Allen Park — Before Sunday’s preseason finale, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell acknowledged that up to 10 roster spots were up for grabs. And although some battles, such as the backup quarterback competition, left more questions than answers, we were able to get a better understanding of the team’s pending roster construction based on nuances, such as the special-teams rotations.
With teams needing to file 53-man rosters ahead of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, here’s our best estimation of how Detroit’s decisions will shake out.
In: Jared Goff, David Blough
Out: Tim Boyle
Thoughts: Throughout the offseason, it always felt like Boyle had the slight edge to win the backup job, even when Blough was putting together more consistent practice performances. And the fact that Boyle got the start in Sunday’s preseason finale only strengthened that perception.
But with the Lions looking for someone to step up and grab the brass ring, Boyle faltered, throwing his second brutal interception of the preseason, while completing a paltry five of his 15 throws.
Reluctantly, we’re awarding the second spot to Blough, who was consistently mediocre during the preseason, posting a passer rating under 80 in each of the three contests. Based on coach Dan Campbell’s postgame comments, it feels like there’s an increasing likelihood Goff’s backup is not presently on Detroit’s roster.
Running back (4)
In: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike
Out: Jermar Jefferson, Justin Jackson
Injured: Jason Cabinda
Thoughts: Igwebuike has been one of the toughest reads this offseason. After converting from safety last offseason, he impressed as the team’s kickoff returner, posting the fourth-best average in the NFL. He also filled a few other special-teams roles and flashed playmaking potential with his limited reps in the backfield.
Despite the coaching staff continuing to insist he is the leader in the clubhouse to return kicks, Igwebuike didn’t handle a single one during the preseason. And his 11 carries were the fewest of the four guys competing to back up the starting tandem of Swift and Williams.
Maybe this will end up being a valuable reminder to trust what our eyes are telling us versus what the coaching staff says. Because if we’re to believe our eyes, Jackson did enough as a ball carrier, averaging 6.1 yards on 18 attempts, to justify sticking around.
Wide receiver (6)
In: DJ Chark, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Tom Kennedy
Out: Trinity Benson, Maurice Alexander, Kalil Pimpleton
Injured: Jameson Williams
Thoughts: Due to another injury in camp, Cephus was more on the bubble than originally anticipated, but his size is a valuable asset to have on the roster if something were to happen to either Chark or Reynolds.
As for Kennedy, he’s unlikely to develop into a consistent contributor on offense, but it never hurts to reward that one guy who does everything right and gives maximum effort on every assignment.
Kennedy gets the final spot over Benson, who never fully clicked the way the Lions envisioned when they traded for him last September. He was unquestionably better after having a full offseason in the system, but he never established a defining skill as a receiver or on special teams.
Tight end (4)
In: T.J. Hockenson, Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra, James Mitchell
Out: Devin Funchess, Derrick Deese Jr.
Thoughts: Mitchell is a work in progress after missing extensive time his first offseason while rehabbing his way back from last year’s torn ACL, but the rookie has supporters in the building. He probably won’t be active on game day anytime soon, but as long as the team can afford the roster spot, they’ll hold on and continue to develop the fifth-round draft pick.
The vastly improved Wright has been a near-lock for the roster for months, but he’ll probably have a little different role than expected with Cabinda sidelined for at least the first four games. Expect to see the former Notre Dame product lining up in the backfield, in more traditional fullback alignments, to begin the year.
As for Zylstra, he didn’t post big numbers in the preseason (six catches for 36 yards), but showed impressive development on the practice field, particularly as a receiving threat in the red zone. The former receiver’s size and speed should play on special teams.
Offensive line (8)
In: Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell, Jonah Jackson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Frank Ragnow, Evan Brown, Tommy Kraemer, Matt Nelson
Out: Logan Stenberg, Dan Skipper, Obinna Eze, Kevin Jarvis, Kendall Lamm, Darrin Paulo
Thoughts: If this projection holds true, it could be a disappointing end to Stenberg’s time in Detroit. After barely seeing the field as a rookie in 2020, he suffered an undisclosed injury last year that robbed him of an opportunity for some late-season starts. Those ended up going to Kraemer, who solidified himself as the more reliable backup with a strong camp and preseason this year.
The Lions do have some questions at offensive tackle behind the starters, with Nelson missing the past week of practice. The team would be taking a modest risk waiving Skipper, but assuming he clears waivers, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him brought back to the main roster as part of an ongoing shuffle leading into the regular-season opener.
Defensive line (9)
In: Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara, Alim McNeill, Michael Brockers, Levi Onwuzurike, Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky
Out: Eric Banks, Jashon Cornell, Bruce Hector, Demtrius Taylor
Injured: Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal
Thoughts: Even with some durability issues, both Onwuzurike and Julian Okwara are safe. That said, don’t be surprised if the former lands on injured reserve to start the year if his recovery from a training camp back injury doesn’t accelerate.
Cominsky and Buggs are depth pieces who played their way onto the roster this offseason. Cominsky, claimed off waivers from Atlanta in June, has been an instant fit with his versatility to play multiple spots due to his size and athleticism, paired with a motor that always runs red-hot.
As for Buggs, we’re giving the veteran the edge over Taylor, who continually impressed with his playmaking on the practice field, despite being clearly undersized for the position. Buggs’ ability to play nose tackle is appealing to the Lions because it frees them up to move McNeill around and better take advantage of his athleticism.
In: Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Malcolm Rodriguez, Chris Board, Anthony Pittman, Josh Woods
Out: Jarrad Davis, James Houston
Thoughts: You’re looking at the heart of Detroit’s special teams with Board, Pittman and Woods. All three have the potential to log more than 300 snaps between return and coverage units.
Board also has a shot to crack the defensive rotation due to his coverage skills, although the Lions have been pleased with the steady development of its two, young, long-term pieces, Rodriguez and Barnes.
Houston is a tough cut, but the sixth-round pick didn’t flash enough as an edge rusher or on special teams to merit an immediate roster spot. He should comfortably land on the practice squad, where he can continue to develop.
Disappointingly, Davis’ feel-good return looks to be short-lived. Despite having unimpeachable football character, and an impressive knack for blitzing the quarterback, he offers a narrower skill set than the other options ahead of him on the depth chart.
Defensive back (11)
In: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, Will Harris, Mike Hughes, AJ Parker, Bobby Price, Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott, JuJu Hughes, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kerby Joseph
Out: Chase Lucas, Cedric Boswell, Mark Gilbert, Saivion Smith, C.J. Moore
Injured: Jerry Jacobs
Thoughts: The secondary merits more debate than any position group. First of all, do the Lions need to keep two nickelbacks in Parker and Mike Hughes if they believe Harris is also capable of manning that spot? And is Melifonwu’s potential as a matchup piece enough to overlook his early-career durability issues?
We answered yes to both, but we’re not exactly confident about either answer. To make room for those players, we had to keep Jacobs on the PUP list. Coach Campbell acknowledged that was a possibility last week and it just makes sense from a roster-management standpoint.
Even doing that didn’t save us from making a pair of tough cuts. Lucas, a seventh-rounder, flashed some playmaking ability, but didn’t get enough reps at the nickel with Parker and Hughes slugging it out for the starting job. Lucas is destined for the practice squad and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him earn a midseason promotion.
Additionally, Moore’s current injury costs him his job in our projection. The Lions have enough players whose primary role is on special teams — including Price, who offers a higher ceiling as a developing defender — so Moore becomes expendable after three really, really good seasons in Detroit.
In: Jack Fox, Austin Seibert, Scott Daly
Out: Riley Patterson
Thoughts: Our opinion on the kicking battle never changed through the offseason. Both Seibert and Patterson are solid options, but Seibert’s leg-strength advantage remains the clear separator.