Five key position battles for the Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, with the assistance of his personnel and coaching staffs, soon will have to make decisions about the future of several players on the current roster.

The Lions currently have 88 players on their roster, and by 4 p.m. Tuesday, they’ll have to reduce that number to 75. By next Saturday, two days after their final exhibition against the Buffalo Bills, the Lions will have to make more cuts to reach the 53-man limit.

Friday’s exhibition against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (8 p.m., CBS) will provide yet another chance for the Lions coaches and executives to evaluate their players, and for some players, it could be the last opportunity to make an impression.

“It’s a competition, and what we try and do is just say is, ‘The big thing that you have to be able to do is execute,’” coach Jim Caldwell said. “There are certain positions, obviously, that it’s a bit more heated in terms of battles for those spots than anyone else, but they have an opportunity. And that’s the great thing about our sport. It’s a meritocracy, the best player will play for you (and) the best guys will make the team. But, unfortunately, at some point in time, you’re going to have to turn loose some pretty good guys. We’ve got a good group here.”

After training camp and two exhibition games, much of the roster is already set, but some starting jobs are still up for grabs. Injuries to any starters could also give some of the bubble players and opportunity to stick in Detroit.

Here are the top five battles remaining:

Left guard: With Larry Warford ailing, first-round pick Laken Tomlinson should start at left guard Friday while Manny Ramirez moves to Warford’s spot at right guard. However, whenever Warford returns from his high-ankle sprain, the Lions will have to decide whether the rookie Tomlinson or ninth-year veteran Ramirez will start on the left side. Tomlinson has acclimated well, but Ramirez hasn’t done anything to suggest he shouldn’t start. Ultimately, the decision likely will come down to how much the coaches trust Tomlinson, because even though he’s more talented, Ramirez might be the more reliable option early against some tough defenses against the start of the season.

Nickel cornerback: Youth versus experience will play a role here, too. Veteran Josh Wilson seemed to secure the job shortly after joining the team in April, with 2014 fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson still recovering from his foot injury this offseason. Sixth-round pick Quandre Diggs also has flashed skills as the slot cover man this spring and summer. However, the 30-year Wilson has experience playing inside and outside in the NFL, and he can blitz and defend the run. The biggest question might be whether the Lions want to use a third safety or a young cornerback to spell Wilson.

Fourth and fifth receiver: With Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew listed as starters and the top three running backs featured in the passing game, the receivers behind Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Corey Fuller won’t play much. TJ Jones seems like a good candidate with upside as a 2014 sixth-round pick, and veteran Lance Moore has been impressive this summer. Jeremy Ross, Greg Salas and Ryan Broyles are in the mix, too.

Fourth tailback: Zach Zenner was one of the best players in the first two exhibition games, running for 55 yards against the Jets and gaining 81 yards from scrimmage against Washington. George Winn hasn’t been as good on offense, (eight carries, 13 yards) but he’s a reliable special teams player and can be a physical short-yardage option behind Joique Bell. The Lions could keep both players because the 23-year-old Zenner could be a key player in the future while Winn is ready to contribute now.

Numbers game: While many players jockey for position on the depth chart, some must try to convince the coaches to keep them over players at other spots. Interior offensive lineman Taylor Boggs, defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo and defensive end Phillip Hunt have been among the most impressive backups this summer, but they’re on the bubble because of the number of players already committed at their position. The Lions already have four centers and guards, defensive ends and defensive tackles effectively locked into the 53-man roster, so players like linebacker Brandon Copeland, Boggs, Cudjo and Hunt have to convince the personnel department to keep an extra backup by continuing to play well. Fullback Emil Igwenagu, who plays the same position as fifth-round pick Michael Burton, and the loser of the Zenner-Winn battle face similar predicaments.