Justin Rogers’ analysis of the 2021-2022 Lions’ 53-man roster

Detroit News

Justin Rogers of The Detroit News breaks down the 2021-2022 Lions 53-man roster.

OFFENSE

►Jared Goff, QB: The No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Goff played his first five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams prior to being shipped to Detroit as part of a package that sent Matthew Stafford to the Rams. In those five seasons, Goff compiled a 42-27 record as a starter, led the team to Super Bowl LIII and earned a pair of Pro Bowl selections (2017, 2018). But he’s struggled the past couple of seasons, including 29 interceptions his past 31 games, all while his yards per pass attempt have been among the lowest in the league.

►David Blough, QB: Acquired in a trade days before the start of the 2019 season, Blough enters his third year with the Lions. As a rookie, he started five games, going winless while completing 54% of his passes, with more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (four). Last year, as the team’s third-string option, he saw action in just one game off the bench, attempting 10 passes. He was headed toward the third-string job again prior to Tim Boyle suffering a thumb injury that will sideline him the next two months.

►D’Andre Swift, RB: A second-round pick in 2020, Swift was a dynamic dual threat as a rookie, racking up 878 yards from scrimmage, catching 46 passes, scoring 10 total touchdowns and averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Durability has been an early issue. He was sidelined three games with an illness last season and, for the second straight year, missed a significant chunk of training camp with a lower body injury.

►Jamaal Williams, RB: Brought in as a backfield complement to Swift, Williams is better equipped, at 6-foot, 213 pounds, to handle regularly running between the tackles. A fourth-round pick out of BYU in 2017, he spent his first four seasons with the Green Bay Packers where he averaged 737 yards from scrimmage and 4.5 touchdowns.

►Jermar Jefferson, RB: One of the final picks in the 2021 draft, Jefferson slid despite averaging 5.7 yards per carry during his three seasons at Oregon State because of poor athletic testing numbers. That said, the Lions said GPS tracking showed him to be one of college football’s fastest in-game runners, and his vision is undeniably advanced. How much he sees the field as a rookie will depend on the health of Swift and Williams, as well as how quickly he can develop his receiving and pass-blocking abilities.

►Godwin Igwebuike, RB: Two months ago, Igwebuike was a defensive back. A high school running back, he played safety at Northwestern and stuck there as he bounced around the league a bit after going undrafted in 2018. Clearly, the Lions like what they saw after making the position change, including a couple of tackle-breaking touchdown runs in the preseason. He also has plenty of special teams potential, given the skillset he cultivated as a defensive player.

More: Justin Rogers’ position-by-position analysis of the Lions’ 53-man roster

►Jason Cabinda, FB: Like Igwebuike, Cabinda is a converted defensive player, moving from linebacker to fullback during training camp a year ago. The mentality of those two positions is similar, while Cabinda’s athleticism should lend to him contributing more on offense than the three touches he had in 16 games last season. Additionally, he ranked third on the roster with 281 special teams snaps last year and figures to continue in those roles.

►Tyrell Williams, WR: One of the NFL’s most productive receivers on a per catch basis during his career, the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder has averaged 16.1 yards per reception in five seasons with the Chargers and Raiders. The default No. 1 wideout on Detroit’s roster, he’s five years removed from his lone 1,000-yard season and missed the 2020 campaign with a shoulder injury. He was signed as a free agent to a one-year, prove-it deal.

►Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR: The son of a former Mr. Universe, brother to NFL receiver Equanimeous and Stanford receiver Osiris, to say St. Brown comes from athletic family would be an understatement. A fourth-round draft pick this year, the USC product caught 178 passes, including 16 touchdowns, during three seasons at the school. He’s in line to see plenty of playing time as a rookie, with most of his early work likely to come in the slot.

►Kalif Raymond, WR: Detroit marks Raymond’s seventh NFL stop since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Holy Cross in 2016. At 5-foot-8, 182 pounds, he’s undersized, but makes up for it with speed and shiftiness. He’ll see time outside and in the slot with a realistic shot to double his career pass-catching production (19 receptions for 369 yards and a touchdown). He also enters the season as the front-runner for Detroit’s return jobs.

►Quintez Cephus, WR: Entering his second season, Cephus will look to build upon his rookie campaign that was punctuated by an impressive 17.5-yard per catch average. Cephus’ speed is his weakness, but he’s an advanced route runner relative to his experience and uses his 6-foot-1 frame well to make tightly contested catches.

►KhaDarel Hodge, WR: Claimed off waivers after final roster cuts, Hodge has fans within the Lions front office. General manager Brad Holmes was the Rams college scouting director when Hodge was signed by the franchise as an undrafted rookie, and Lions senior adviser John Dorsey was the Browns GM when the team claimed Hodge off waivers ahead of the 2019 season. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder is still developing as a pass-catcher, with 17 career receptions in 39 games, but there’s plenty of opportunity in Detroit, particularly for a receiver who can capably contribute on special teams as he’s done throughout the early stages of his career.

►Trinity Benson, WR: Another newcomer, the Lions acquired Benson in a trade from Denver, shipping the Broncos fifth- and seven-round round draft picks in exchange for the receiver for a future sixth-round selection. He’s spent his first two seasons developing on the Broncos’ practice squad and looks ready to take the next step after catching eight balls and two touchdowns during the preseason. He has above-average speed and is an impressive leaper, posting a 40.5-inch vertical coming out of East Central University in 2019.

►Tom Kennedy, WR: At Bryant University, Kennedy played both football and lacrosse, earning all-conference honors in the latter before initially pursuing the sport professionally with the Boston Cannons. He signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and has been with the team ever since, primarily as a member of the practice squad. After leading the team in receiving during the preseason, Kennedy defied the odds to make the initial 53-man roster, where he provides depth as a slot option with kick-return ability.

►T.J. Hockenson, TE: Selected No. 8 overall in the 2019 draft, Hockenson is already meeting the lofty expectations attached to his draft status, earning Pro Bowl honors in his second season. In 2020, he caught 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. Only 24 years old, his best days should be ahead of him. Based on the quick chemistry he’s forged with Goff on the practice field, along with the franchise’s dearth of receiving options, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hockenson’s production take another leap forward in 2021.

►Darren Fells, TE: In his second stint with the Lions, the 35-year-old former professional basketball player is entering the twilight of his pro career. Signed after Josh Hill abruptly retired ahead of the NFL Draft, the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Fells provides the Lions with an excellent blocking option who can still produce in the pass game. He’s just two years removed from his most productive season, when he hauled in 34 passes and seven touchdowns for the Texans in 2019.

►Taylor Decker, OT: The first draft pick made by former general manager Bob Quinn, Decker has developed into one of the league’s better offensive tackles. He’s coming off his best season, setting career-lows in quarterback pressure and sacks allowed, validating the four-year extension he signed last offseason. On top of the talent, he’s been durable. He was sidelined eight games in 2017 after suffering an offseason shoulder injury, but has missed just one since.

►Penei Sewell, OT: Detroit’s first-round pick this year, Sewell was a five-star high school recruit who dominated during his two seasons at the University of Oregon, winning the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman as a sophomore. Naturally a left tackle, the Lions have moved him to the right side. That’s come with some predictable struggles as he adjusts to the change, particularly in pass protection, where he surrendered four quarterback pressures including a sack in 60 pass blocking snaps during the preseason.

►Matt Nelson, OT: A collegiate defensive lineman, the Lions signed Nelson as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and immediately converted him to an offensive lineman. After spending his rookie season on the team’s practice squad, Nelson developed quickly enough to merit a roster spot in 2020. He ended up starting one game and playing significant snaps in four others, impressively holding his own despite his limited experience. After Tyrell Crosby was cut this offseason, Nelson is now the top backup tackle on the depth chart. He also saw 30 snaps at guard this preseason as the team tested his potential versatility.

►Jonah Jackson, G: Despite the lack of a traditional offseason in 2019, Jackson managed to earn a starting job as a rookie. He began the year at right guard, but shifted to the left side when the Lions shuffled the deck to address some early-season injuries. He started the final 14 games at left guard and battled through some predictable rookie inconsistencies, allowing 35 quarterback pressures. In his second offseason, Jackson has added weight and strength, as well as incorporated some martial arts training into his workout routine in an effort to improve his hands.

►Halapoulivaati Vaitai, OL: A top free-agent addition a year ago, Vaitai’s inaugural season with the Lions was a disaster due to a foot injury he suffered shortly before the start of the season. Originally expected to serve as the team’s right tackle, the loss of mobility caused by the foot injury led to the Lions moving him inside to guard, where he initially struggled before finishing on a high note. Now locked into that right guard job, he’ll look to rebound from last year’s injury-plagued nightmare.

►Logan Stenberg, G: Detroit’s next selection after Jackson in the 2020 draft, Stenberg’s rookie season couldn’t have gone more differently. The team tried him at center during his first training camp and it went poorly. After that, the mauling lineman known for his nasty streak coming out of the University of Kentucky faded into the background as a developmental project and was a healthy scratch for most  games. In a critical offseason to his future with the franchise, Stenberg played himself off the roster bubble with a strong camp and preseason.

►Frank Ragnow, C: Ragnow has been everything the Lions expected and more after they grabbed him in the first round of the 2018 draft. After starting his career at guard, he moved to center ahead of the 2019 season and quickly staked his claim as one of the NFL’s best at the position, becoming the first Detroit offensive lineman to earn a Pro Bowl selection in more than two decades. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a tougher player on the roster. He finished a game after fracturing cartilage in his throat and managed to return to the lineup after missing just two contests.

►Evan Brown, C: Brown has bounced around a bit after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He appeared in four games for two teams in 2019, but played just 38 snaps in those contests. He started 2020 with the Cleveland Browns before the Lions added him to their practice squad in December. In the final two weeks of the season, Brown saw the most extensive playing time of his young career, 44 offensive snaps, split between center and guard.

DEFENSE

►Michael Brockers, DL: The Lions acquired Brockers for a song, sending a seventh-round pick to the Rams for the accomplished veteran. The former first-round pick, who has spent his entire career with the Rams, is capable of playing a variety of defensive line alignments and should bolster Detroit’s ability to generate pass-rush pressure from the interior. According to Pro Football Focus, he sacked, hit or moved the quarterback off his spot 66  times the past two seasons. As for his contact situation, the Lions re-did his deal when he arrived, all but locking the 30-year-old lineman in through the 2022 season.

►Levi Onwuzurike, DL: The first of two defensive linemen the Lions selected on the second day of this year’s draft, Onwuzurike is an explosive backfield disruptor. Before opting out of the 2020 season due to personal reasons, he tallied 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks between the 2018-19 season. He missed significant time during camp while having a back injury evaluated, but looked sharp in his return to action, impressively generating four quarterback pressures on just 23 pass-rush snaps during the preseason.

►Alim McNeill, DT: The back half of the back-to-back defensive linemen drafted by the Lions, McNeill has quickly found himself in line to start at nose tackle. Built like a phone booth at 6-foot-2, 330 pounds, he’s surprisingly quick and agile for his size. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that surprising since he played outfield and running back for his high school baseball and football teams before bulking up.

►Nick Williams, DT: Williams joined the Lions as a free agent ahead of the 2020 season following a breakout campaign with the Chicago Bears in 2019. Williams, who sees himself as a run-stuffer first and foremost, racked up 6.0 sacks that year after recording none his first four seasons. Injuries limited his effectiveness in Detroit last year and he agreed took a significant pay cut to return in 2021. He will likely begin the season as a starter until the team feels Onwuzurike is ready for the job. Williams missed time in camp after contracting COVID.

►Kevin Strong, DT: Initially signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019, Strong was a feel-good story, making the roster as a rookie, fulfilling a promise to his dying father. He’s spent some time on injured reserve (ribs) and the practice squad, but has managed to stick around, appearing in 14 games the past two years. He’s coming off another solid preseason, which included 10 tackles and a sack in 60 snaps.

►John Penisini, DT: As a rookie last season, the Lions had to lean on Penisini much more than they would have hoped. He ended up playing 576 defensive snaps, more than any of the team’s other defensive tackles. He required offseason surgery to remove masses in his shoulder that were limiting his movement and missed additional time in camp with a lower-body injury. He’ll presumably provide depth behind McNeill when the rookie nose tackle needs a breather.

►Trey Flowers, OLB: Entering the third season of the five-year, $90 million pact he signed with the Lions in 2019, Flowers has been a model of consistency throughout his career. Although he’s never managed to hit double-digit sacks in a season, he is a highly disruptive pass-rusher who also plays fundamentally sound against the run. He’ll be asked to drop into coverage a little more often in this new defensive scheme, a year after missing nine games with a fractured forearm.

►Romeo Okwara, OLB: Fresh off signing a new three-year contract with the Lions this offseason, Okwara will be looking to build off his career-year in 2020 when he posted a team-high 10.0 sacks. The former Notre Dame product who landed in Detroit via waivers ahead of the 2019 season, is just 26 years old.

►Julian Okwara, OLB: The younger brother of Romeo, Julian was selected in the fourth round of the draft last year. He hasn’t played much the past two seasons, suffering a broken leg in his final season at Notre Dame before being limited to just 69 defensive snaps as a rookie due to another leg injury. The Lions played him extensively during the preseason, a team-high 125 snaps, urgently trying to accelerate his development. At Notre Dame, he racked up 13.0 sacks his final 22 games.

►Austin Bryant, OLB: Another young pass-rusher who has battled injury, Bryant has missed 22 of the first 32 games of his career. After starting this year’s training camp on the PUP list, he made his NFL preseason debut and impressed with his ability to get into the backfield, along with his relentless motor. Playing along one of the most dominant college lines in recent memory, he tallied 17.0 sacks his final two seasons at Clemson, despite working through a torn pectoral muscle much of his senior year.

►Charles Harris, OLB: A former first-round pick seeking to get his career on track, Detroit will be Harris’ third team in three seasons. The pass-rush skills he demonstrated coming out of Missouri in 2017 haven’t translated to the pro level with just 6.5 sacks in 54 games across four seasons. He didn’t get one in the preseason, either, but did manage to hit the opposing quarterback three times on 31 rushes.

►Jamie Collins, ILB: Ultra-athletic and highly versatile, Collins can do just about whatever you ask him on the football field. He led the Lions with 101 tackles his first season with the franchise and can line up off the ball, along the line of scrimmage, or even in one-on-one coverage in the slot against a tight end or linebacker. He’s shown a knack for forcing turnovers during his eight-year career with 19 forced fumbles and 11 interceptions. Collins restructured his contract this offseason, and based on the way the cap hits set up, this will likely be his final year with the team.

►Alex Anzalone, ILB: One of several bridge solutions the Lions added in free agency, Anzalone brings experience in the defensive scheme having been with coordinator Aaron Glenn in New Orleans the past four seasons. Talent and athleticism have never been in question, but durability has been an issue throughout his career. He’s played 16 games twice, including last season, but missed 26 the other two years.

►Derrick Barnes, ILB: A rookie out of Purdue, Barnes spent as much if not more time as a down lineman in the Boilermakers’ defensive scheme. In Detroit, he’ll exclusively play off the ball as an inside linebacker, so there’s an expectation it will take him a year of development before he’s ready to handle a starter’s workload. The preseason suggested he might be more advanced than expected, particularly in coverage.

►Jalen Reeves-Maybin, ILB: In his fifth season with the Lions, Reeves-Maybin has morphed into one of league’s premier special teams performers, recording 20 tackles in kickoff and punt coverage the past two seasons. Defensively, he’s seen his role shrink from 297 snaps in 2019 to 39 last year. With the addition of Anzalone and Barnes, it remains unclear whether Reeves-Maybin be able to work his way back into the rotation. Fun fact, he’s cousins with former Tigers outfield Cameron Maybin.

►Anthony Pittman, ILB: It took a couple years, but the former Birmingham Groves and Wayne State standout has played his way on to Detroit’s opening day roster. Pittman was undersized when he arrived in Detroit in 2019, bulked up to play outside linebacker in the previous defensive scheme and slimmed back down to return to inside linebacker this offseason. His immediate path to playing time will be through special teams, but he flashed some playmaking ability at linebacker on the practice field during training camp, meriting continued development.

►Jeff Okudah, CB: The No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft, the selection represented the earliest a cornerback was taken in two decades. He struggled to come close to meeting lofty expectations as a rookie, allowing 76% of the throws his direction to be completed before a core injury prematurely ended his year. In his second offseason, Okudah has looked far more confident. The Lions will be looking for him to make a second-year leap similar to the one made by three-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay several years ago.

►Amani Oruwariye, CB: Oruwariye, not Okudah or high-priced free agent Desmond Trufant, was Detroit’s most-reliable corner last season. The former fifth-round pick limited opposing quarterbacks to a 55.3 completion percentage on throws his direction. For the first time in his career, he’ll enter a season as an unquestioned stater.

►Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB: The Lions were overjoyed to find Melifonwu still on the board when they drafted him at the end of the third round. Possessing rare size for the position at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds with 32-inch arms, he has the ability to play with physicality on the outside. Just like his brother, Obi, who currently plays for the Eagles, Melifonwu is a top-tier athlete with above-average speed and elite leaping ability. The Lions have tinkered with using him as a slot and dime corner, in addition to backing up the outside spots. As of now, there’s no plan to test him at safety, as well.

►AJ Parker, CB: An undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, Parker surged from the back of the depth chart and will likely open the season as the team’s starting nickelback. He’s undoubtedly undersized, listed at just 178 pounds, but he showed the ability to punch above his weight class with solid open-field tackling during the preseason.

►Jerry Jacobs, CB: Another undrafted rookie who took a longer road than most to an NFL roster spot, Jacobs had three college stops, starting at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas before transferring to Arkansas State and finally Arkansas. There he made the regrettable decision of opting out midway through his senior season. It’s an impressive story of perseverance and overcoming mistakes. His feistiness on the field and eagerness to learn from the veterans and Okudah throughout the offseason was endearing to his teammates.

►Bobby Price, CB: Undrafted out of Norfolk State a year ago, Price spent much of his rookie season on Detroit’s practice squad. Initially a safety, he was moved to cornerback midway through this year’s camp. He’s struggled with the transition, but showed enough potential, as well as the ability to contribute on special teams, to merit a roster spot as a developmental project. At Norfolk State, he also won a conference championship in the long jump for the school’s track team.

►Tracy Walker, S: Two years into his career, Walker looked to be on the cusp of annually competing for Pro Bowl recognition. Instead, the Lions changed his role in 2020, asking him to play closer to the line of scrimmage to incorporate veteran Duron Harmon. The move proved disastrous for Walker, made worse by the mental strain of playing under the oppressive style of former coach Matt Patricia. In better spirits this offseason, Walker is primed to rebound as he enters the final season of his rookie contract.

►Will Harris, S: Harris was selected in the third round the year after Walker with the idea he two could develop into a long-term pairing in the back end of Detroit’s defense. Unlike Walker, Harris has yet to show the potential to be a consistent player in the NFL, struggling more often than not despite seeing nearly 1,000 defensive snaps through two seasons. Harris is the more physically gifted of the two, but his instincts must catch up to expectations if he’s going to become the player he was drafted to be. He’s expected to start again to begin this season, but will be pushed by the addition of veteran Dean Marlowe.

►Dean Marlowe, S: A backup his five NFL seasons, Marlowe began his career in Carolina and was on the Panthers’ Super Bowl roster in 2016. From there, he went to Buffalo for three seasons, where he played behind one of the league’s best safety tandems. He saw a career-high 230 defensive snaps in 2020, recording his first two interceptions in the process. He also played 215 snaps on special teams, a role he figures to continue in with the Lions.

►C.J. Moore, S: Even though the Lions continue to go through a revolving door at special teams coordinator, Moore has needed little time to impress each coach. In two seasons, he’s already racked up more than 550 special teams snaps and will continue to be one of the most important pieces in those facets this year. Moore’s twin brother, A.J., plays for the Texans.

SPECIALISTS 

►Austin Seibert, K: Seibert is the kicker du jour after Randy Bullock, Matthew Wright and Zane Gonzalez failed to seize hold of the job opening created when Matt Prater signed with Arizona in the offseason. The 24-year-old Seibert was a fifth-round pick in 2019 and has appeared in 21 games for the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. He’s been inconsistent to start his career, missing five extra points as a rookie, but has converted a respectable 81.6% of his field goal attempts with a long of 53. At the University of Oklahoma, Seibert also handled punting duties.

►Jack Fox, P: Fox came out of nowhere last season to have the best punting season in franchise history, averaging 49.1 yards gross and 44.8 yards net. That latter number was the third-best in NFL history, behind only Fox’s childhood idol Johnny Hekker and Patriots Jake Bailey, who edged Fox out for first-team All-Pro honors last season.

►Scott Daly, LS: After a legendary 17-year career that spanned 260 games, Don Muhlbach was finally unseated as Detroit’s long snapper. Daly will handle those duties this season after falling short during an offseason audition with the Cowboys as a rookie in 2018 and stints in the now-defunct AAF and XFL.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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