Allen Park — As we head into the summer break ahead of training camp, we thought it would be a good time to piece together an early projection of what the Detroit Lions’ 53-man roster could look like once the regular season arrives.
In: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough
Work to do: None
Thoughts: In most ways, the backup quarterback competition is a repeat of last year, with Boyle having both the bigger salary and more of the coaching staff’s confidence. That said, through the early stages of the offseason program, Blough has been the better performer, limiting his mistakes and consistently making more accurate throws downfield.
At this point, it’s reasonable to expect both will get opportunities to lead the second-string offense during training camp practices and the preseason games as the evaluation continues.
Regardless of who ends up winning the backup job behind Goff, it seems likely the team continues to carry three quarterbacks on the roster. But remember, if the Lions were to go for two because of a roster need elsewhere, Blough only has $205,000 in dead money attached to his contract, compared to $1.75 million for Boyle.
Running backs (5)
In: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Greg Bell, Jason Cabinda (fullback)
Bubble player to watch: Jermar Jefferson
Work to do: Godwin Igwebuike
Thoughts: Swift and Williams are the obvious locks in the backfield, but there’s plenty of fluidity on the depth chart behind that thunder-and-lightning tandem.
Acknowledging each of the other four backs remains in the mix for jobs, we’re giving the early edge to Reynolds and the undrafted rookie, Bell. Reynolds, a training camp addition last year, has impressed in every chance he was given. He’s been seeing some work with the first-team offense when the Lions dial back on Swift’s practice workload.
As for Bell, here’s what running backs coach Duce Staley said about the evaluation:
“I remember turning the SDSU tape on because they do some different things offensively and he just kept sticking out,” Staley said. “I was like, ‘Man, I gotta find out who this kid is.’ You see the great vision, the burst, and you saw his hands.”
That vision has shown up on the practice field in May and June, but the conversation at the position can shift quickly once the pads come on in the summer. Still, something else that stood out about Bell was he won a foot race against Jefferson, who was reportedly one of the fastest players tracked on GPS when the Lions drafted him in the seventh round a year earlier.
Wide receivers (5)
In: Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus
PUP list: Jameson Williams
Bubble player to watch: Trinity Benson
Work to do: Tom Kennedy, Kalil Pimpleton, Josh Johnson, Corey Sutton
Thoughts: General manager Brad Holmes has done an excellent job injecting some talent into one of the roster’s thinnest positions from a year ago. In addition to retaining Reynolds, a key midseason waiver-wire claim, the team signed Chark, a former Pro Bowler, and traded up early in the draft for an elite speedster in Jameson Williams.
While Williams is likely to start training camp — and potentially the regular season — on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from a torn ACL, the path to a roster spot for the guys closer to the bottom of the depth chart remains tough.
Obviously, Benson is a name to watch. Struggling to initially find his footing in Detroit after being acquired in a trade before Week 1 last season, he’s looked far more confident and comfortable to begin this offseason, routinely making plays in full-team practice segments. If he’s able to maintain that momentum through the preseason, it’s easy to see the coaching staff finding him a spot, particularly if Williams remains sidelined.
Pimpleton is another player who has made plenty of plays in these early practices, but he’s firmly blocked by Raymond. That said, it’s easy to see a practice-squad role for the former Muskegon High School and Central Michigan standout.
Tight ends (3)
In: T.J. Hockenson, Brock Wright, Garrett Griffin
PUP list: James Mitchell
Bubble player to watch: Shane Zylstra
Work to do: Nolan Givan, Derrick Deese Jr.
Thoughts: Injuries have taken a toll on the tight end group through OTAs and minicamp. Mitchell, a fifth-round draft pick, is slowly working his way back from an ACL tear, while undrafted rookie Deese Jr. has been sidelined by an undisclosed injury for weeks.
That’s opened the door for Shane Zylstra — working his way back from his own devastating leg injury late last season — to see expanded opportunities. And with those extra snaps, he’s been highly productive, particularly as a red-zone receiving threat. That’s moved him into the conversation for a job, assuming he can build on this early success during training camp.
Griffin’s projected job is based more on his pre-established reputation as a blocker. He’ll get his chance to rubber-stamp those credentials when the pads come on in August.
Offensive line (9)
In: Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Frank Ragnow, Evan Brown, Matt Nelson, Obinna Eze, Tommy Kraemer
Bubble player to watch: Logan Stenberg
Work to do: Ryan McCollum, Dan Skipper, Kevin Jarvis, Zein Obeid
Thoughts: The Lions return their projected starting five, as well as a couple of key backups in Brown and Nelson. It feels like we can also put Kraemer in that group after he held his own in a couple of late-season starts as an undrafted rookie last year.
For the fourth tackle job, it’s easy to like the potential of Eze. The undrafted rookie out of TCU towers over just about everyone on the field at 6-foot-8, 334 pounds. Combine that frame with extremely long arms, and it’s worth further exploration of what he could become with some investment in his development.
As for the interior, Brown’s ability to play guard as well as center decreases the need to carry an extra depth piece. That puts Stenberg on the outside looking in. A season-ending injury last year cost the former fourth-round pick opportunities to show his development and led to him being jumped by Kraemer on the depth chart.
Defensive line (7)
In: Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Michael Brockers, Josh Paschal, Jashon Cornell
PUP list: Romeo Okwara
Bubble player to watch: John Cominsky
Work to do: Austin Bryant, Eric Banks, Bruce Hector, Demetrius Taylor
Thoughts: Detroit has made an effort to fix its anemic pass rush this offseason, re-signing last year’s sack leader Harris and using the No. 2 and No. 46 picks of the draft on Hutchinson and Paschal. Additionally, the team is making a schematic adjustment up front in hopes of unlocking the interior pass-rush abilities of McNeill and Onwuzurike, last year’s draft choices.
It’s also reasonable to expect Okwara will eventually be re-added to that mix, but he’s tracking toward a stint on the PUP list as he continues to work back from last year’s Achilles tear.
As we see it, there’s only one roster spot in play, but with multiple contenders. We’re giving the initial edge to Cornell, who should similarly benefit from the schematic tweak, allowing him to focus on attacking one interior gap to disrupt the backfield. He edges out Cominsky based on schematic familiarity, but the recent waiver claim offers unquestionably impressive athleticism and a college resume chock full of backfield disruption, albeit against a lower level of competition.
It’s more difficult to see a spot for Bryant, the oft-injured edge rusher who has essentially been replaced by the new additions.
In: Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Chris Board, Julian Okwara, Josh Woods, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston,
Bubble player to watch: Jarrad Davis
Work to do: Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman, Natrez Patrick,
Thoughts: Detroit has a lot of bodies, but not a lot of star power in its linebacker room.
Anzalone is the easiest piece to figure out. The coaching staff trusts him, and his teammates respect him, naming him a captain in his first year with the franchise. You can safely plug him into a starting job.
The other starting job in Detroit’s base defense remains up for grabs. The most likely options are Barnes, in his second season out of Purdue, and Board, a free-agent signing out of Baltimore who has developed a reputation for being effective in coverage. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a situational time-share, similar to how Barnes operated with Jalen Reeves-Maybin much of last season.
The younger Okwara also figures to see plenty of playing time, although it will be more on the line of scrimmage as an edge rusher.
As for the off-ball depth, we like Woods, who is one of Detroit’s top special-teams contributors, and the rookies Rodriguez and Houston.
Davis would definitely be a feel-good story, and the coaching staff really likes him, but his skill set is still limited, with much of his practice impact coming as a blitzer. He’ll need to show more in the preseason to merit being retained over one of the rookies or a player at another position.
Pittman is one of our toughest cuts after leading the team in special-teams snaps in 2021, but he’s a victim of the numbers game in this projection.
Defensive backs (11)
In: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, AJ Parker, Mike Hughes, Will Harris, Chase Lucas, Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott, Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu, C.J. Moore
PUP list: Jerry Jacobs
Bubble players to watch: Saivion Smith, Brady Breeze
Work to do: Mark Gilbert, Bobby Price, Cedric Boswell, JuJu Hughes
Thoughts: With the way he’s been moving on the practice field, we’re optimistic Okudah will be ready for the start of the season. Whether he’s ready to handle a full, 70-snap workload in Week 1 remains to be seen, but we’re expecting him to be out there to start the opener against Philadelphia.
As for the rest of the starting backfield, Oruwariye and Walker are clear choices, while Parker and Elliott are tracking for the nickel corner and No. 2 safety jobs.
Hughes, the former first-rounder who netted $1 million in guarantees as a free agent, offers depth at both the outside and slot corner spots, while Harris and Melifonwu are in line to be matchup pieces who line up at a variety of spots for coordinator Aaron Glenn.
Assuming the Lions stay reasonably healthy at safety, Joseph probably won’t see much playing time on defense as a rookie. The focus will be on developing the third-rounder’s overall skill set with a larger role in 2023.
The other draft pick, Lucas, has impressed with his ability to get his hands on the ball in these early practices. The 25-year-old corner is long on college experience and could likely handle nickel responsibilities if Parker were to get banged up again, much like he did last year as a rookie.
As for Moore, his special-teams contributions and leadership in the room keep him in the fold, although Breeze has the tools to push for that job.
In: Jack Fox, Austin Seibert, Scott Daly
Work to do: Riley Patterson
Thoughts: Fox and Daly don’t have competition for their jobs, but the place-kicking role remains a tightly contested battle.
Seibert and Patterson both performed well last season, combining to make 23 of 26 field-goal attempts. We’re awarding the advantage to Seibert because of his leg strength. If the Lions had a 55-yard attempt to win a game, there’s little doubt he’d be the better option, even if you’re potentially sacrificing a fraction of overall accuracy.
Seibert’s leg strength would also be beneficial in handling kickoffs, giving the Lions the ability to keep the ball out of the hands of some of the league’s more dangerous return men by booting it deep.