The Detroit Lions came back to beat the Carolina Panthers 26-17 in their preseason finale on Friday night at Bank of America Stadium. But don’t read too much into that. Not with all the starters standing around in street clothes. That score doesn’t mean a thing.
But big-time performances from players across the bubble sure do, giving Detroit a lot to think about heading into roster cuts. General manager Brad Holmes must trim the roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. Tuesday, and there will be some especially difficult decisions at receiver, pass rusher and defensive back.
Here’s Kyle Meinke’s final projection of how that might shake out.
In: Jared Goff, Teddy Bridgewater
Out: Nate Sudfeld, Adrian Martinez
Injured: Hendon Hooker
Change: Sudfeld out
Breakdown: Sudfeld was bad the first two weeks of the preseason, but I thought the Lions might carry him as a third quarterback until Bridgewater had better command of the offense. Then Bridgewater had much better command of the offense in Carolina, leading four scoring drives on his six series and connecting with Antoine Green on a 70-yard touchdown pass. With one of the best backups in the league now finding his rhythm, a third quarterback seems unnecessary. Sudfeld also was carted to the locker room with a knee injury, dimming whatever remained of his hopes to break camp with the team.
Running back (4)
In: David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs, Craig Reynolds, FB Jason Cabinda
Out: Jermar Jefferson, Devine Ozigbo, Benny Snell
Breakdown: The Lions have a really nice one-two combo to unveil in Kansas City in Montgomery and Gibbs, the latter of whom has been the best home-run threat in camp. Expect to see a lot of the 12th overall pick this fall, both in the running game as well as the passing game. Behind them, RB3 always felt like Reynolds’ job to lose, and he didn’t. He did miss a couple weeks of camp with an injury, but was fed almost all the RB3 reps after returning, started each of the final two exhibitions and ran for 41 yards on 11 carries against Carolina. He also moved the chains on a big third down after Detroit fell behind 10-0, then powered into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line. The only mystery at the position is whether the Lions carry another running back for special teams purposes.
In: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Marvin Jones, Dylan Drummond
Out: Chase Cota, Antoine Green, Maurice Alexander, Trinity Benson, Jason Moore, Avery Davis
Suspended: Jameson Williams
Change: Drummond in, Cota out
Breakdown: The Jamo suspension leaves one or two jobs open behind the big four to begin the season, and injuries to Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Denzel Mims, Trinity Benson and Denzel Mims allowed for those back-end guys to get a lot of good looks in camp. That’s been a fascinating battle to watch unfold, and I was in Cota’s camp for a while. It’s not like that last guy is going to play a lot anyway, and I liked the idea of having Cota’s size (6-foot-4) for the red zone. That could still happen, but here’s betting Dan Campbell will just love Drummond too damn much. The former Eastern Michigan standout is not that big, not that fast, wasn’t even all-MAC last season at EMU, but still somehow went from a tryout during rookie minicamp to the most productive receiver on the second-team offense in camp. Then he wrapped up his surprising summer by catching five balls in heavy traffic for 46 yards against Carolina, including one phenomenal play where he fully extended for a diving grab on third down.
With that said, Green also can’t be discounted either. The Lions have given the seventh-round pick a lot of good opportunities to show his value to the team, and while he didn’t do enough with those opportunities in camp, he also took a Bridgewater pass 70 yards to the house against the Panthers. He’s big and fast, and if the Lions prefer traits over preseason production, Green could eke into one of the last roster spots on the team. In the end, I went with just five players at the position though, believing Detroit will get better value by rostering an extra defensive back who will contribute more on special teams.
Tight end (3)
In: Sam LaPorta, Brock Wright, James Mitchell
Out: Daniel Helm, Darrell Daniel
Breakdown: Chalk. No reason to get windy here. LaPorta is going to be one of the featured weapons in the passing game, while Wright and Mitchell are returners who can fill in the gaps behind the rookie.
Offensive line (9)
In: LT Taylor Decker, LG Jonah Jackson, C Frank Ragnow, RG Graham Glasgow, RT Penei Sewell, G Halapoulivaati Vaitai, G Kayode Awosika, G/T Colby Sorsdal, T Matt Nelson
Out: C Brad Cecil, OL Connor Galvin, OL Bobby Hart, OL Ryan Swoboda, T Obinna Eze, T Germain Ifedi, T Darrin Paulo, T Max Pircher, C Alex Mollette
Breakdown: The top six offensive linemen didn’t play a snap in the preseason, which made for some messy performances in the first two exhibitions. But hat’s off to the OL2 for gelling a bit in the finale, protecting Bridgewater well while paving some holes for Reynolds in the running game. I was particularly impressed by Sorsdal, the rookie fifth-round pick who played some of his best ball yet while moving between guard and tackle. He’ll almost certainly win a backup job. As for the third offensive tackle race, let’s just say Kansas City prep from this week leads me to believe Matt Nelson has won that battle over Germain Ifedi.
Defensive line (11)
In: EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, DT Alim McNeill, DT Isaiah Buggs, EDGE Charles Harris, DL Josh Paschal, DL John Cominsky, DT Brodric Martin, DT Levi Onwuzurike, DT Benito Jones, EDGE Romeo Okwara, EDGE James Houston
Out: DL Christian Covington, EDGE Julian Okwara, DL Cory Durden, DL Chris Smith
Breakdown: You keep hearing about Detroit’s depth, because we keep seeing it, and we keep seeing more of it in the pass rush than anywhere else. Hutchinson led all rookies in sacks last year, and has been even better -- and much stronger -- in camp. Harris led the team in sacks two years ago, and seems to have returned to his old form after laboring through injuries last season. John Cominsky and Josh Paschal were really disruptive behind them throughout camp, and didn’t even play in the finale. That left deep reserves like Romeo Okwara and James Houston to play a lot in the finale, and they delivered again. Okwara had one sack while Houston added another, nearly had yet another, and accounted for nearly half of Detroit’s seven quarterback hits overall. I think both guys make the team, while Julian Okwara is the odd man out. Julian Okwara was also injured against Carolina, complicating his bid to make the team. Isaiah Buggs was also injured in the game, but was reportedly moving well on the sideline.
In: Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Jack Campbell, Malcolm Rodriguez, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Anthony Pittman
Out: Trevor Nowaske
Breakdown: I’ve covered every Lions training camp since 2013, and I’ve never seen depth like this at linebacker. Campbell is an 18th overall pick who has gotten better every week this summer, led the Lions in tackles in each of the first two exhibitions, then racked up three more on the first drive of the finale before departing -- and that guy still might not start the season opener, because Barnes has been that good this summer too. Expect to see both guys on the field in Kansas City, no matter who wins the starting job. And that’s not even including Rodriguez, who started at that position last year, nor Reeves-Maybin, a capable backup who added three tackles of his own in Carolina. Reeves-Maybin is also a core special-teams player, and Pittman was that last year too. That leaves Nowaske as the only guy out at the position on this projection, and even the undrafted rookie out of Saginaw Valley State flashed in Carolina, making four tackles, which was third most on the team.
In: CB Cam Sutton, CB Jerry Jacobs, CB Brian Branch, CB Starling Thomas V, CB Steven Gilmore, CB Chase Lucas, CB Will Harris, S C.J. Gardner-Johnson, S Kerby Joseph, S Tracy Walker
Out: CB Khalil Dorsey, CB Tae Hayes, CB Colby Richardson, S Brady Breeze, S Brandon Joseph, S Ifeatu Melifonwu, S Scott Nelson
Injured: CB Emmanuel Moseley
Change: Lucas in
Breakdown: The Lions were really young on defense last year, and seem to have another crop of good ones in the secondary this season. Branch has been one of the stars of summer, winning the starting job in the slot with ball-hawking in the back-end, hard-hitting in the box and effective pass rushing in the backfield. At the risk of hyperbole, the second-round pick has been phenomenal. That has pushed Gardner-Johnson to safety, and Walker to the bench. What a luxury it will be to have an experienced starter and team leader like Walker to come in when/if injury strikes.
Meanwhile, there are a whole bunch of young cornerbacks who delivered convincing cases for roster jobs too. Thomas has looked like CB3 throughout camp and has repped as a starting gunner, but Gilmore has been even better on defense in the preseason, including picking off a pass against Jacksonville and then returning another for a pick-six against Carolina. He also finished with a team-high five tackles in the game for good measure. And then there’s Lucas, a Dan Campbell favorite who has delivered two key blocks on big returns in the preseason and picked off a pass in his own end zone against Carolina, killing a scoring opportunity for the Panthers. He also brings the energy this staff loves. In the end, Lucas was my final guy to make the team. I just think he brings more value than a sixth receiver would.
In: K Riley Patterson, P Jack Fox, LS Scott Daly
Out: K Parker Romo
Breakdown: Romo didn’t even play in Carolina, suggesting Patterson is the pick at placekicker. But Patterson also came up short on a 53-yard attempt against the Panthers, fueling concerns about his long ball, and also pushed an extra-point attempt wide of the post. Once again, the Lions find themselves in an uncomfortable place at the position since bidding adieu to Matt Prater.