The Detroit Lions went winless in the preseason, but head coach Dan Campbell said he is “encouraged” by where his team is two weeks before its regular season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
“Do we still have work to do? Yeah, we do. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Campbell said after Friday’s loss to Indianapolis. “But we have time. And I think I told you guys this before, the hardest thing is to have urgency and patience at the same time. I don’t know how to do that, but I’m working on it. But I am encouraged. There’s things that I see from all three phases that we’re improving in, we are.”
Campbell, his coaches, Lions general manager Brad Holmes and his staff had a series of personnel meetings planned Saturday to begin whittling the team’s 80-man roster to 53 players by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
Campbell said he does not expect to make any moves official until Monday, and the team likely will wait until Tuesday to make its final round of cuts and then be aggressive on the waiver wire.
Several bubble players made a strong final impression in Friday’s preseason finale, with Campbell mentioning running back Godwin Igwebuike, cornerback Corn Elder and offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer in particular. I found a home for two of those players on my initial 53-man roster and certainly think the third will stay in Detroit on the practice squad.
The Lions have good depth on the defensive line and at cornerback, and could go heavy at both positions if their injury situation allows. They are incredibly weak at wide receiver and linebacker and need to find upgrades from the league’s scrap heap.
I debated about a half-dozen jobs and had to settle between receiver Tom Kennedy, linebacker Jahlani Tavai and safety Jalen Elliott for one final roster spot.
Here is my final don’t-bet-the-house-on-it 53-man roster prediction:
In: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough.
Prediction: Keeping three quarterbacks appears only temporary as Boyle injured his right thumb Friday and could be headed to injured reserve. Unless his injury is season-ending, the Lions must keep him on their roster for a day before making the move. Blough is in line to be Goff’s backup. I’m not sure a better option will shake free on the waiver wire, but look for the Lions to add a third quarterback to the practice squad as insurance.
THE FUTURE: Meet 10 elite college quarterbacks the Lions could eye in 2022 NFL draft
Running back (5)
In: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike, Jason Cabinda.
Prediction: I had the Lions keeping just four backs in my last roster prediction, but Igwebuike played his way onto this team with two strong preseason games. He’s a converted safety who has special teams ability, so he’s more valuable than backups at some other positions, and he has steadily improved since his position change. Jefferson solidified his place as the No. 3 running back with a strong first half against the Colts. Craig Reynolds is odd man out in this scenario, but he made a favorable summer impression, too. I don’t think he brings as much special teams value as Igwebuike, but he’s worthy of a practice squad spot.
BIRKETT: What I saw from Lions preseason finale vs. Colts
In: Tyrell Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus.
Prediction: Tom Kennedy played 11 snaps Friday, which seems like a light workload for someone on the roster bubble. Maybe he’s not actually on the bubble, but I left him off my initial 53-man roster thinking that he will slide through waivers and easily can be re-signed if Boyle heads to IR. Kennedy’s value is limited as a slot-only player, and he barely played on special teams Friday. There could be upgrades available on the waivers, but he is a better No. 5 option than Breshad Perriman. Perriman had two drops Friday and was thoroughly unimpressive the little he was on the field in camp. I realize there’s a financial component to this and it’s sometimes hard for teams to admit they whiffed on a free agent. But holding onto a mistake does nothing to help you move forward. Javon McKinley could be practice squad-bound, but the Lions need to find receiver help elsewhere.
Tight end (2)
In: T.J. Hockenson, Darren Fells.
Prediction: Campbell is a former tight end, so it probably pains him to go light at this position. But he has to know Hockenson and Fells are the only two NFL-ready tight ends on his roster. Brock Wright did some good things in camp and has more pass catching ability than he showed at Notre Dame. He should slip through to the practice squad, and if that happens, there’s a good chance he plays at some point this year. Alize Mack has value as a receiving option, but I’m guessing better options emerge on the waiver wire and the Lions find more value in keeping an extra player at another position.
Offensive line (9)
In: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell, Tyrell Crosby, Evan Brown, Logan Stenberg, Matt Nelson.
Prediction: The Lions are like most NFL teams in that they lack depth on the offensive line. Decker, Jackson, Ragnow, Vaitai and Sewell worked together with the first-team offense all camp and will start Sept. 12 against the 49ers. Crosby missed time with a hamstring injury this summer and had some rough moments Friday, but he’s invaluable as a sixth lineman. He could be a trade chip eventually, but the Lions can’t leave themselves too thin up front now. Stenberg left Friday’s game with a right leg injury, which could open the door for a player like undrafted rookie Tommy Kraemer to make the roster. Nelson played a lot of guard this summer, but he’s better at tackle so he gets the edge for the ninth spot for now.
Defensive line (6)
In: Michael Brockers, Nick Williams, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Da’Shawn Hand, Kevin Strong.
Prediction: Kennedy wasn’t the only bubble player whose snap count was curious Friday. John Penisini played five snaps, which could mean either he’s in as the No. 2 nose tackle or the Lions wanted to keep him under wraps to avoid a possible injury settlement. I’m leaving Penisini off my roster prediction for now as I try to get a better read on one of the Lions’ few positions of depth. Instead, I gave Kevin Strong the sixth spot over Penisini and Bruce Hector, who played well preseason. This was my toughest decision as I think all three players are worthy of roster spots, but Strong played slightly better in preseason games. The Lions have a seventh lineman, Jashon Cornell, who is suspended for the first three games.
In: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, Charles Harris.
Prediction: There should not be much debate about this spot as the Lions have five capable edge defenders, a couple of whom will help on special teams. Flowers and Romeo Okwara are the Week 1 starters, but Bryant deserves special mention for a strong showing in his first healthy preseason as a Lion. He needs to finish his pass rushes better at times, but has a non-stop motor and should find his way into the playing group.
Off-ball linebacker (4)
In: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Prediction: The inside linebacker position is similar to receiver: The Lions lack adequate depth behind their top group. Barnes may push for a starting role at some point this fall, and Reeves-Maybin is a demon on special teams, but neither Jahlani Tavai nor Anthony Pittman made a compelling enough case to make the initial 53-man roster. Pittman made plays in spurts and Tavai hardly at all, and keeping four linebackers may leave the Lions a little light on special teams. But Bryant should be able to handle the fourth spot up front in punt protection. Plus, with a return of last year’s gameday roster rules, keeping Pittman and/or Tavante Beckett on special teams could alleviate some concern.
In: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Mike Ford, Ifeatu Melifonwu, A.J. Parker, Bobby Price, Corn Elder.
Prediction: One position Campbell said will draw heavy scrutiny in the Lions’ Saturday personnel meetings is slot cornerback. Ford and Price seem like locks as they split first-team reps at the position during camp, and Ford is one of the Lions’ two best players on special teams. Elder and Nickell Robey-Coleman are veterans, and for various reasons had truncated camps. Robey-Coleman signed late, while Elder missed time with an injury. This is a toss up, but I gave Elder the slight edge because the Lions signed him in the spring and I think he has more potential value on special teams. Price makes the cut based on his special teams value, though he is not ready to contribute at cornerback.
PRICE IS RIGHT: ‘Hell no,’ position change to CB isn’t easy for Bobby Price
In: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, Dean Marlowe, C.J. Moore, Jalen Elliott.
Prediction: I mentioned up top that my 53rd spot came down to Kennedy, Tavai and Elliott. Well, Elliott made the cut after a strong finish to the preseason. He played well vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, and had two coverage tackles Friday. He probably makes it through waivers if the Lions cut him, but he’s more of a risk to be claimed than Kennedy because of his special teams ability, and I think his potential future value at safety is greater than some of the other bubble players the Lions are debating. The Lions could use more help at safety with a starting-caliber player, yet those are hard to find this time of year.
In: P Jack Fox, K Randy Bullock, LS Scott Daly.
Prediction: Fox and Daly are assured spots as they are the only players left in camp at their positions. The Lions could consider other long snapping options, but the reality is they won’t know if Daly can handle punt protections until the regular season. I’m giving Bullock a slight edge over Zane Gonzalez for the kicking job, but there’s a good chance whoever wins it won’t hold it through the year. Both Bullock and Gonzalez were perfect in preseason games (and far from it practice), though neither tried a kick longer than 28 yards. Bullock gets the edge, largely because the Lions signed him in the spring, when both he and Gonzalez were available as free agents.
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.