Detroit Lions vs. Indianapolis Colts early observations: Backup RB battle heats up

Detroit Free Press

Jermar Jefferson must have been listening when offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said the Detroit Lions‘ third running back job was up for grabs heading into Friday’s preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts.

“We thought it was going to be an easy (choice),” Lynn said. “But some of those young guys they have really stepped up and are playing well so that third running back spot, man, it’s very competitive right now.”

Jefferson, a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft, was the clear favorite to win the job heading into training camp. He was drafted, after all, and the rest of the backfield behind co-starters D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams was littered with undrafted rookies and roster castoffs.

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Two of those castoffs, Godwin Igwebuike and Craig Reynolds, shined this spring — and did so again Friday. But Jefferson did his part in about a quarter of action to prove he is deserving of a roster spot when the Lions cut to 53 players Tuesday.

The rookie had 11 carries for 43 yards and powered the Lions’ 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. He drew “oohs” from the crowd when he hurdled a Colts defender, but his best run came a few plays earlier, when he sidestepped defensive end Ben Banogu in the backfield and slithered forward for a 2-yard gain.

That’s the type of vision Jefferson showed in college at Oregon State, and early in camp, which made Lynn and others believe he was a lock for the No. 3 job.

As for Igwebuike and Reynolds, I think there is room for the Lions to keep one of those players as a fourth back (with fullback Jason Cabinda also on the roster).

Both Igwebuike and Reynolds have had strong preseasons, and while several bubble players faded in recent days, both shined in snippets of early action Friday.

Igwebuike had seven carries for 25 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Reynolds played more sparingly, but he showed good vision weaving past a trio of Colts defenders on a second-quarter spring pass.

All three of those running backs offer more on special teams than anyone that Lions would pick as their fifth receiver or third tight end, and they all looked capable Friday.

More observations from Friday

• The Lions have quite the coin flip on their hands for the No. 5 receiver spot, if they decide to keep one. Breshad Perriman had two drops and one catch in the first four series, making a rather unimpressive final impression with a few days left before cuts.

If Perriman was trying to make this team as an undrafted free agent, he would not be in consideration for a job right now. He was ordinary in training camp, when he was on the field, and his drops Friday were bad.

Tom Kennedy has had a better preseason with team-highs of eight catches and 107 yards receiving through two games. His shortcomings (as a slot-only option and on special teams) are well-known, and the Lions do not have anywhere near as big an investment in him as they do Perriman (who has $2 million guaranteed).

I would keep Kennedy over Perriman as the No. 5 receiver next week, but this receiving corps is not great and there should be a player or two who shakes loose on the waiver wire worth a claim.

• Quintez Cephus was the odds-on favorite for the No. 4 receiver job heading into Friday’s game, and the second-year pro looked the part on the field.

Cephus had three catches for 35 yards in the first half and caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Tim Boyle on a pretty route. He set up Colts cornerback Rock Ya-Sin — a regular on Indy’s defense — with a nice stutterstep at the line of scrimmage to gain a free inside release, then bounced off a tackler to get in the end zone.

• Penei Sewell played the first series Friday as the Lions continued to get the rookie right tackle reps in advance of their Sept. 12 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Sewell did not play enough for me to make any meaningful observations, but he had a better showing than swing tackle Tyrell Crosby.

Crosby gets a bit of a pass as Friday was his first action since injuring his hamstring early in camp, but he got beat for a sack-fumble on the Lions’ fourth offensive play.

One other offensive line note: Dan Skipper, who was vying for a backup job, had to be carted off the field with an apparent left leg injury.

• I didn’t mention Corn Elder’s name much during training camp, in part because he was hobbled by a calf injury, but the veteran cornerback intercepted a Brett Hundley pass on the opening drive of Friday’s second half. Elder made a nice play on the ball, reading Hundley’s eyes, and appeared to return the pick for a touchdown before he was ruled down on replay.

The Lions should keep six or seven cornerbacks: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Mike Ford, A.J. Parker and Ifeatu Melifonwu are locks, and Elder is vying with special teams ace and fellow vet Nickell Robey-Coleman for jobs.

• Boyle and David Blough quashed the debate over whether the Lions should keep three quarterbacks, as both played well and led touchdown drives in the first half. Boyle, who struggled against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ mostly first-team defense in last week’s preseason loss, completed seven of nine passes for 53 yards and that touchdown to Cephus before leaving.

Blough was 6-for-9 passing for 43 yards in the first half and had a couple tough scrambles to keep drives alive. Blough nearly scored on a third-and-goal play, when he evaded a sack by Banogu then tried to dive past two more Colts defenders into the end zone.

If the Lions had better roster depth overall, they might have better use for a roster spot than keeping a third quarterback whose contract is expiring and likely won’t be a long-term part of this team. But considering the roster, both Boyle and Blough should be on this team in Week 1.

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

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