Linebacker Tahir Whitehead has turned heads in camp and could find himself in a starting role. (Detroit News / Daniel Mears)
Allen Park — The Lions’ last dress rehearsal in Buffalo on Thursday night will be the final chance for many players to impress the coaches and front office before final cuts are made.
By 4 p.m. Saturday, the Lions must trim their roster from 75 players to 53, and most of that reduction will come via cuts.
“This game is really important to a lot of guys, particularly those who are in tight battles,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “These games count heavily for those individuals that are playing the games. A lot of them will get a look at more playing time. Some haven’t even gotten any playing time up to this point, so this is very, very important for them.”
Ultimately, Caldwell said the players will be judged on their entire body of work this offseason, but many competitions are so close that a couple plays could be the difference.
Most of the starting roster is set — besides right tackle and strong-side linebacker — so many of final competitions will be for reserve spots. It makes sense for the Lions to search for players with the most upside at some backup spots, but Caldwell said if he had his choice, he would simply keep the best players right now.
“I’m in the business of winning games and winning games now, OK?” he said last week. “So the most important thing to me is getting guys who can be in a position to help us win right now. There are other businesses (and) positions within the organization that may look at it differently, but we have to look at it as coaches. We’re looking for the best guy to help us win, at this particular moment in time, and that’s what counts for us.”
Here are 10 things to watch Thursday:
LaAdrian Waddle vs. Corey Hilliard
In response to a question about who will be the starting right tackle, Caldwell said the Lions have “a while” before they need to make a decision, but the truth is, Thursday’s game will be the last chance for a starter to emerge. After a strong rookie campaign, Waddle hasn’t shown the expected improvement entering his second year, while Hilliard has been steady but unimpressive.
Ashlee Palmer vs. Tahir Whitehead
With Kyle Van Noy potentially sidelined for a while, Palmer and Whitehead are the contenders for the starting strong-side linebacker. Palmer’s experience as a starter last year’s helps him, but Whitehead’s brilliant 10-tackle, three-sack performance last week helped him narrow the gap — if there was one at all.
Kellen Moore vs. everybody
Dan Orlovsky has played well enough in the exhibitions to secure the No. 2 quarterback job, and in order for Moore to make the team, he needs to prove he’s worthy of a roster spot over other potential contributors. Caldwell hasn’t said whether or not the plan is to keep three quarterbacks, so Moore needs to play well to help his case.
Jed Collins remains the favorite because of his experience, but with Montell Owens’ special teams abilities, Collins has to continue to prove his worth on offense. The Lions also claimed Emil Igwenagu Monday, and he will have a chance to compete for the job.
Special teams contributors
Even if the Lions keep Collins, Owens could stick because of his expertise on special teams. Other players — mostly linebackers and defensive backs — can help their chances in the third phase.
If Van Noy’s injury is serious, the Lions likely will keep an extra linebacker while he’s on an injured list. However, behind Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Palmer and Whitehead, there’s only room for one or two guys, and Travis Lewis needs to continue to play well to stay in Detroit. Julian Stanford has a chance, too.
Mikel Leshoure vs. George Winn
There’s a chance neither running back makes the team, but both could use a good game Thursday. Leshoure played well last week with a 30-yard run, but lost a fumble. Winn has been consistent outside of his two fumbles, and he contributes on special teams.
Don Carey vs. Isa Abdul-Quddus vs. Jerome Couplin
All three safeties could make the team because of special teams, and the loss of DeJon Gomes to injured reserve (shoulder) helps clear the path. But the Lions need good secondary depth, and all three guys have things to work on entering the final stretch.
Fourth offensive tackle
Undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas remains the favorite because of his enormous upside — and 6-foot-9 frame. But Michael Williams has played well since switching from tight end. This will be a tight battle, and the Lions will hope to keep the second-place finisher on the practice squad.
Two recent additions
Igwenagu and tight end Michael Egnew, who were claimed off waivers Monday, should both have a chance to play Thursday. Both players, though, had just one practice to get acclimated to the scheme, so they will have to be excellent in their snaps.