One Detroit Lions player’s journey on the NFL roster cut bubble: ‘They know I’m a baller’

Detroit Free Press

In his downtime before practice Thursday, Godwin Igwebuike found himself flipping through some of his old journal entries from his first training camp with the Detroit Lions last summer.

Igwebuike, who was in the middle of a position switch from safety to running back at the time, was musing about how difficult life was on the NFL roster bubble. The stress, the worry, the anxiety, and the simple approach he took to get through it – put your head down and go to work.

“I feel like I’m in a vastly different place (now), and in other ways, I’m in a similar place,” Igwebuike told the Free Press this week. “I feel like I’ve come a long way in terms of being comfortable and being confident and bringing a lot more poise into my game, and I think it feels good to have the opportunity to put stuff on film where they know what I can do. They know I’m a baller, they know I’m fighting for every yard, they know I’m fast and versatile, so it’s a good feeling to know that they trust me and they’ve seen what I can do.

“At the same time, me and you both know, I’m still grinding, I’m still fighting for a spot.”

One of a dozen or so players truly in the mix for a back-end job on the Lions’ 53-man roster, Igwebuike said he’s at peace heading into next week’s roster cuts knowing he has taken the same approach to this year’s camp that he followed last summer.

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Igwebuike won the starting kick return job coming out of training camp, and after losing the job early in the season, finished as one of the NFL leaders.

He averaged 24.9 yards per return, fifth in the NFL among 16 qualifying players, and was a key contributor on special teams.

“The tone (of my journals last year was) really was no matter how I’m feeling that day, no matter how I’m feeling in the moment, your feelings can be deceptive at times,” Igwebuike said. “Sometimes you walk out here like, ‘I don’t know if I got it.’ But in spite of that, ‘All right, what I do have to do? I’m going to bring it all and it’s going to be enough.’

“So it’s like, if I can show up, I’m going to take whatever I have and make it pop. And I think you got to see that, last year I got to see the fruit of that. … I made it through that in way bigger ways than I ever thought I could, so let’s see it happen again.”

Lions coach Dan Campbell said Friday special teams “always” will be the tiebreaker in the competition for back-end roster jobs, and that could serve Igwebuike well in his fight for a backup spot at running back.

D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams sit firmly atop the depth chart at running back, and Craig Reynolds has seen significant time in the No. 3 role this summer.

Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said the team will “try to showcase” Justin Jackson on Sunday against the Steelers “to see what he can bring to the table.”

Though Igwebuike had just 18 carries (for 118 yards) last season and has one year of return experience, he’s more of a known commodity than others he’s fighting with for jobs.

Jackson played four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, but was a late addition to training camp in Detroit. Second-year back Jermar Jefferson played sparingly as a rookie, and the players Igwebuike is competing with for the kick-return job – Maurice Alexander, Trinity Benson and Kalil Pimpleton – have never held that role in the NFL.

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“The one thing I would say is I value all that regular season work quite a bit,” Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. “If you see a guy do it in the National Football League against real players in the National Football League in regular season games, then you’ve got a pretty good idea what he’s going to do.”

For that reason, the Lions have entrusted their return jobs primarily to Alexander and Benson this summer.

Kalif Raymond, the Lions’ top punt returner, has not handled punts in either of the Lions’ first two preseason games, and Igwebuike could see his first time on kick return this week.

Igwebuike, who played the Lions’ third-most special teams snaps last season, said he still has managed to get good work this summer as a returner by being more purpose-driven in practice. Where last year he was focused on “just trying to make sure I was going in the right direction,” this year he has worked on details, like eluding defenders with a jab step and perfecting his stiff arm.

“I can get a lot more value than I was last year out of practice,” he said. “I think I’m getting value regardless, but the value I’m getting is at a different level.”

Should he win the return job and a roster spot, Igwebuike said he hopes to bring a different level of value to the Lions this fall, too.

“There definitely is an uncertainty that comes with this game and I think it’s a good thing because it means that there are guys who are pushing you and there are guys in our room who are doing a great job,” he said. “When it comes down to it, shoot, I do what I can. I put the work in. I do everything, I leave no stone unturned and then I just let the Lord handle the rest, which gives me peace. Just put my trust in him and kind of just let it flow from there. Hopefully I’m here, I’m balling. I’m going to ball regardless, so hopefully I’ve done enough by then to where they can see that.”

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