Allen Park — Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell projected about 80% of his roster has been decided heading into the team’s third and final preseason game, Friday night against the Indianapolis Colts. In other words, that means 10 or 11 jobs are up for grabs, an unusually high number at this stage of the offseason.
With so much still in flux, here’s what we’ll be watching at each position for the contest.
For the second consecutive preseason game, Jared Goff will be held out to keep him healthy for the regular season. That means Friday will be the battle of the backups, presumably with the opportunity to serve as the No. 2 quarterback hanging in the balance.
Tim Boyle has been the front-runner since the day he signed as a free agent this offsason, but David Blough has made it interesting by thoroughly outperforming his counterpart through the first two preseason games.
“Those guys are going back and forth, they’re battling,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “Tim was in a tough situation the other day having to go against Pittsburgh’s first unit, but not to take anything away from David, he came in against the second unit and moved the ball down the field and did what he had to do.”
Boyle has the physical advantages, with a bigger arm and quicker feet. But the key to winning the job is trust. Can the coaches count on your to step in and lead the team if Goff were to go down? Blough’s chances hinge on proving he’s a superior decision-maker who will do a better job taking care of the ball.
An ankle sprain has limited how much we’ve seen rookie Jermar Jefferson this preseason. Through two games, he’s been held to 22 snaps and seven carries. He’s been more active on the practice field in the week leading up to the finale, so there’s a reasonable chance he doubles that workload, rubber stamping that he deserves to be the third man in the rotation behind D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
“I’m actually proud of his development and where he is,” running back coach Duce Staley said this week.
Beyond Jefferson, there’s no promise the Lions keep a fourth running back on the roster, but a couple of players are forcing the team to consider the possibility.
Dedrick Mills, an undrafted rookie out of Nebraska, has carried the ball nine times for 41 yards, including an impressive individual effort to convert a fourth down. Then there’s Craig Reynolds, who has made a huge splash since signing the day before the preseason opener.
Nicknamed Netflix by Staley because he was “on the couch watching Netflix” before the Lions called, Reynolds leads the team with 78 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. This week, he’s seen expanded reps on special teams, suggesting the Lions are trying to figure out what else he can do if they were to keep him.
All week, Campbell has made it clear this competition is wide open with jobs to be won. Outside of rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, return man Kalif Raymond and Tyrell Williams, who is currently nursing a groin injury, everything else feels up in the air.
The biggest name to keep an eye on Friday night is Breshad Perriman. There’s never been questions about the veteran journeyman’s speed, but a long history of durability issues has long kept the former first-rounder from reaching his potential in the NFL. Similarly, missed practice time has landed him on the roster bubble in Detroit, despite much of his $2.5 million salary being guaranteed at signing.
“He was out for little while and missed some valuable time, but he’s back now and we have another game and a couple more practices so, yeah, I would like to see some more,” Lynn said.
Perriman’s woes have opened the door for guys like Tom Kennedy to stake a claim.
Kennedy’s biggest issue is his lack of versatility. He primarily operates out of the slot and doesn’t offer much on special teams, outside of returning kicks, where he’d be behind Raymond. But there’s no denying the production through the preseason, which includes a team-high eight receptions for 107 yards.
That’s resonated with Campbell.
“I’ll tell you what, what you see is what it is,” Campbell said. “He just makes plays. …When we need a play, he makes plays and he has just shown up. Once again, it’s hard to ignore it, it just is.”
Another name in the mix is undrafted rookie Javon McKinley, who in 26 preseason snaps has caught all three of his targets for 50 yards and a touchdown. That merits a longer look against the Colts.
Because of an overall lack of depth at the position, it’s possible the Lions ask veteran and roster lock Darren Fells to play a bit in the preseason finale. But the roster battle is for the third job, behind Fells and Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson.
Having previously played for Campbell in New Orleans, Alize Mack has been the front-runner for that role all offseason. But inconsistent performances, particularly as a blocker, have cleared the path for undrafted rookie Brock Wright to seize the job.
Known for his blocking coming out of Notre Dame, Brock has flashed some ability at pass-catcher, showing better-than-expected play speed. The route running unquestionably needs refinement, but that could be viewed as easier to develop than Mack’s blocking.
One other thing to keep an eye on is how the Lions deploy Jason Cabinda. They see a lot of versatility in the fullback, which could include some work in traditional tight end alignments.
Obviously, of all the players who will suit up against the Colts, the spotlight naturally will be drawn to first-round draft pick Penei Sewell. The rookie has taken some expected lumps in pass protection through the first two contests, so the Lions want to make sure he’s getting some extra reps before the bright lights of the regular season arrive.
Additionally, there will be depth competitions to monitor along Detroit’s offensive line. Logan Stenberg, a fourth-round pick a year ago, has had a good offseason, but could use one more strong performance to secure his spot on the roster.
And with the fourth tackle spot, it likely will come down to Matt Nelson or Dan Skipper.
Nelson, a converted defensive lineman who developed nicely under the previous coaching staff, hasn’t been as sharp as hoped in the preseason. Part of that could be attributed to the team asking him to learn how to play guard, in an effort to increase his versatility.
Skipper, who has been on and off the Detroit’s roster since 2017, has quietly had a quality camp and that’s carried over to his preseason performance.
Much like Sewell, the preseason finale will give the Lions another opportunity to get rookies Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill battle-tested ahead of their debut seasons.
Between the two, McNeil needs less work. He’s been working with the first-team defense all camp and has exceeded all reasonable expectations.
Onwuzurike, on the other hand, has been plagued by a back injury. He finally got back into the swing of things last week, still managing to impress in his 17-snap debut against the Steelers. That said, there’s rust to be knocked off, particularly after he opted out of the 2020 college football season.
There’s also interesting competition at the back end of the defensive tackle depth chart. John Penisini recently returned from injury and has to prove he deserves a spot ahead of Kevin Strong and Bruce Hector, two guys who worked their way into the conversation with their performances.
The three are stylistically different, but there’s likely only one spot up for grabs, unless Da’Shawn Hand’s groin injury lingers into the regular season, necessitating additional depth.
As for edge rusher, the position is largely set. The Lions are down to five outside linebackers after cutting Robert McCray earlier in the week. If anyone is on the bubble, it’s Austin Bryant, but he’s looked impressive since returning from injury and it’s difficult to part with pass-rush potential.
Derrick Barnes has been one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason for the Lions. After being slowed by a hamstring strain to start camp, he’s shown impressive playmaking ability — both in coverage and as a pass rusher — in just 33 snaps.
“If you’re a good player, I’ll find a way to put you on the field,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “Simple as that. He’s a good player, so we’ll find a way. He’s been making plays in the game, but he still has a ways to go. And I know there’s a big deal on Barnes right now — which there should be — but you’ve got to continue to let him make plays, continue to help him get better.”
The counter to Barnes’ promise has been Jahlani Tavai’s struggles. The former second-round pick has made multiple, glaring mental and physical errors in the first two preseason games. If he doesn’t rebound in this final audition, the Lions will have a tough time justifying keeping him over someone like Anthony Pittman, who has shown rapid improvement since making the move back to inside linebacker this offseason.
Finally, he doesn’t have a realistic shot at the roster, but Tavante Beckett has a good chance of ending up on the practice squad. The undersized, undrafted free agent hasn’t seen a ton of preseason snaps thus far, but he has a nose for the ball and should get plenty of reps in the second half of this contest.
After a stellar showing against the Steelers last weekend, undrafted rookie A.J. Parker will be looking to lock up the starting nickelback job.
“He’s fighting, he’s competing still,” Glenn said. “I know everybody’s trying to give him the nickel job right now, but he’s still competing. That’s OK. I hope he’s not reading the press clippings too much, but he’s doing a good job for us.”
Another rookie, Ifeatu Melifonwu is also trying to carve out his role heading into the season. After the Lions parted with veteran Quinton Dunbar this offseason, the team needed someone to step up and be the third outside option behind Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye.
Veteran Mike Ford is in that mix, as well, but Melifonwu is surging toward the finish line with this final chance to sway the coaches.
Deeper on the depth chart, Bobby Price has been fighting through the difficult transition from safety to cornerback. Can he show enough development to supplement his potential special teams contributions?
The kicking job remains up for grabs, although Zane Gonzalez hasn’t shown anything on the practice field to suggest he deserves the job over Randy Bullock. At this point, neither looks great, so don’t be surprised if the Lions continue to explore the other options out there as the season approach.
The only other thing of note to monitor is whether punter Jack Fox will continue to serve as the team’s place holder. Boyle started handling some of those duties this week.
Preseason: Lions vs. Colts
► Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Ford Field, Detroit
► TV/radio: FOX/97.1 FM
► What’s next: Season opener, Sept. 12, vs San Francisco 49ers