Cudjo getting good jump on making Lions roster

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions theoretically have their top four defensive tackles locked in for 2015, but if they keep a fifth, Jermelle Cudjo should have an opportunity to make the 53-man roster.

Cudjo, 28, has been consistently impressive during training camp, balancing a quick first step with some power rush ability. And Cudjo carried his strong practice performances into the first exhibition game with a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery during his nine snaps in Thursday's win over the New York Jets.

"He had a very good game the other night," coach Jim Caldwell said Saturday. "He played well — tough, hard-nosed, scraps, comes off the ball with some power.

"He's a hard worker, so those are the kinds of things we thought we'd get from him."

If Lions fans are looking for an under-the-radar player who can shine like defensive end George Johnson did in 2014, Cudjo is probably the best comparison. Like Johnson, Cudjo went undrafted in 2010, joined the Lions after spending much of the previous year away from football and looked like a legitimate NFL player as soon as training camp began.

Cudjo spent most of his first four seasons with the St. Louis Rams. As a rookie, he appeared in 10 games with 13 tackles, half a sack and two passes defensed, but he missed 2011 with a back injury.

In 2012, he had his best pro season with 15 appearances — including four starts — and had 21 tackles and a sack. St. Louis then signed him to a two-year, $1.8 million deal, a significant raise from his $540,000 contract in 2012.

But Cudjo struggled in 2013 with 11 tackles and a pass defensed in 13 games as a reserve. He also received the worst grade among the Rams' defensive linemen from Pro Football Focus.

On May 8, 2014, St. Louis drafted defensive tackle Aaron Donald 13th overall, and six days later, the team cut Cudjo.

The Kansas City Chiefs signed him five days after that, but he admittedly struggled converting to a 3-4 defense and his new team cut him after the third exhibition game. Cudjo didn't land another job until the Lions signed him in January.

"Mentally, it was draining," Cudjo said of being away from the game. "I had to stay mentally positive and just keep staying ready physically because you never know when you can get that call to come play for somebody."

Cudjo lived at home in Oklahoma and continued training. He said his wife and faith helped him stay positive about his prospects of returning to the NFL.

Cudjo worked out for the Lions in the week leading up to their postseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. He said he felt like he had a strong workout, but the Lions didn't sign him because they didn't need a defensive tackle at the time. The personnel department regularly holds workouts to update their records on some players.

Five days after losing to the Cowboys, the Lions signed Cudjo to a futures contract.

"Sitting out all last year, it's not a good feeling," he said. "But (I) just stayed positive and (I'm) blessed to get another opportunity."

Making the roster will be difficult with Haloti Ngata as the starter and Tyrunn Walker and Caraun Reid likely continuing to play a lot in the exhibition games to determine the other starter. Gabe Wright, a fourth-round pick, is also a roster lock and should see plenty of action in the exhibition games.

Cudjo's best chance is to continue practicing well, and he did so Saturday in the first real practice since Thursday's game as he won his one-on-one matchups against guards Laken Tomlinson, a first-round pick, and Taylor Boggs.

After explaining he needs to have good fundamentals and avoid mental errors to impress the coaches, Cudjo said he's not happy yet with what he's done.

"Never satisfied," he said.