Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have reached the end of training camp, and following Sunday’s preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team will have fewer than 48 hours to trim its roster from 80 players to 53.
Those decisions are never easy, and you can already sense they’re weighing on Detroit’s assistant coaches, who spent the week carefully dancing around the questions about their players who are perceived to be on the roster bubble.
At the start of the week, coach Dan Campbell estimated up to 10 spots are up for grabs. As he and general manager Brad Holmes weigh who will win those jobs, they’re weighing the critical factors of reliability, durability and talent.
Reliability is easily understood. Can Campbell and his staff trust the player to consistently execute their assignments and fit the culture? If shouldn’t go unnoticed that the Lions have made very little changes to the roster this offseason. The team has only added three players since the start of training camp; two to take the place of young players who opted for retirement and a third as an injury replacement. That’s because each addition is carefully vetted as a potential fit before they are signed.
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As for durability, the team has had some issues, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike has been out for weeks with a back injury and is looking increasingly unlikely to play in the season opener. Julian Okwara has been sidelined a similar amount of time with a lower leg injury, although Campbell remains optimistic about getting the edge-rushing linebacker back in time for the Sept. 11 matchup with Philadelphia.
In the back end, the team is down two safeties as Ifeatu Melifonwu and CJ Moore are hindered by leg injuries. And all of those things will weigh into the roster-shaping process.
“Yeah, it’s not easy, but there again, I think we’ve got to weather that storm,” Campbell said. “We have to weather it a little bit because those guys, there’s no setbacks. They’re getting better and so I think we just do the best we can with what we have in the moment and then knowing that we got reinforcements coming.”
And when some of those final decisions are due, Campbell confirmed the tiebreaker is going to be special teams.
“I mean, if it’s close at all, it needs to be somebody we know can help us on special teams,” Campbell said. “Other than that, certainly, it’s hard. We have to weigh it. …So, it’s a juggling act that Brad, and I have to do here and sort through.”
Stating his case
With the injuries at safety, it’s opened the door for JuJu Hughes to make a strong case for a roster spot.
“The thing that I think we have in JuJu, very specifically, is a very instinctive safety,” position coach Brian Duker said this month. “He’s shown he’s really got a great feel for the game and that allows him to play really fast and trigger. He’s made a lot of plays doing that, so that’s his biggest trait, his biggest asset that’s been really impressive to me.”
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Rams in 2020, the Lions jumped at a chance to claim him off waivers back in January.
Appearing in 19 games for the Rams the past two seasons, mostly on special teams, he’s been a dependable and reliable option for the Lions this offseason, matching rookie Kerby Joseph for the most defensive snaps logged by any player the first two preseason games. Not surprisingly, Hughes is in line for another significant workload in the finale against Pittsburgh.
“To this point here, he’s been your classic case of durability and dependability,” Campbell said. “That’s what he’s been and he certainly has made a case to take a spot for us, to earn a spot for us. He’s made that argument. He’s improved since he’s been here and I thought he was another guy who had a really good week last week.
“…He’s a steady player back there,” Campbell continued. “You don’t have to worry about him doing the wrong thing, he’ll be where he’s supposed to be. He’s going to make the right calls, and he’s a player that I think everybody trusts — has a lot trust for right now.”
High praise from multi-time champion
From one underappreciated receiver to another, three-time Super Bowl champion Julian Edelman tossed some love in the direction of Amon-Ra St. Brown this week, labeling the Lions wideout the league’s most underrated at the position during a Q&A on social media website Reddit.
Edelman, a college quarterback at Kent State, pieced together a remarkable 11-year career, all with the New England Patriots, after being selected by the franchise in the seventh round of the 2009 draft.
Highly athletic, but undersized, the 5-foot-10 Edelman racked up 620 receptions for 6,822 yards and 36 touchdowns as one of Tom Brady‘s favorite targets. Additionally, he ranks second in NFL history in postseason catches and yards, earning Super Bowl MVP honors for his performance in 2019’s Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams.
St. Brown, a fourth-round selection out of USC last year, surged across the finish line his rookie year, catching 51 of his franchise rookie record 90 receptions the final six games.