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Lions' last preseason game far from trivial

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Wide receiver Jace Billingsley pulls down a reception on the run.

Allen Park — In many ways, the fourth exhibition game feels meaningless.

Around the NFL, starters will sit as backups, and the backups to the backups, battle it out in front of sparse crowds. At this point, just about everyone is ready for the regular season.

But for many of the players participating in the contest, it's an invaluable experience. It's a developmental opportunity for the rookie, it's a final opportunity to impress for those on the roster bubble, and for more than a handful, it will be the last time they step on an NFL field.

By Saturday, rosters must be trimmed from 75 to 53 players. That's more than 700 jobs.

The Detroit Lions close out the preseason Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field and coach Jim Caldwell underlined the value he gets from a game that sparks little interest from fans.

"It’s an extremely important game," Caldwell said. "It’s a time where most of those guys are going to get their most opportunity to play in terms of volume of plays. It’s really important. They don’t take it lightly. Just like we talked the other day, it’s been months and months of an interview process. In some cases this might be the final interview for some, so they want to put on a great showing."

Caldwell likes to tell a story from his time in Indianapolis, about how a final preseason performance by former Michigan State standout Blair White earned the young wide receiver a job with the Colts.

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The facts, as Caldwell tells the story, are a little distorted. White didn't record double-digit receptions, as the coach suggests. The final stat line was actually seven catches for 132 yards. The receiver also didn't earn an immediate spot on the team's 53-man roster, but rather the practice squad job with a promotion coming a few weeks into the regular season.

Still, the spirit of the story holds true. An impact performance in this game can help a player stick, even if it's on the practice squad. For guys who have been on the Lions roster all offseason, undrafted rookies like Charles Washington, Jay Lee and Jace Billingsley, they can show they merit continued development, keeping alive their long-term aspirations of being on the main roster.

Billingsley is a prime example. The 5-foot-9, 189-pound slot receiver out of Eastern Oregon has shown steady development since signing with the Lions in May. During early practices, he looked understandably overmatched, struggling to get separation and dropping passes. Had he been replaced as part of the ongoing bottom-of-the-roster churn in early August, no one would have batted an eye.

But the Lions stuck with Billingsley and he's gotten better by the week. He had an impressive 27-yard touchdown in the preseason opener, caught two more passes for 33 yards in the second exhibition game and worked with the second-team offense last weekend against Baltimore while also getting an increased opportunity returning kicks. He brought one kickoff back 40 yards in the game.

"It’s been mentioned before, these guys have been on a five or six month job interview," Caldwell said. "Every practice, every game, on- and off-the-field behavior, all of those things are taken into consideration. Most of us, when we interviewed for a job it lasted two or three days. You think about having to be on point and on top of your game for the amount of time these guys have had this opportunity and to take advantage of it, so every single snap is important."

Billingsley is still a long shot to make the 53-man roster, but he remains in play for the practice squad, which would still be quite an accomplishment coming from an NAIA school. If he, or any of the other rookies, have a White-like performance, they'll force the Lions' hand.

There might not be many people watching Thursday, but it won't be meaningless — Jobs are going to be won, roles will be finalized, and for some, the dream will come to an end.