Jacksonville, Fla. — After the Lions let Jed Collins leave in free agency this offseason, Emil Igwenagu was the only fullback on the roster.
Weeks later, the Lions drafted Michael Burton in the fifth round, which meant Igwenagu’s best chance to make the 53-man roster likely was to convince the team to carry two fullbacks.
“It’s not like I thought I was going to be the only fullback in here,” Igwenagu said with a smile this week. “Obviously, there’s going to be competition. That pushes me; I’m sure that pushes (Burton).”
So far this summer, Igwenagu has done enough to give the coaches and personnel staff a few reasons to consider the possibility of keeping him along with the rookie.
“Very, very close and heated battle, which has been good for us,” coach Jim Caldwell said of the fullback competition. “I think they both have worked extremely hard at it and they both certainly are the kind of guys you’re looking that can step up in there and take on a linebacker.”
The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Igwenagu is taller and rangier than the typical fullback — Burton is 6-foot and 245 pounds. But he’s been playing the position for most of his football career, so he understands the importance of keeping his pads low to maintain leverage while he blocks.
The extra length, though, helps Igwenagu on special teams, which is the unit he’ll have to make a mark to make the team.
After going undrafted out of UMass, Igwenagu signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012. He played in three games as a rookie, but spent most of his first two years on the Eagles’ practice squad.
Philadelphia waived him after the third exhibition game in 2014, and the Lions claimed him before stashing him on the practice squad all of last season. Although Burton has been more impressive as a blocker, so far, Igwenagu spent all of last year learning the Lions offense, which was an extremely valuable experience.
The Lions have also used Igwenagu briefly as a tight end and H-back during practices this summer, and he knows that versatility could be his ticket to the active roster, though he doesn’t think the coaches moving him around says much about where he stands.
“I just go out and do what’s on the call sheet,” he said. “I really don’t read into any of that because at the end of the day, they’re just evaluating and trying to choose the best squad to make it all the way.”
Several sit out
As expected, Calvin Johnson did not play Friday and has not yet appeared in a preseason game. Caldwell said it would be his decision whether or not the star receiver would make an appearance, but with rain at EverBank Field, the Lions took the precautionary route.
Several other Lions starters sat, too, including linebacker DeAndre Levy, defensive end Ziggy Ansah, right guard Larry Warford, defensive end Jason Jones and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
Defensive tackle Caraun Reid, cornerbacks Alex Carter and Chris Owens and linebacker Kyle Van Noy were also inactive. And while they remain on their respective injury lists, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and running back Joique Bell were out.
First-round pick Laken Tomlinson made his first start of the preseason, filling the left guard spot while veteran Manny Ramirez moved to right guard with Warford recovering from an ankle injury.
With Levy out, Josh Bynes started at weak-side linebacker. Corey Fuller started in place of Johnson, and Jermelle Cudjo started at defensive tackle next to Tyrunn Walker with Ngata and Reid out. Devin Taylor and Darryl Tapp were the starting defensive ends with no Jones or Ansah.
For Jacksonville, tight end Julius Thomas, defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, running back Toby Gerhart, offensive tackle Josh Wells, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, safety Johnathan Cyprien, cornerbacks Demetrius McCray and Peyton Thompson and wide receivers Marqise Lee, Greg Jenkins and Neal Sterling were inactive.
Progress for Ngata
Before the game, Ngata spent some time running on the field with an air-restricting training mask. The Lions remain optimistic that the defensive tackle will be ready for Week 1, and his full-speed running Friday was a good sign that he’s on track to return before the regular season begins.