Allen Park — Preseason football is back. A year after the pandemic wiped out the regular-season tuneups, the Detroit Lions will host the Buffalo Bills on Friday night at Ford Field in the first preseason game for both teams.
Lions coach Dan Campbell emphasized the importance of the preseason this week, comparing it to a college class where the exams make up a significant portion of the final grade. He’s looking for standouts who will help shape his roster in the coming weeks.
Additionally, for many players, including Detroit’s draft class led by offensive tackle Penei Sewell, it will be their first taste of NFL action. So while the games don’t count in the standings, they certainty matter.
Campbell said the team’s starters will see around a quarter of playing time. That’s what most curious fans will want to see, but here are seven players we recommend watching closely if you’re intending to take in the entire game.
Defensive tackle Alim McNeill
The Dancing Bear, Twinkle Toes, whichever silly nickname you prefer for the 330-pound powerhouse, he’s been a dominant fixture on the practice field during his first training camp.
Working with the first-team defense since Day 1, McNeil lines up at nose tackle where he consistently and effectively clogs the run lanes up the middle. But even though he doesn’t look the part, he possesses an impressively explosive first step that allows him to fire into the backfield as a pass-rusher.
If the Bills don’t double-team him every snap, we might get an opportunity to see McNeill manhandle the poor guy assigned to blocking him one-on-one, similar to the way he tossed veteran center Evan Boehm during practice earlier this week.
Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown
When the pads came on, the switch flipped for the rookie out of USC. Sure, he’s gotten into a pair of post-whistle scraps with defensive backs, but that’s overlapped with his rapid development within the offensive scheme.
“He brings a toughness, no question,” position coach Antwaan Randle-El said. “First day we got a chance to put on the pads, and we kind of sensed that already, but he showed up, and that’s what you want. It’s something you don’t have to teach. When a guy has that, and it’s hard, you can’t teach toughness, so to speak. But he showed up with it, he’s been just putting it on display every time we get a chance with the pads on. It’s a big plus.”
St. Brown can play inside and outside, but the Lions have been primarily working him as a slot receiver in the days leading up to the preseason opener. He has the makings of a go-to option in third-down situations.
With Detroit dealing with several minor injuries to their corps, there’s a good chance St. Brown gets an extended look against Buffalo.
Linebacker Anthony Pittman
Pittman has been around for a while, his whole life really, when you consider he’s a Michigan native who played his high school ball at Birmingham Groves and collegiately for Wayne State.
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019, he bulked up, adding more than 20 pounds to his slender frame to play outside linebacker in the previous defensive scheme. But following the coaching changes this offseason, he made a pitch to drop that weight and return to inside linebacker, the position he played at Wayne State.
The results, at least through two weeks of training camp, have been overwhelmingly positive. Pittman moves with fluidity and confidence in the second level and has managed to get his hands on several passes, even snagging an interception.
He’s put himself into the conversation for a roster spot, and if he can port that practice success into the preseason, both as a defender and special-teams performer, he can further make that case.
Guard Logan Stenberg
Stenberg was a non-factor as a rookie. After trying his hand at center during his first training camp and struggling mightily, he quickly faded into the background. A healthy scratch most weeks, he appeared in just two games, seeing a measly seven snaps on special teams.
“Look, he’s a pup,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said a week ago. “He just is. He’s such a young buck right now. He’s got a lot of room to grow. He’s also got a ways to go, too. That’s the reality of it. I think the question for him is, ‘How quickly can he get better and develop?’ He’s getting better, but it’s like, ‘Man, it’s got to come.’ These pads are where it’s going to start for him. We need to see him be able to drop his weight and get under guys and get movement.”
On the whole, Detroit’s second- and third-string offensive linemen have struggled as a unit, but Stenberg raised some eyebrows during a one-on-one rep earlier this week when he put veteran defensive end Trey Flowers on his back.
Right now, Stenberg is closer to being cut than he is to the starting job some thought he might be competing for by the start of his second season. He’ll need to prove himself in these preseason games because the staff that drafted him, and were invested in his development, are no longer here.
Edge defender Austin Bryant
Bryant will be making his preseason debut after a string of injuries sidelined him most of the offseason his first three years in the league.
A fourth-round draft pick in 2019, the former coaching staff thought they scored a bargain with the former Clemson standout. But those aforementioned injury issues have limited him to 10 games through two seasons and he’s still looking for his first sack as a pro.
The positive spin here is Bryant has looked quick and strong since getting activated off the physically unable to perform list earlier this month.
“Well, the opportunity is definitely there,” outside linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard said this week. “I mean, it’s glaring right now. And he has flashed and showed up. The thing with him is health and consistency, and that’s something we preach every day.”
Quarterback Tim Boyle
Before coming to Detroit as a free agent, Boyle was a preseason standout for the Green Bay Packers. No quarterback threw more touchdown passes than the 10 he tossed between the 2018 and 2019 exhibition slates, and his 112.9 passer rating in 2019 led the NFL.
Boyle is just a small part of the offense’s major retooling this offseason, which included new coaches, schemes and a revamped receiver corps. Not surprisingly, it’s taken him a few months to get acclimated, but it’s safe to say he started to find his rhythm the second week of camp, particularly with his deep ball.
While starter Jared Goff will generate more attention, for obvious reasons, Boyle should see more playing time in the preseason opener. With a strong arm, and enough mobility to mix in some zone-read looks, Lions fans should get to know the team’s Plan B if Goff were to suffer an injury at any point this season.
Cornerback Jerry Jacobs
Almost every offseason, an undrafted rookie comes out of nowhere to grab a roster spot. Coming into the first preseason game, Jacobs is in the mix to be that guy in 2021.
He’s taken the long road to get to this point — playing for three colleges and opting out midway through his senior season with Arkansas — but he’s turned heads in Detroit during his opportunity.
Jacobs came up with the first interception of training camp and has continued to be a physical, energetic presence during his defensive and special teams snaps.