Roster bubble battles to watch during Lions’ preseason finale against Panthers

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions close the preseason on Friday evening against the Carolina Panthers. Here are some of the remaining job battles we’ll be watching during the game.

 Wide receivers Chase Cota, Dylan Drummond, Maurice Alexander, Trinity Benson and Antoine Green

Not counting Jameson Williams, who will be suspended the first six games of the season, Detroit’s top four receivers are locks and likely won’t appear in the preseason finale against Carolina. That leaves room for one, potentially two young players to round out the depth chart.

The group of five listed above have all been given ample opportunity to secure a spot, with Cota and Drummond making the strongest cases, in our opinion. Cota offers unteachable size and top-tier athleticism. More importantly, his steady improvement has bled into the early preseason contests, allowing him to pace the roster with six receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown.

Drummond, meanwhile, has been one of the roster’s most consistent performers on the practice field. He uncharacteristically put a couple balls on the ground last week against Jacksonville, so the matchup against Carolina will give him a chance to show he’s making the necessary adjustments.

Alexander has the benefit of having regular-season kick returning experience, while Green’s ceiling — the reason the Lions used a draft pick to add him — offsets some of the developmental bumps he’s hit due to minor injury issues throughout the offseason.

 Cornerbacks Chase Lucas, Steven Gilmore and Khalil Dorsey

Cam Sutton and Jerry Jacobs are set to start on the outside with Brian Branch manning the nickel. In terms of depth, it feels like Starling Thomas V and Will Harris have all but secured roster spots, particularly given their special teams contributions throughout camp and the preseason. The question becomes, will Detroit keep a sixth corner?

Gilmore, an undrafted rookie, gave the Lions something to ponder with his performance against Jacksonville, rebounding after giving up a big play early in the game to break up a pass at the goal line and secure an interception off a deflection.

As for Lucas, the team’s seventh-round choice a year ago, he’s been working on developing some positional versatility the past 15 months. He’s seen reps outside, in the slot and even at safety, but if he can shine on special teams, especially as a gunner on punt coverage, that could help punch his ticket.

Dorsey, meanwhile, has been quietly productive during the preseason, playing heavily in the second halves of the two earlier matchups. He’s allowed just three receptions for 29 yards on seven targets, has been a sure tackler and also brings some juice as a cover guy on kicks and punts.

With Ifeatu Melifonwu banged up, the door is wide open for either Dorsey or Lucas to impress as a gunner.

 Running backs Jermar Jefferson, Benny Snell Jr. and Devine Ozigbo

All signs point to Craig Reynolds winning Detroit’s No. 3 running back job. He played almost every snap in the first half of the previous preseason matchup and was the top backfield option for the second-team offense during Tuesday’s padded scrimmage.

But heading into last season, the Lions kept a fourth back, in addition to fullback Jason Cabinda. What’s to say they won’t do it again? Jefferson has made strides as a special teams performer, something that’s held him back the first two years of his career, while Snell and Ozigbo came off the street and provided immediate contributions, showing they’re quick studies capable of handling offensive and special teams responsibilities.

 Linebacker Julian Okwara

Any other year it would be easy to pencil Okwara in for a roster spot, but it’s difficult to find room for the former third-round pick. Consistency and durability have always been an issue for the talented edge rusher. To his credit, he’s been healthy this offseason, but after exploding for three sacks in the preseason opener, he couldn’t sustain the positive momentum and delivered a lackluster showing against Jacksonville.

With a stacked depth chart on the edges, Okwara is tracking toward being the odd man out, unless another stellar performance makes finding a spot imperative, even if it comes at the expense of depth at another position.

▶ Tight end Darrell Daniels

Not many people outside the building are talking about Daniels, but we’ve been impressed with his physicality as a blocker and special teams performer. Given the relative youth and inexperience Detroit has at the position, and the lack of a truly dominant in-line blocker, Daniels could make the decision-makers reconsider the roster makeup by definitively helping open holes for the running backs against Carolina.

 Guards Bobby Hart, Kayode Awosika and Darrin Paulo

Honestly, it’s reasonable to suggest the Lions carry just four guards on the roster, but whether rookie Colby Sorsdal is ready to be a snap away from meaningful playing time is something of a concern. That’s why we’ve leaned toward Detroit keeping a fifth interior lineman, particularly one with experience.

Awosika, who was signed off Philadelphia’s practice squad in September of last season, holds a slight edge based on familiarity. Hart, meanwhile, has extensive starting experience at both guard and tackle, plus he performed well as a starter in the previous preseason game.

Paulo is a dark horse. He doesn’t solve the problem with experience, but the converted tackle has shown promise in his limited work at guard. He’s probably destined for Detroit’s practice squad, but if he dominates in his playing time against the Panthers, he could work his way into the conversation.

 Offensive tackles Matt Nelson and Germain Ifedi

At this point, it’s Nelson’s job to lose. Detroit’s swing backup the past two seasons, he’s the one who has taken snaps with the first team when Taylor Decker or Penei Sewell have missed practice time. Ifedi brings a wealth of starting experience, and had he been better in the preseason, maybe this is a different conversation.

 Quarterback Nate Sudfeld

It’s debatable whether keeping three quarterbacks is the best use of Detroit’s resources, but if Sudfeld shines, maybe he can be used as a trade chip to bring back a late-round draft asset from a team desperate for depth at the position.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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