Detroit Lions' 53-man roster prediction: Tough decisions on defense await

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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The Detroit Lions open the regular season 12 days from now against an Arizona Cardinals team that has a new coach, a new quarterback and an offense unlike anything they’ve seen this preseason.

But as unique a challenge as the Cardinals present, Lions coach Matt Patricia insists his entire focus is on something else this week – Thursday’s preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns and the decisions that will shape the back end of his roster.

“This is such a critical week,” Patricia said Monday. “We have guys out there that are fighting for jobs, guys that are trying to live out their dreams, and things that are really important to them, and you want to make sure that as a coach you’re doing everything possible to allow them to have that opportunity.”

Matthew Stafford takes the handoff from Frank Ragnow during the first half against the Bills on Aug. 23.

The Lions have only a handful of roster spots up for grabs, and players don’t have to look far to see how much the fourth preseason game can impact their chances of making the 53-man roster.

Last year, Patricia said players like Joe Dahl, Chris Lacy and Mike Ford made favorable impressions in Week 4 of the preseason – Dahl won a roster spot with his performance, while Lacy and Ford earned practice-squad jobs that turned into promotions later in the season – and that Dee Virgin’s strong showing in the fourth preseason game with the Houston Texans led the Lions to claim him off waivers.

Virgin, who had a team-high eight tackles, one interception and two pass breakups in the Texans’ win over the Dallas Cowboys last August, finds himself on the roster bubble again this week.

He has been a solid special-teams contributor all camp and presented me with one of my toughest decisions as I sat down to do my one and only roster prediction this week.

Patricia and Lions general manager Bob Quinn have until 4 p.m. Saturday to shave 36 players off their current 90-man roster. Here’s my best guess at who will be left with a helmet when the bloodletting is done.

This post was updated to reflect the Lions' release of running back Zach Zenner on Tuesday.

*Practice squad

Quarterback (2)

In: Matthew Stafford, Tom Savage.

Out: Josh Johnson, *Luis Perez.

Tom Savage during training camp July 25.

Explain yourself: While there’s no debating Stafford as the starter, the Lions have a decision to make about their backup quarterback. None of the candidates for the job has done much to distinguish himself this summer. Savage lasted 11 snaps in the opener before a brain injury knocked him out for two straight weeks, but he was back at practice Monday, which bodes well for his chances of making the roster. Johnson signed earlier this month and had little trouble picking up the offense. The Lions signed Perez on Tuesday with intentions of keeping him on the practice squad this fall. Ultimately, Savage’s familiarity with Lions quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan – and the fact that he has been around since spring – is enough to earn him the nod.

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Running back (4)

In: Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson, Nick Bawden.

Out: *Mark Thompson, Justin Stockton.

Explain yourself: The Lions left themselves thin at running back when they released Zach Zenner on Tuesday, though enough serviceable ball carriers will hit the waiver wire this weekend that it shouldn't be an issue. Kerryon Johnson is the starter, and if he avoids injury he could be in for a big year. Anderson is the backup, and Ty Johnson will have a role as the No. 3 running back. Bawden has done enough in his return from ACL surgery to earn a job at fullback. Thompson is a practice-squad candidate, but injury concerns elsewhere mean there's no room for a fifth back.

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Receiver (5)

In: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Chris Lacy, Travis Fulgham.

Out: *Brandon Powell, Jordan Lasley, Andy Jones, Tommylee Lewis, Tom Kennedy, Jonathan Duhart.

Chris Lacy walks to the field during training camp July 25.

Explain yourself: Golladay, Amendola and Marvin Jones will get the bulk of the playing time at receiver, but the Lions are probably looking at two backups for their 53-man roster. Jermaine Kearse, who might have been the team’s fourth receiver, was lost for the season to a broken leg, and that gave Lacy a clearer path to a roster spot. Lacy is the type of big-bodied receiver who can back up both Golladay and Jones, and he’ll contribute on special teams. The fifth receiver is a toss up, but Fulgham is a sixth-round pick and that probably gives him the edge over Powell and others in the mix for a job. Lewis might have been a candidate, but he has been hurt all training camp and hasn’t had much chance to show his return ability. Andy Jones and Duhart also have special-teams ability, but Lacy has had the better camp. The Lions could look to fortify this position after cut downs.

Tight end (3)

In: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Logan Thomas.

Out: *Isaac Nauta, Austin Traylor, Jerome Cunningham.

Explain yourself: The Lions’ overhauled tight-end room made a good first impression this summer. Hockenson, the No. 8 pick of the draft, should be one of Stafford’s favorite red-zone targets and will share starting duties with James. Thomas is an easy choice for No. 3 given his versatility and special-teams value. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will use enough two-tight-end sets that the Lions could keep four, but none of Nauta, Traylor or Cunningham has done enough to warrant a roster spot yet. Traylor got starting special-teams snaps last week and Nauta is a seventh-round pick, so it’s possible one wins a job with a strong showing against the Browns.

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Offensive line (9)

In: Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, Rick Wagner, Kenny Wiggins, Joe Dahl, Tyrell Crosby, Oday Aboushi, Beau Benzschawel.

Out: *Ryan Pope, Micah St. Andrew, Leo Koloamatangi, Matt Nelson, Andrew Donnal, Luke Bowanko.

Kenny Wiggins (79), Joe Dahl (66) and Graham Glasgow (60) talk on the sideline during the game against the Bills.

Explain yourself: What a difference a year makes for Dahl. Patricia tacitly acknowledged Dahl was on the roster bubble heading into the fourth preseason game last year when he mentioned Dahl on Monday as someone who solidified a roster spot with his performance in that game. Now, Dahl is competing for the starting left guard job with Wiggins. Wiggins made 10 starts at right guard last year, and spent the past two weeks filling in at right tackle while Crosby was out with a concussion. Wiggins’ versatility, regardless of whether he wins the starting job, has me going a little unconventional on the offensive line and keeping just one true backup tackle (Crosby). There’s a case to be made that Donnal should stick around as insurance at the position, but Benzschawel is a promising young player the Lions might not want to risk to waivers, and Aboushi is a more proven veteran backup.

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Defensive line (8)

In: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Damon Harrison, Mike Daniels, A’Shawn Robinson, Da’Shawn Hand, Mitchell Loewen, P.J. Johnson.

Out: *Kevin Strong, *Jonathan Wynn, Ray Smith, Fred Jones, John Atkins, Eric Lee.

Injured reserve: Austin Bryant, Darius Kilgo.

Damon Harrison signed a one-year contract extension with the Lions last week.

Explain yourself: The Lions kept seven defensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster last year and often kept just six active on game days. They’re even more talented up front this year, but there are enough injury concerns in their six-man rotation (with Hand, Daniels and Flowers, specifically) that it makes sense to keep eighth lineman to start the year. Loewen has had the most consistent camp of the non-locks, and he has the versatility Patricia likes in his linemen. Wynn and Strong have had good camps, too, and Lee has the ability to play outside linebacker, but that’s less of an issue with Bryant on the mend from his camp injury. Ultimately, I kept Johnson, a seventh-round pick, as an extra lineman, though he could end up on practice squad.

Linebacker (7)

In: Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew, Steve Longa.

Out: *Anthony Pittman*, Garret Dooley, Malik Carney.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin (44) celebrates with Devon Kennard (42) and Tracy Walker (47) during action against the Bills.

Explain yourself: Longa hasn’t played a live snap since tearing his ACL last summer, but he's a good enough special-teams player that he makes my roster as a seventh linebacker with Davis expected to miss some time in the regular season because of a leg injury. Longa’s status aside, there’s not much debate about what the Lions do at linebacker. Davis, Kennard, Jones and Tavai are all essentially starters, while Reeves-Maybin and Killebrew have had strong camps and are core special-teams players. Dooley got some first-team reps early this summer, then he got hurt and he hasn’t made much impact since his return. Pittman is a little too raw to make the 53-man roster, but worth hanging onto for the practice squad.

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Defensive back (12)

In: CB-Darius Slay, Rashaan Melvin, Justin Coleman, Amani Oruwariye, Jamal Agnew, Teez Tabor; S-Quandre Diggs, Tracy Walker, Will Harris, Tavon Wilson, Andrew Adams, Charles Washington.

Out: CB-*Dee Virgin,Mike Ford, Jamar Summers, Johnathan Alston, Andre Chachere; S-*C.J. Moore.

Explain yourself: Honestly, settling on 12 defensive backs was the hardest decision I had in predicting the 53-man roster, not because the Lions are overflowing with talent in the secondary but rather because of the intangible value some of the bubble players bring. Tabor seemed like a good candidate to stash on injured reserve until he returned to practice Monday. Now, the Lions must decide if he has enough upside to stick around despite his subpar play the past two seasons. Second-round picks are tough to give up on, which is why I ultimately kept Tabor ahead of Virgin and Moore. Both Virgin and Moore have special-teams value, and both could force their way onto the roster with a strong showing Thursday. Virgin and Washington have worked as the Lions’ top gunners most of camp, and Moore is essentially a younger, cheaper version of Washington. Perhaps Quinn can trade one of his surplus defensive backs for a future draft pick.

Specialist (3)

In: Matt Prater, Sam Martin, Don Muhlbach.

Out: Ryan Santoso.

Explain yourself: Prater is one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL, and given the state of kicking in the league, the Lions should feel fortunate to have him. Martin has punted well this preseason, and it’s not that long ago that he was a Pro Bowl alternate. And Muhlbach is old reliable as a long snapper. Santoso has a strong leg and had some good moments in the preseason, so perhaps he can catch on elsewhere.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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