In the days leading up to the start of Lions training camp, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News will highlight the key position battles. Today: Backup quarterbacks.
Allen Park — It’s the camp battle the Detroit Lions hope never matters — the competition to back up starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
This year, for the first time in Stafford’s career, he’ll be older than his backup.
Significantly older. A role previously held by Daunte Culpepper, Shaun Hill and Dan Orlovsky will either be manned by Jake Rudock or rookie Brad Kaaya.
This model more closely mirrors what the New England Patriots have utilized, drafting and developing a young signal-caller behind the unquestioned franchise starter. If nothing else, the team could end up with a viable trade chip in the future.
Rudock will enter training camp the clear favorite to win the job.
A sixth-round pick out of Michigan last season, Rudock impressed with both his arm and his feet in the preseason. He finished the four-game exhibition slate completing 30 of his 51 passes for 333 yards, four touchdowns and an interception while scrambling 10 times for 62 yards.
That showing wasn’t enough to earn a roster spot, but after clearing waivers, Rudock was quickly signed to the team’s practice squad. That’s where he spent the next 11 weeks, before the quarterback-needy Chicago Bears started sniffing around and the Lions promoted him to the 53-man roster to prevent him from being poached by an NFC North rival.
Following the 2016 season, Detroit let Orlovsky know they wouldn’t look to bring him back, suggesting the organization had faith in Rudock permanently taking over the role.
But when Kaaya, once considered a potential first-round talent by some analysts, tumbled into the sixth-round of this year’s draft, the Lions couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give Rudock some quality competition.
At this stage, the battle hasn’t been close. Rudock is showing the benefits of having a year in the system. He looks far more comfortable making the correct reads and throws on the practice field. And his feet continue to be a valuable weapon, delivering multiple big gains in the practices that were open to the media.
Kaaya wasn’t nearly as crisp during OTAs and mandatory minicamp, but it’s far too early to write him off. A three-year starter at the University of Miami, he completed 62.0 percent of his throws last season, with an impressive 27-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Kaaya has a reputation for possessing a high football IQ and should be expected to show significant improvement after having six more weeks to study coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s playbook.
In addition to the head-to-head competition, the Lions will eventually need to decide whether they’ll carry two or three quarterbacks on the roster.
The past two seasons, the team rolled with just Stafford and Orlovsky on the active roster, but before that, Kellen Moore served three years as the team’s third quarterback.
The Lions were able to get away with exposing Rudock to waivers last year, a calculated risk that paid off. It’s possible they could test those waters again this season with Kaaya and develop him on the practice squad without wasting a valuable roster spot.
Lions camp battles
Day 1: Left tackle
Day 2: Nickelback
Day 3: Fourth, fifth receivers
Day 4: SAM linebacker
Day 5: Left guard
Day 6: Defensive ends
Day 7: Running back depth
Day 8: Backup defensive tackles
Day 9: Backup quarterback