‘Opportunity’ is magic word for Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Nate Ness doesn’t celebrate his birthday anymore.

Having a birthday in early September means it typically follows final cuts in the NFL, and with the league schedule pushed back a few days this year, his birthday Saturday happens to be the day teams finalize their 53-man rosters.

“I hate my birthday,” he said, adding the stress makes it difficult to eat or sleep.

When the Lions play the Bills tonight at Ford Field, about 24 players will take the field uncertain about their future.

Some players, like the journeyman Ness, have experienced being cut several times during their career. But for the rookies, it’ll be a new experience. Coach Jim Caldwell said he’s relayed a message to the players explaining just how difficult it can be to make an NFL roster.

“I tell them, ‘In this league, there’s a crack that opens up about that wide,’ ” he said, putting his hands about a foot apart. “ ‘And it’s only open for a very short period of time, so when it’s open, you better get in it, OK. And you better get in it right now because it won’t be long that thing will close, and it’s a tough opportunity for you to get in. You’ll be out.’

“They got to take advantage of the opportunity that they have. It’s up to them.”

As the Lions approach the exhibition finale, most roster spots are locked in, but several players will have an opportunity to persuade coaches to keep them.

“It’ll come down to this opportunity for two guys that are kind of vying for the same spot,” Caldwell said. “But, then the other part of it is that we may be trying to make a determination on whether we’ll go heavy in one position and light in another.”

A couple of positions the Lions could go heavy on are defensive tackle and offensive guard, as Caraun Reid and Larry Warford, respectively, continue to recover from high ankle sprains. The Lions also could keep five tailbacks instead of four if Zach Zenner and George Winn prove worthy.

Special teams contributions also will play a role in determining which bubble players make the roster because even though they’re competing at their respective offensive or defensive positions, most of the back-end roster players only will play special teams unless injuries push them into the lineup. This could create an opportunity for a seventh linebacker like Brandon Copeland or Julian Stanford.

“At the end of the day, what’s going to happen is going to happen, so me outthinking myself before the game is not going to help me do my job,” Copeland said.

Defensive end Phillip Hunt, a bubble player, said his plan is to have fun tonight, focus on his job and pray.

“I never feel like you’ve done enough because that’s when you get comfortable, and when you get comfortable, you don’t play at your best,” he said.

Although the Lions could begin making transactions Friday, some of the players in the closest competitions might have to wait until Saturday to learn their fate.

“The waiting game is what’s really the nerve-racking, stressful time because you never know,” Ness said. “You’re looking at your phone left and right. You try to go out to do something to take your mind off it, but still, your mind is still going to be on it because this is our livelihoods.”

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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Bills at Lions

Kickoff: 7:30 tonight, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Channel 2/97.1

Line: Lions by 1

Exhibition records: Both teams 2-1

Exhibition series: Lions lead 22-11-1 (Detroit 23-0, Aug. 28, 2014)