Aidan Hutchinson, Jeff Okudah among players to watch in Detroit Lions’ preseason opener

Detroit Free Press

Five players to watch in the Detroit Lions’ preseason opener Friday against the Atlanta Falcons:

Aidan Hutchinson

Hutchinson looks every bit the player the Lions thought they were getting when they made him the No. 2 overall pick out of Michigan in April. He is a relentless defender who moves all over the line, and the Lions are force-feeding him reps to get him ready for a big role this fall.

[ Jameson Williams takes Stafford’s No. 9; juggling next up on Hard Knocks? ]

Hutchinson should get significant playing time Friday, more than most of the Lions’ other starters. Going against a middling offensive line that has not studied his moves, the potential is there for him to make a big impact, too.

Jeff Okudah

Friday marks Okudah’s return to game action 334 days after tearing his Achilles tendon in last year’s season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s been a long road back, and Okudah deserve credit for his perseverance, but he remains a bit of a mystery as a player.

“He needs reps, he needs to play, I mean that’s the thing that we can never lose sight of,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “He’s going into Year 3 and he really hasn’t played.”

Like Hutchinson, Okudah should play plenty Friday. He has split first-team reps with Will Harris through the first two weeks of camp, and a good performance this preseason will go a long way in his bid for a starting job.

Tom Kennedy

Kennedy was considered a dark horse candidate for the No. 6 receiver job heading into camp, but we might have undersold his spot on the depth chart. When quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell was rattling through trustworthy receivers while meeting with the media Wednesday, he mentioned DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown and Kennedy, and no one else. That doesn’t mean Kennedy is lock to make the 53-man roster, but it’s not insignificant, either.

With Quintez Cephus and Trinity Benson nursing injuries, Kennedy should get ample playing time and has a chance to distinguish himself in pursuit of a job. If Wednesday’s practice is any indication, Kennedy will get prime special teams reps on the top kick-cover and kick-return units, too.

Malcolm Rodriguez

Hutchinson is not the only rookie defensive player earning rave reviews in Lions camp. Rodriguez, a sixth-round pick from Oklahoma State, has shot up the depth chart with consistently strong play.

Rodriguez is in the mix for early playing time at linebacker, perhaps even a starting role next to Alex Anzalone. He has advanced football intelligence, a magnetic attraction to the ball and he hits like a sledgehammer. Expect him to get on the field early Friday, and if he makes plays in whatever packages the Lions use him in, expect his responsibilities to grow next week.

Jared Goff

Goff won’t play much this preseason. Perhaps a series or two Friday. So if you’re curious to see how different he and the Lions’ offense look under new coordinator Ben Johnson, tune in early.

Goff seems to have embraced more of the downfield passing attack after struggling to push the ball vertically at times last year. It helps that the Lions added DJ Chark to their receiver room, and have Jameson Williams waiting to join the mix at midseason.

Tim Boyle and David Blough will get most of the work at quarterback Friday, but the Lions will be looking for Goff to play a mistake-free game and move their high-priced offense when he is on the field.

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

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