Projecting the Lions’ 53-man roster after the first preseason game

Detroit News

Allen Park — With two weeks of training camp practices and the first preseason game out of the way, we thought it would be a good time to project how the Detroit Lions’ roster could shake out ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline to cut down to 53 players.

Quarterback (3)

► In: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough

► Work to do: N/A

► Thoughts: Right out the gate, we’re faced with one of the more difficult roster decisions to discern. Keeping three quarterbacks is difficult to balance because it means leaving another position group short. The Rams, the franchise where Lions general manager Brad Holmes was groomed for his current position, have kept just two the begin the past two seasons and three in 2018.

Blough is well-liked, throughout the organization, and he’s seen plenty of second-team reps throughout the early stages of training camp. In the preseason opener, he completed 5-of-6 passes for a team-high 76 yards, putting the team in position to win the game.

That’s not enough to overtake Boyle on the depth chart, but it inches Blough closer to securing a spot on the 53-man roster. In an ideal world,

Running back (4)

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

► Work to do: Godwin Igwebuike, Javon Leake, Dedrick Mills, Craig Reynolds

► Thoughts: Swift has been battling a minor groin injury throughout training camp, while Jefferson has recently been limited by an ankle sprain. That admittedly gives us some pause with assuming the Lions will enter the season light on backfield depth, but the ability to elevate up to two players off the practice squad for each week’s game alleviates much of that concern.

Assuming Swift gets back to full strength ahead of the regular-season opener, he and Williams figure to handle the bulk of the workload, with the rookie, Jefferson, picking up the scraps and contributing on special teams.

Mills and Reynolds both opened some eyes in the preseason. They’ll get continued opportunities to push for a roster spot the next couple of weeks, but if they can’t crack through that ceiling, either or both would make for excellent practice squad additions.

Wide receiver (5)

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

► Work to do: Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden, Chad Hansen, Darius Jennings, Tom Kennedy, Javon McKinley, Damion Ratley, Sage Surratt

► Thoughts: Here’s where keeping a third quarterback is most likely to impact the main roster. Williams, Perriman and St. Brown are the projected starters, Raymond provides an inside-outside option who will also return kicks, and Cephus, despite missing the past week with injury, gets the slight edge over the other contenders based on the ceiling of his potential.

That said, Cephus is far from a sure bet. Hansen and Ratley have both had their share of positive moments on the practice field, but were also held out of the preseason opener due to injury. That opened the door for McKinley to see more playing time against the Bills and he responded with a big play that keeps the undrafted rookie in the picture, as well.

Finally, there’s Kennedy, the leading receiver in that preseason game against Buffalo. He’s hurt by the fact Raymond is clearly ahead of him on the depth chart and St. Brown is projected as the starting slot receiver. For the moment, Kennedy still seems destined for the practice squad.

Tight end (3)

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

► Work to do: Charlie Taumoepeau, Hunter Thedford, Brock Wright

► Thoughts: There’s no question about what’s happening at the top of the depth chart, where Hockenson and Fells are locked into their roles as the Nos. 1 and 2 options in the offense.

And, realistically, the third spot has felt like Mack’s since the start of camp. Campbell has been high on Mack’s potential dating back to their shared time in New Orleans, and the former Notre Dame standout has regularly gotten opportunities to work with the first-team offense, confirming how he’s viewed by the organization.

Taumoepeau and Wright have made noticeable strides on the practice field, but didn’t do much of note against the Bills, suggesting both are still best viewed through a developmental lens.

Offensive line (9)

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

► Work to do: Dan Skipper, Darrin Paulo, Tommy Kraemer, Evan Heim, Evan Boehm

► Thoughts: We’ve known Detroit’s plan for the starting five for months, so any roster discussion is about reserves.

Crosby, who has been working his way back from a hamstring strain, is the only lock. That said, Nelson feels like a safe bet as the fourth offensive tackle. He’s been working to add some positional versatility during training camp, seeing snaps at guard.

We like Brown and Stenberg over the remaining interior options on the roster. Brown played well against the Bills and has some regular-season experience at center, including last season with the Lions.

Stenberg, one of the bigger question marks at the back end of the roster, is also trending in the right direction. He’s coming off one of his better weeks of practice and that carried over into the preseason opener, where he showcased his potential as a run blocker.

Defensive line (6)

► In: Michael Brockers, Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Kevin Strong

► Work to do: John Penisini, P.J. Johnson, Miles Brown, Michael Barnett, Jashon Cornell, Bruce Hector

► Thoughts: If there’s been a silver lining to Brockers, Onwuzurike and Hand battling injury, and Williams contracting the COVID-19 virus, it’s giving the team an opportunity to get an extended look at the interior linemen vying for the remaining jobs. So far, the three who have made the most of those chances have been Strong, Cornell and Hector.

Strong, an undrafted player who first signed with the Lions in 2019, has made a habit of impressing during the offseason. He had six tackles, including one behind of the line of scrimmage, and a forced fumble against the Bills. Hector, meanwhile, registered four stops and a sack.

The Lions are going to play a lot of heavy fronts this year and will need depth with this position group. We actually have Penisini on the outside looking in, which admittedly might be short-sighted since he’s the best option to spell rookie McNeill at nose tackle.

For the final spot, Strong beats out Hector for this projection in what amounts to a coin flip. But given Onwuzurike is dealing with a back injury, it’s possible he ends up on injured reserve to start the season, opening up another spot.

Linebackers (10)

► In: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, Romeo Okwara, Trey Flowers, Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, Charles Harris, Derrick Barnes, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Anthony Pittman

► Work to do: Jahlani Tavai, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Tavante Beckett, Robert McCray

► Thoughts: Much like the offensive line, Detroit’s starting linebacker group is pretty obvious, at this point. On the edges, it will be Romeo Okwara and Flowers, while off the ball, in the two inside linebacker positions, you’ll see plenty of Collins and Anzalone.

The safe bets beyond those four are Julian Okwara, who played a whopping 49 snaps against the Bills as the Lions try to prepare him for a bigger role; Reeves-Maybin, a special-teams standout above all else; Harris, who signed a fully-guaranteed $1.75 million contract this offseason, and the rookie Barnes.

Bryant is another player who is trending in the right direction. He looks fully healthy from whatever kept him sidelined to start camp. He was limited to 18 snaps against the Bills on Friday, but looked explosive in his playing time, suggesting he might finally be ready to contribute.

With the final spot we gave Pittman the slight edge over Hamilton and Tavai, but there’s plenty of time for things to change in that battle over the next couple weeks.

Defensive backs (10)

► In: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Mike Ford, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Tracy Walker, Will Harris, Dean Marlowe, C.J. Moore, Jerry Jacobs

► Work to do: Corn Elder, A.J. Parker, Alex Brown, Alijah Holder, Bobby Price

► Thoughts: Okudah, Oruwariye, Walker and Harris remain the projected starters, but there’s been some recent developments both at nickelback and the backup outside spots.

In the slot, the Lions appear to be changing direction. The competition for the starting role had been between Ford and Elder, but Campbell recently said the Lions intended to shift Ford back to the outside.

With Elder sidelined by injury, the team added Robey-Coleman to the mix, and while he wasn’t immediately inserted into the starting lineup, his experience and familiarity with the scheme would suggest it’s just a matter of time. That addition also pushes Elder off the roster, in our projection.

On the outside, the Lions parted ways with Quinton Dunbar last week. He was originally expected to be the top backup on the outside, potentially even pushing for a starting role. Obviously, that never happened, which leaves Ford and Melifonwu, a third-round draft pick, as the first guys off the bench if Okudah or Oruwariye get dinged up.

Given the high rate of injury at cornerback, it’s not uncommon to see a team roster six. This seemed like a good spot to reward the early performance of one of the team’s undrafted rookies.

Jacobs has been flying around the practice field making plays, although that exuberance got the better of him against the Bills when he led with his head on a punt coverage tackle and was assessed a 15-yard penalty.

In addition to Jacobs, Parker, another undrafted rookie, looks to be in the mix. The Lions also recently moved Bobby Price from safety to cornerback, but given the learning curve, the practice squad seems like a better spot for his development.

Specialists (3)

► In: Jack Fox, Randy Bullock, Don Muhlbach

► Work to do: Zane Gonzalez, Scott Daly

► Thoughts: Fox and Muhlbach are obvious, given the Pro Bowl punter doesn’t have competition in camp and Muhlbach gets to stay as long as he pleases. At kicker, we didn’t have much choice but to give the nod to Bullock.

The veteran has definitely had some struggles with consistency during camp, particularly from 50 yards and beyond. That’s what led to the team adding Gonzalez to the roster as competition last week.

In Friday’s game, Bullock handled all the field-goal duties. He was perfect on the night, making all three of his attempts. But with a long of 28 yards, you’d expect nothing less. We’ll just have to wait and see if Gonzalez can close the gap on the practice field. Showing accuracy from long range will be key.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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