Detroit Lions’ 53-man roster breakdown: Brad Holmes hesitant to give up on draft picks

Detroit Free Press

There is not enough evidence yet to say how good Brad Holmes is at drafting, but the second-year Detroit Lions general manager sure is loyal to his picks.

The Lions set their initial 53-man roster Tuesday and Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell kept 14 of their 15 draft picks from the past two seasons, including two players (Josh Paschal and Jameson Williams) on the reserve/physically unable to perform and nonfootball injury lists.

Williams and Paschal should be contributors at some point this fall. If they’re not, we may know sooner than later about Holmes’ drafting acumen. The Lions took both knowing their medical histories, and the fact neither will be ready Week 1 is not a concern.

But Holmes and Campbell rolled the dice on a few other roster decisions, keeping a handful of recent draft picks over players more capable of contributing now on a team that expects to take a major step forward this fall.

Jermar Jefferson, a seventh-round pick in 2021, made the team as the fourth running back over Justin Jackson and Godwin Igwebuike. Chase Lucas, a seventh-round pick this spring, made the team as a backup slot cornerback instead of AJ Parker. And Ifeatu Melifonwu, a third-round choice last year, made the initial 53-man roster even though he has spent half his time in Detroit hurt.

I guess the old saying is wrong. If you’re a third-round pick, you can make the club in the tub.

TRENDING:Here is the Detroit Lions’ entire 53-man roster

Lucas’ presence is perhaps the least surprising of those moves. Lucas played well in limited action this preseason, maybe even better than Parker. Campbell identified his special teams ability early in camp. And he has the position flexibility (he played some safety this summer) and communication skills the Lions want in the back end of their defense.

I’m not surprised Melifonwu made the initial 53-man roster, either, though his presence is more about the Lions betting on his future than it is anything he can provide now. Melifonwu played sparingly as a rookie last season because of a severe quad strain and missed most of training camp this summer with a soft tissue injury.

He is in the middle of a position change from cornerback to safety and is a candidate to go on injured reserve Wednesday, though the Lions think he can be a matchup piece down the road.

For Holmes’ sake, hopefully that materializes, because while they aren’t true difference makers, the Lions would have gotten more production out of cut players like Parker, special teams ace Anthony Pittman or either running back in the near term. Still, giving up on a third-round pick before Year 2 takes a strong stomach to do.

THE CUTS:All the Detroit Lions roster moves from Tuesday

Keeping Jefferson was without a doubt the Lions’ most surprising move of cut day. He had 15 carries in seven games last season, when he struggled to crack the gameday lineup because of his special teams shortcomings. Jefferson worked hard to become a better special teams player this offseason and it showed in training camp, but he still was the Lions’ fifth-best running back this summer behind D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds and Jackson, and Igwebuike offered more value as a kick returner and on special teams.

Similar to Melifonwu, the Lions are betting on the future by keeping Jefferson, and they still are early enough in their rebuild to make some of those moves.

None of those decisions will make or break the season. We are talking about the final spots on the 53-man roster, after all, and the Lions will bring several of their more prominent cuts (Parker? Pittman?) back on the practice squad. But Holmes’ allegiance to his guys is something that could benefit or cost him in the future.

The one recent draft pick who did not survive Tuesday’s cut was outside linebacker James Houston, a sixth-round pick from Jackson State this spring. Holmes acknowledged Houston was a bit of a project after the draft, and Houston’s inexperience and upside were both evident in camp.

I expect Houston to rejoin the Lions’ practice squad, where they hope to turn him into a pass rush specialist who eventually can play outside linebacker.

Fifth-round pick James Mitchell made the roster, though he isn’t quite ready to contribute, either. Mitchell tore his ACL last fall at Virginia Tech, but the Lions did not have the option of stashing him on injured reserve because he practiced this summer.

The Lions kept four tight ends, with Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra and Mitchell as backups to T.J. Hockenson. There is a distinct difference between keeping Mitchell and a player like Melifonwu in my mind, though: The Lions knew Mitchell was returning from knee surgery when they drafted him and, like Williams, would not be ready for a major role early in the season. Keeping him as a fourth tight end was in the plans all along.

More roster thoughts:

∎ The Lions made the right decision at quarterback, keeping David Blough over Tim Boyle as their backup — even if they appear to be in the market for an upgrade.

Blough had a better preseason than Boyle. The offense ran more crisp under his command. And he has enough mobility and moxie that he might be able to squeeze out a win if needed as a late-game injury replacement for Jared Goff.

The Lions should have a couple roster spots to play with Wednesday, when Melifonwu and Levi Onwuzurike are eligible to go on IR. They could look to add a quarterback on the waiver wire (the New York Giants’ Davis Webb had a nice preseason) or bring in a veteran free agent (ex-Lions backup Josh Johnson was released) for competition. If the latter happens, Blough could wind up on practice squad.

In reality, though, backup quarterbacks are typically backups in the NFL for a reason. There are only a handful of reliable ones, and unless the Lions want to trade a meaningful 2023 draft pick for Jimmy Garoppolo — they don’t, and even if they did, Garoppolo reportedly has a no-trade clause in his revamped contract — they won’t be getting one this year.

∎ I’m a little surprised the Lions only kept five receivers, based on both their history at the position — they kept seven receivers on their initial 53-man roster last summer — and on how important receivers are in the modern NFL.

The Lions waived Tom Kennedy and waived-injured Trinity Benson, the two players most prominently in the mix for the No. 6 spot. Kennedy could return on practice squad or to the 53-man roster if he’s not claimed. Benson will not be eligible to return to Detroit until several weeks after the length of his injury settlement.

I put Kennedy on my 53-man roster prediction, but given his limitations as a slot-only receiver and limited use on special teams, I get why the Lions would expose him to waivers and keep a young player like Melifonwu or undrafted rookie defensive tackle Demetrius Taylor.

∎ The Lions’ kick returner this fall will be … Reynolds?

Based on their current roster construction, Reynolds is the most likely candidate to return kicks in Week 1. He had a nice return that was negated by penalty in Sunday’s preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Lions will need to get contributions out of him on gamedays.

Jefferson also could be in the mix, but the Lions cut four of the five players who handled returns in the preseason: Benson, Jackson, Maurice Alexander and Kalil Pimpleton. Alexander and Igwebuike, who handled returns last season, are candidates to return once they clear waivers Wednesday, and Jackson is a vested veteran who could re-sign or join the practice squad at anytime.

∎ It did not make many headlines because it happened late in the day, but the Lions picked Austin Seibert as their kicker over Riley Patterson. Both Seibert and Patterson kicked well in game action last season, and both had their ups and downs in camp. Seibert clearly had the stronger leg, though.

Patterson does not have a big leg, but is an NFL-caliber kicker who should find his way onto the field with some team this season.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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