Projecting the Detroit Lions’ 53-man roster following the preseason opener

Detroit News

Allen Park — With the first preseason game in the books, the timing felt right for a reassessment of the Detroit Lions’ roster. With several spots still being contested, here’s how we have the 53-man roster shaking out with a couple of weeks of training camp and two preseason contests remaining.

Quarterbacks (2)

► In: Jared Goff, David Blough

► Work to do: Tim Boyle

► Thoughts: Admittedly, this opinion might be based more on feeling than logic.

The coaching staff clearly felt a certain way about the two backups last season, pushing Boyle into a spot start immediately after activating him off the injured list, leapfrogging him over Blough in that process. And it was Boyle who received the bigger contract, with more guarantees, when both were free agents this offseason.

But the preseason opener was a continuation of what we’ve seen on the practice field throughout OTAs and training camp — Blough has been the more consistent option. While he might not have Boyle’s physical gifts, particularly the arm strength, Blough has been the better manager of the offense, putting the ball in harm’s way far less often. The cherry on top has been the improved mobility, which isn’t always apparent in a practice setting, but showed up Friday against the Falcons.

It’s worth noting, what a backup quarterback does behind the scenes, helping prep the starter and defense for the upcoming opponent, will carry plenty of weight. But on the off chance you need an emergency start, right now, I trust Blough more.

More: Lions stock report: Blough bests Boyle as backup QBs duel vs. Falcons

Running backs (4)

► In: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Jason Cabinda (fullback)

► Work to do: Godwin Igwebuike, Jermar Jefferson, Justin Jackson

► Thoughts: The lead tandem of Swift and Williams is cut and dry; it’s what the Lions want to do behind the duo that remains up for debate. Right now, we’re content giving the edge to Reynolds, who has been steady with everything he’s being asked to do, from carrying the ball, running routes, staying in protection or various special teams assignments.

Unlike last season, we struggled to find room for a fifth running back on the roster. That led to the extremely difficult decision to cut Igwebuike, who converted from safety a year ago and thrived as the team’s kickoff returner following the switch. Less difficult was axing Jefferson, who has shown questionable hands in the pass game in practice and did minimal damage on the ground against the Falcons, despite receiving twice as many carries as his backfield mates.

Of course, it’s possible Cabinda won’t be ready for the season. He remains sidelined by an ankle injury. If he stays on the physically unable to perform list, that could clear a path to keep an extra back.

Wide receivers (7)

► In: Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson, Tom Kennedy

► PUP list: Jameson Williams

► Work to do: Kalil Pimpleton, Josh Johnson, Maurice Alexander

► Thoughts: Let’s get the obvious out of the way: St. Brown, Chark, Reynolds and Raymond are locks. What the Lions want to do beyond those four will need to be sorted out throughout the rest of the month.

Even with another injury sidelining him for an extended period of time, it’s difficult to think Cephus isn’t safe. He’s produced with his opportunities and brings valued size and physicality on the outside.

With Benson, it feels like the team is determined to make it work, at least until the rookie Williams is cleared to return from last January’s ACL tear. Benson is being given a wealth of opportunity, not only as a receiver, but also on special teams where he served as the kickoff returner to start the Falcons game, while also taking reps in the critical gunner role on punt coverage.

Finally, Kennedy is playing his way on to the roster for the second consecutive offseason. There’s value in showing people there’s a path to a job through performance. So despite a crowded depth chart at the position, there has to be a reward for his production on the practice field and in the preseason opener.

Tight ends (3)

► In: T.J. Hockenson, Brock Wright, James Mitchell

► Work to do: Devin Funchess, Garrett Griffin, Nolan Givan, Derrick Deese Jr., Shane Zylstra

► Thoughts: At this point, we can confidently consider Wright the No. 2 tight end on the depth chart. The second-year man out of Notre Dame has received plenty of reps with the first-team offense, including against the Falcons, and he’s shown improvements as both a receiver and blocker.

I’m conflicted which direction to go with a third option, but went safe and chose Mitchell, who the team drafted in the fifth round this April. Originally, I thought he might need more time to recover from his own ACL tear, but avoiding the PUP list to start camp altered that perception.

That means Funchess, Griffin and Zylstra are out. People might not like hearing that about Funchess, who had an outstanding preseason debut, but performance didn’t match with what we’ve seen through camp. That said, it could be a launching point to making a case and merits continued monitoring.

Griffin is one of, if not the best blocker in the group. You might have noticed he was filling Cabinda’s role in the offense, taking some fullback reps against the Falcons. If Cabinda remains on PUP to start the season, Griffin has a case for that spot.

As for Zylstra, he’s done too much good work on the practice field, particularly in red-zone situations, to write him off.

Offensive line (8)

► In: Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Frank Ragnow, Evan Brown, Matt Nelson, Tommy Kraemer

► Work to do: Logan Stenberg, Obinna Eze, Ryan McCollum, Dan Skipper, Darrin Paulo, Kevin Jarvis, Kendall Lamm

► Thoughts: We know the starters and can say with similar conviction that Brown and Nelson are the top reserves, with the latter routinely stepping in to replace Decker on the days he’s been held out of practice.

A case could be made to keep one or two more linemen, but given some special teams considerations at other spots on the roster, we’re going with just one in this projection. And in my opinion, that decision comes down to Kraemer and Stenberg.

We’re giving the edge to Kraemer, first, because he proved his abilities in regular-season action as an undrafted rookie a year ago, and two, because he’s clearly been the better player this offseason. Interestingly, PFF graded him as the team’s top pass blocker in Friday’s preseason opener.

The Lions can address their remaining O-line needs with practice squad spots, which would be a good landing spot for Eze and Paulo to continue developing.

More: From Nigeria to, possibly, the Lions: Eze’s unconventional path to the NFL

Defensive line (7)

► In: Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Michael Brockers, Jashon Cornell, Austin Bryant

► PUP list: Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal

► Work to do: John Cominsky, Isaiah Buggs, Eric Banks, Bruce Hector, Demetrius Taylor

► Thoughts: The decisions throughout the defense are going to be difficult, starting with the front, even with Romeo Okwara and Paschal’s injuries potentially opening two more spots.

Onwuzurike’s back/hip injury, which has sidelined him the better part of two weeks, is concerning as well. Coach Dan Campbell said he doesn’t expect the issue to linger into the regular season, but even if it doesn’t, what kind of workload can Onwuzurike reasonably be expected to handle? It could necessitate keeping a fifth interior lineman initially, even if we didn’t go that direction here.

We went with Cornell over Buggs, Hector and the playmaking undrafted rookie Taylor. But that doesn’t mean we feel confident with that decision. The choice was largely based on practice rotations, but Cornell had a rough showing in the preseason opener, creating an opportunity to be knocked from his pole position.

On the edge, we had Bryant on the outside looking in during our initial projection back in June, but there’s no denying the fourth-year man out of Clemson has been a disruptive force throughout camp, paving his way back into the mix.

Even more than any of the defense tackles, our toughest cut was Cominsky, a versatile, high-effort lineman with a quick first step that plays up when rushing from the inside in clear passing situations. Based on that fact eight teams put in a waiver claim on his last time he hit the wire, he’s unlikely to make it back to Detroit’s practice squad. That might make it worth trying to find a way to make him fit.

Linebackers (7)

► In: Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Chris Board, Julian Okwara, Malcolm Rodriguez, Anthony Pittman, Josh Woods

► Work to do: James Houston, Jarrad Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton

► Thoughts: We feel really good about the top five linebackers, which includes Rodriguez, the sixth-round pick who has rocketed up the depth chart with his impressive football IQ for a rookie.

We favored special-teams production to squeeze in two more linebackers, Pittman and Woods. They combined for more than 500 snaps with those groups last year, which were often a bright spot from an otherwise dismal three-win season.

But the focus on special teams led to some tough cuts, led by Houston. The obvious alternative is putting him in over Bryant, given the rookie’s usage has mostly been along the line of scrimmage. The case can be built on potential and team control, with Houston just starting his four-year rookie contract and Bryant in the final year of his.

This projection also didn’t leave room for Davis. He’s not as proven as some of the other options on special teams, even though he has a high ceiling as a blitzing linebacker. He proved that with a six-sack season in Detroit a few years back and sent a reminder of the ability against the Falcons.

More: Some second day thoughts after reviewing Detroit’s preseason opener

Defensive backs (12)

► In: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, AJ Parker, Mike Hughes, Will Harris, Chase Lucas, Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott, Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu, C.J. Moore, Bobby Price

► PUP list: Jerry Jacobs

► Work to do: Mark Gilbert, Cedric Boswell, JuJu Hughes, Saivion Smith, Brady Breeze

► Thoughts: That’s a lot of defensive backs, but a couple of those spots are being reserved for rookies (Joseph and Lucas) who could spend much of their first year being developed on the practice field.

Moore is in for the same reason as Pittman and Woods. The veteran safety is simply too valuable on special teams, maybe even more so than the two linebackers given the specific roles he plays with those groups.

One name who might be more on the bubble than perceived is Hughes. The former first-rounder received some decent money to sign with the Lions this offseason, but he’s only on a one-year contract. If the team feels good about Lucas’ ability to contribute early if injuries necessitated that, as well as Price’s continued development paired with his special-teams contributions, Hughes could be expendable in favor of keeping another defensive lineman (Cominsky) or linebacker (Houston).

Specialists (3)

► In: Jack Fox, Austin Seibert, Scott Daly

► Work to do: Riley Patterson

► Thoughts: Fox and Daly are locks, leaving only the kicking battle to be decided. As we’ve said throughout the offseason, both offer good accuracy on field goals, but Seibert has more power, which also will play on kickoffs.

The fact Campbell acknowledged Seibert had the edge said a lot and only validated our previous opinions on the competition.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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