After five grueling weeks of training camp — and five entertaining weeks of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” documenting it every step of the way — the Detroit Lions 53-man roster is set.
The process of setting that roster was on full display in the final episode covering the Lions.
Tuesday’s show followed the path of a half dozen players who’ve been featured in recent weeks, most of whom were on the cut line: wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton, quarterback David Blough, defensive back Chase Lucas, running back Craig Reynolds, offensive lineman Obinna Eze and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez.
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It goes behind the scenes with a handful of other players, but before the cuts begin, Lions coach Dan Campbell explained why it’s his least two favorite days of the entire year.
“Having played you can put yourself in their shoes,” he said. “Because you’ve sat in the seats they have, you’ve been through the grind, you’ve been through camp, you know the aches and pains, you know the rolling out of bed, not getting out of bed, rolling out of bed.
“I know what that feels like.”
The cuts begin
Tim Boyle walks into the office with Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes, who gettstraight to the point.
“We’re going to have to go ahead and release you,” Holmes told him.
“I get it,” Boyle said. “It’s a business, I get it.
Campbell told Devin Funchess how he appreciates how he handled himself like a professional from Day 1. He said to Dan Skinner: “You’re tough as (expletive), you’re smart and I (expletive) hate it man. You’re one of the guys we talked about, like I wish we could (keep you).”
Then it’s Bruce Hector’s turn to receive the bad news, as well as receiver Tom Kennedy, who caught three touchdown passes in the preseason. While the coaches agonize over every decision, some feel worse than others, and this one clearly was tough.
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“There’s nothing else you could do,” Campbell told Kennedy. “You did everything you could possibly (expletive) do … we’ve got to go another way. I hate it. Because you earned it.
“You (expletive) earned it, and it falls into what about body type, what about a true outside receiver, what about special teams and it was the move we felt like we had to make man.”
‘Building a winning program’
Jarrad Davis who was in his second stint with the Lions, got the sit down as well. The 2017 first-round pick back for his second stint in Detroit was on a “prove it” deal that didn’t pan out.
But for being a 21st overall pick, Davis, like almost every player to a man, handled the hard news with class and Campbell told him it was a blessing to have him on the team.
“Thank you,” Davis said. “Your words carry weight.”
Perhaps the toughest decision of camp was the third running back spot between Craig Reynolds and Godwin Igwebuike.
“Put his picture on the sign of ‘GRIT’ down there, that’s what we should do,” Campbell said of Reynolds. “We know what he is on special teams, he grinds it out, he’s competitive but then you’ll see these deficiencies athletically that show up but it’s like he’s good enough, but he’s not, you know.”
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Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn called himself a “Reynolds guy,” but also said if it was him, he wouldn’t want someone with Igwebuike’s talent to walk out the door. Ultimately, the Lions kept Reynolds, but the running back who missed out shared his appreciation with the staff.
“I appreciate you guys, too,” Igwebuike said. “Thanks for shooting me straight, giving me the (opportunity). The story is still being written for all of us, so I wish the best for both you guys.
“You guys are both a hell of a dude and your impact is probably even more than you know.”
Later, Eze gets some tough news, but it comes with a softer blow. Holmes and Campbell tell him they plan to waive him, but should he clear waivers, they want to bring him back on the practice squad because they believe in his untapped potential.
Eze had an uphill climb to make the team, but when he left not knowing if he would be back on the practice squad —he is on it — he parted with a final thought.
“I want to say I just appreciate you having me here,” he said. “You know man, like I tell some of the guys in the locker room, I see what y’all are doing here, both of y’all. You know you’re building a winning program, but also you’re building a program where men can be themselves. And I see that and appreciate that.”
The good news
Not everybody got news they didn’t want to hear.
Rodriguez, the sixth round linebacker out of Oklahoma State, was on of the stars from this preseason’s episodes because of his personality, talent and work ethic. He made the squad and there’s a long scene where he goes to pick out a cowboy outfit.
After he picks out which new boots he’ll buy — python, alligator, ostrich or anteater — he gets a full head-to-toe Cowboy get up, and proclaims it “a game day outfit.”
In a funny scene later, Lions president Rod Wood tells Dan Campbell that “Rodrigo” is the No. 2 requested jersey on the team website, behind only Aidan Hutchinson.
“I like that a lot,” Campbell said. “To me it tells you who our fans are and they’re buying into what we’re talking about.”
Another rookie who will need to figure out what to wear on his first Sunday at Ford Field is Lucas, the seventh-round pick this spring.
Throughout the episode, Lucas asks defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant and other coaches what he can do to help his chances, if he’s capable of starting and urging them to keep him on the roster.
After he gets the news, he told Pleasant in the film room, “I’m not going to lie to you, Coach. I have a feeling I’m about to be great.”
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On to the next journey
Two of the other prominently featured players in the show, Blough and Pimpleton, are told they don’t make the roster.
Pimpleton was cut outright, but the Lions waived Blough (and signed Nate Sudfeld) with the intention of bringing him back as a member of the practice squad. They never got the chance.
“Did you see we lost Blough to Minnesota?” Campbell said on a phone call. “Man that’s the worst, the absolute worst that could’ve happened.”
Pimpleton’s next opportunity didn’t take long either. The former Central Michigan star got a call to work out for the New York Giants practice squad and the “Hard Knocks” crew followed him there.
After dropping a few balls early, he locks in and catches a number of passes while making hard, clean cuts. Following the tryout, he’s told he made the practice roster by Giants director of football operations Ed Triggs.
“Bring that resilience though,” Triggs said. “We need that, we need that speed. You earned it today, you really did.”
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
Detroit most famous rapper stopped by the Lions facility to meet with the team.
“He might be on my list of like, holy (expletive),” Goff said after pointing out Eminem was at practice.
The rapper later told Goff he was “taller than he expected” and said that he’s happy to be on the sidelines in some pads to help the team out.
“We’ve got a good team this year, so let’s go,” Eminem said.
At one point Tracy Walker laughed at himself for being “like a fan” by asking the rap star for a picture and Campbell thanks him for stopping by to watch.
“Nobody represents this city more than you do,” Campbell said. “It’s a pleasure to have you out here.”
Eminem provided the team a meal catered by his restaurant, Mom’s Spaghetti, and got a tour of the facility.
“Ain’t this the one I saw Aidan doing the Billie Jean (expletive) in?” he asked of the team room. “That was (expletive) hilarious.”
The final message
In the end, Campbell gets in front of the squad in the team room and said this is the final group, after all the decisions had been made.
He explained why he kept those men and what they were evaluated on and will be evaluated on going forward.
“Does the player know what to do, is the player disciplined enough to use the fundamentals he’s been taught and No. 3, what is he like under the lights when the pressure’s on?,” Campbell said. “Does he rise to the occasion, does he thrive in it? Or does he (expletive) crumble?”
Members of the coaching staff are asked to describe what the 2022 Lions will be, to which Glenn said gritty and linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said the team will put the league on notice.
Campbell was asked and he sat there, still. He rubbed his beard and sighed deeply after thinking for more than a minute straight, the camera running the whole time before giving his answer.
“Will be the team that can,” he said. “And will.”
Contact Tony Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.