third and final exhibition affair.

Much will change before then, due to injury, performance and perhaps roster moves, but here is a way-too-early look at how the Lions’ 53-man roster could shake out heading into the 2021 season:

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Quarterback (3)

In: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough.

Early thoughts: The Lions didn’t bother signing a quarterback for rookie minicamp because they didn’t feel like there was a free agent out there who would push Blough for the No. 3 job. It’s certainly possible they keep just two QBs; both Boyle and Blough are on expiring contracts so both cannot be in the team’s long-term plans. But for now all signs point to this being a three-person room.

Running back (4)

In: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson, Jason Cabinda.

Early thoughts: This looks to be a two-person backfield for now, with Swift and Williams slated to split time. The Lions still are interested in Gurley, however, and if he signs, the team will have a decision to make. Do they keep four running backs (plus Cabinda at fullback), or does Jefferson, a seventh-round pick (or maybe even Gurley) prove expendable? If signing Gurley causes the Lions to go heavy at running back, that might cost a tight end or receiver a job.

Receiver (5)

In: Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus.

Early thoughts: I considered keeping six receivers on this roster projection, and given the nature of the position it’s entirely possible that’s what the Lions decide to do. But I don’t think going heavy with an underwhelming group of receivers is the best use of resources so I’m staying at five for now. Cephus gets the edge over Damion Ratley because of his upside and strong finish to spring, but this regime is not tied to him in any way and he does not have a lot of special teams value. We need to see what Victor Bolden looks like when pads come on, but he’s a candidate for a job, too.

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Tight end (3)

In: T.J. Hockenson, Darren Fells, Alize Mack.

Early thoughts: I admit I am completely throwing darts on the Lions’ No. 3 tight end, but Mack previously played for Dan Campbell with the New Orleans Saints and that has to count for something. The reality is, the Lions signed two blocking tight ends as undrafted free agents and we will not see what either of those guys, Brock Wright and Jake Hausmann, do best until pads come on this summer. The Lions seem like a good bet to keep three tight ends. It’s possible the solution is not currently on their roster, too.

Offensive line (9)

In: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Hal Vaitai, Penei Sewell, Tyrell Crosby, Matt Nelson, Evan Brown, Logan Stenberg.

Early thoughts: The Lions have the makings of one of the best offensive lines in football, but their Achilles heel may be their depth. Crosby wants to start somewhere, and the Lions are open to dealing him, but they have few proven backups beyond Crosby in the event of injury. Nelson has improved immensely since signing as an undrafted free agent and is worth keeping around, while Brown and Stenberg are the interior backups by default. Undrafted rookie Drake Jackson has center experience and will be a player to watch come camp, but as with Wright and Hausmann, there’s no telling what the Lions have in Jackson or Notre Dame’s Tommy Kraemer until the pads come on.

Defensive line (6)

In: Michael Brockers, Da’Shawn Hand, John Penisini, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Nick Williams.

Early thoughts: I split the Lions’ defensive line into two groups for purposes of this exercise, putting the edge rushers in a separate category. Looking at the Lions’ roster today, I’d project Brockers, Hand and Penisini as starters, knowing full well that Onwuzurike and McNeill will push for playing time. Keeping two nose tackles (Penisini and McNeill) may seem like a luxury, but Penisini played well as a rookie and the Lions are not in position to let good players go. Jashon Cornell is suspended for three games, so the Lions, in essence, have a seventh interior defensive lineman they can keep control of come cut day.

Edge (4)

In: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, Charles Harris.

Early thoughts: The Lions plan to use their outside linebackers as traditional defensive ends in passing situations, so there probably is wiggle room to keep a fifth edge defender if the situation warrants. But I’m holding the Lions to four edge players for now because the man fifth on the depth chart at the position — Austin Bryant — has never been able to stay healthy in his career. Flowers and Julian Okwara have their own injury histories, which makes this projection dicey. But the Lions likely will get more from another position the way their roster is currently constructed.

Off-ball linebacker (5)

In: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

More: Why Jahlani Tavai’s body transformation might be enough to keep him with the Detroit Lions

Early thoughts: One of the tricky parts of doing an early roster projection for a new defense is figuring out what the right number of players is to keep at a position. Collins and Anzalone worked as first-team linebackers in training camp, and Barnes, a fourth-round pick, seems like he could push for playing time early this fall. Reeves-Maybin is a special-teams ace, and Tavai gets one of the last spots on this 53-man roster. With nine linebackers currently on the roster, I could be one short on how many the Lions ideally want to keep. Undrafted rookie Tavante Beckett is a player who caught my eye a time or two in camp, and who could push for a roster spot this summer.

Cornerback (6)

In: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Mike Ford, Corn Elder, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Quinton Dunbar.

Early thoughts: Defensive backs are so valuable in today’s NFL that smart teams horde as many good ones as possible. I’d classify the Lions’ secondary as more “interesting” than “good” right now, but there is definite NFL-caliber depth at the cornerback position. Ford and Elder will battle for the starting nickel job in camp, and both have gunner potential on special teams. Dunbar is the top backup on the outside, at last until Melifonwu comes along. The Lions also have a couple young corners with practice squad potential in A.J. Parker, Jerry Jacobs and Alex Brown.

Safety (5)

In: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, Dean Marlowe, C.J. Moore, Bobby Price.

Early thoughts: Campbell said earlier this month he liked the Lions’ depth at safety. That, and the special teams ability of Moore and Price, convinced me to keep a fifth safety over a sixth receiver. Moore played as the Lions’ personal protector on punt team during minicamp, and Price is a fantastic athlete who might thrive under a new set of coaches. It’s possible those two are competing for one job at the end of the day, and if I were the Lions I would look to sign one of the free agent safeties still on the market. But here in late June, I think all five of these players are worthy of roster spots.

Specialists (3)

In: Jack Fox, Don Muhlbach, Randy Bullock

Early thoughts: The Lions have kicking and long snapping battles to sort out in training camp, but veterans Bullock and Muhlbach get the edge at those jobs for now. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp acknowledged last month that “it’s going to be hard to beat out Don” for the long snapper job, so there’s no point in arguing Scott Daly’s case right now. As for kicker, Bullock and Matthew Wright seems like a toss-up, one that will be decided in preseason games.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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