Allen Park — More than a month after the start of training camp, we’ve finally reached the end of the preseason. Many of the Detroit Lions’ starters won’t play against the Buffalo Bills, but for the players who do take the field Thursday night, it’s a final opportunity to audition for a roster spot before this Saturday’s cuts.
Here are seven players we’ll be watching.
WR Jace Billingsley
On the cusp of earning a roster spot with another highly productive preseason, Billingsley will look to go out with a bang, like he did last year, as a rookie. In the 2016 preseason finale, also against Buffalo, Billingsley hauled in eight passes for 70 yards and a touchdown from backup quarterback Jake Rudock.
The duo has good chemistry, but Rudock was also in step with Jared Abbrederis last week. That’s Billingsley’s primary competition for a job as we head toward a photo finish.
CB D.J. Hayden
Playing primarily outside during the preseason, Hayden has performed well. He broke up a pass and earned a top-five grade from Pro Football Focus each of the past two games.
The general feeling is Quandre Diggs has the starting nickel job locked up, but after a shaky outing against the Patriots last week, the door remains open just enough for Hayden to be in the conversation. Another night of steady pass coverage against the Bills will give the coaching staff something to think about.
DT Jeremiah Ledbetter
Injuries can strike at any time. Against the Patriots, the Lions unexpectedly lost Jordan Hill for the season and are now left to find a replacement in the defensive tackle rotation. Ledbetter, a sixth-round draft pick, is the most obvious choice.
A high-end athlete for his position, Ledbetter was undersized coming out of college, but has packed on 18 pounds in the short time he’s been with the Lions. He’s flashed the ability to penetrate the backfield and can boost the team’s confidence with a good showing in Buffalo.
DE Alex Barrett
It’s still possible the Lions add a veteran defensive end before the season starts, whether that’s off waivers or via a trade. Until then, the team has a trio of rookies battling it out for the fourth, and potentially fifth spot in the rotation.
Of the contenders, Barrett has been the most consistent. At 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, he’s the smallest defensive end on the roster, but makes up for his lack in size with explosiveness off the edge and a good understanding of how to use his natural leverage to his advantage.
During this first offseason, Barrett has leaned on veteran advice from Kerry Hyder. Maybe Barrett can follow Hyder’s lead and secure a job with a dominant outing in the preseason finale.
S Alex Carter
This is potentially Carter’s last hurrah in a Lions uniform. The former third-round pick, who is converting from cornerback, could fall victim to the numbers game in the defensive backfield. But a late surge on to the roster can’t be ruled out.
The Lions carried five safeties into the regular season last year, and with Don Carey banged up and largely limited to special teams even when he’s healthy, the team could certainly justify continuing to roll five deep at the position.
Carter has been firmly behind Charles Washington on the depth chart throughout the preseason, but the latter hasn’t done much to separate himself in the competition. Carter has done well enough in the transition to safety, and can contribute on special teams, that he might be worth a longer look.
OT Storm Norton
Detroit parted ways with veteran Cyrus Kouandjio earlier this week. With Corey Robinson still nursing an injury, there’s a clear path to a roster spot for Norton as a developmental tackle.
He’s been understandably inconsistent as he adjusts to the NFL after playing in the Mid-American Conference, but the rookie offers outstanding length and the team has raved about his intelligence. The fourth tackle on the depth chart is rarely active on game days, so the risk of keeping a rawer option with potential at this spot is minimal.
RB Dwayne Washington
People in the organization have praised Washington’s development in his second season. In the preseason, he’s shown a more advanced feel for running the ball behind his blocks, but expectations are still tempered by inconsistency in that department.
Washington should get a long look in the backfield against the Bills, an opportunity to showcase his improvement. He’ll also look to stake his claim as the kickoff returner, where no one has been able to stand out.