Indianapolis — As if it wasn’t difficult enough to survive roster cuts in the NFL, try accomplishing the feat when you sign with a team after training camp has already started.
At that stage, you’ve missed the acclimation period of the offseason program, where there’s time to get to know your teammates and the playbook. You now have less than a month to make an impression, so you can’t afford to do anything but hit the ground running.
That’s the scenario both running back Justin Jackson and wide receiver Maurice Alexander faced when they joined the Detroit Lions two days apart at the beginning of the month.
Jackson at least had quality NFL production on his resume when the Lions called, needing a replacement for injured rookie Greg Bell at the back end of the depth chart. Prior to coming to Detroit, he spent four seasons with the Chargers, logging more than 250 touches and averaging an impressive 5 yards per carry while backing up Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.
Jackson isn’t sure why it took so long for a team to call this offseason, and he knows there’s nothing to gain by dwelling on the fact. What he can focus on is the present, but following the opportunity to play an expanded role in Saturday’s preseason game against the Colts, it’s even less clear why there were no takers.
Taking advantage of the quality blocking provided by Detroit’s offensive line, he found his way into the second level of the Colts defense multiple times, pacing the Lions with 54 yards on seven carries.
“I came in trying to focus on myself,” Jackson said. “Obviously there’s 90 other guys trying to get to know everybody, but also you got to be in the experience and let things flow. Don’t try and force relationships. Don’t try and force going too hard or doing too much, kind of let the game come to you and I think that shined today for myself.”
As for Alexander, his path has been different. He doesn’t have any NFL experience after going undrafted in 2020. But his football career found a second wind playing for the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL this winter, where he earned all-league honors as a return man.
“It gave me another opportunity to show that I could play in the National Football League,” Alexander said. “I thank those guys. Without those players at the USFL and without those good coaches, Coach (Martin) Bayless over there with the Philly Stars, it definitely gave me a boost of confidence to really learn new things and trust that I could bring it over from that league.”
Like Jackson, Alexander showed his playmaking ability against the Colts, handling return man duties for the Lions. He impressively averaged 38 yards on four kickoffs, including a 61-yarder.
“It’s hard to ignore,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “That’s why we wanted to get a look of him. (Special teams coordinator Dave) Fipp and I have been intrigued with him.”
Putting up a fight
It’s been a less-than-ideal offseason for second-year linebacker Derrick Barnes. The Lions had been looking for him to step up and take hold of the starting job opposite Alex Anzalone, but Barnes, along with a couple other options on the roster, have been jumped on the depth chart by rookie Malcolm Rodriguez.
That roster battle got even more attention this week when it was featured on the documentary series “Hard Knocks,” when position coach Kelvin Sheppard chewed out his group for getting outperformed by a sixth-round draft pick.
Saturday’s game showed Barnes isn’t going down without a fight. Playing more aggressively downhill, he recorded four run stops against the Colts, limiting the opposition to 2 or fewer yards on each of those plays. He also recorded a special teams tackle on the opening kickoff of the second half, dropping the return man before he reached the 20-yard line.
“My main focus today was to play downhill, come out here and make plays for the 15, 16 plays that I got,” Barnes said. “I just wanted to showcase my talent and give them an idea what I’m about.
“Just personally, I don’t think camp has been going the way I wanted it to. It hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been perfect. Today, I wanted to show myself what I can do and what I’m capable of doing.”
Barnes did more than prove it to himself. He also caught the attention of his coaches.
“I thought you could feel him out there and, ultimately, I think for me that’s how I wanted to come out of this game,” Campbell said. “I felt his presence, and he just continues to grow. I do feel like he gets a little bit better every week.”
Getting on the same page
Playing without the majority of the team’s starters, Detroit’s defensive reserves battled some inconsistencies in Saturday’s preseason game. They allowed the Colts to put together three touchdown drives, including a potential game-winner in the closing minutes that only fell short because of a failed two-point conversion.
All three of Indianapolis’ touchdowns came through the air, with the biggest blow being a 50-yard completion from quarterback Sam Ehlinger to wide-open receiver Dezmon Patmon in the third quarter. Campbell blamed the connection on a miscommunication in the secondary, and it appeared rookie Kerby Joseph was the primary culprit.
Communication issues in the defensive backfield were a problem for the Lions early last season and Campbell acknowledged the team was going through another round of growing pains with a fresh injection of young talent in the back end.
“I would say that’s pretty accurate,” Campbell said. “Open your mouth. Let’s be on the same page. It’s something that we’ve desperately been working on with the older guys who are starting to get it — Tracy (Walker) and (DeShon) Elliott and those guys. So now we’ve got to get the young guys to come along and start (communicating better). Man, there’s no secrets out there. We don’t want secrets. Let’s all be on the same page.”