The latest look at Lions’ position battles
Indianapolis — Before the start of training camp, we highlighted nine position battles we would be closely following.
Heading into the team’s first preseason game, following a pair of joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts, here’s where each of those competitions stand.
The Lions have tinkered with a number of options here, including undrafted rookie Storm Norton getting a day with the first-team offense, but it’s largely been a two-horse race between Greg Robinson and Cyrus Kouandijo.
Robinson got off to a slow start, thanks to a brief stint on the PUP list for coming up short on the team’s conditioning expectations, but he’s emerged as the clear favorite to fill in for Taylor Decker in recent days. Robinson took all the first-team reps during the two practices in Indianapolis and looked like the more consistent of the two newcomers.
Learning a new playbook and blocking scheme have been obvious challenges for both Robinson and Kouandijo, but it’s trending as Robinson’s job to lose.
The Lions brought in some serious competition for incumbent Quandre Diggs job, and, thus far, the third-year pro has staved off challengers D.J. Hayden and Jamal Agnew.
On the practice field, Diggs has looked sharper in coverage, a weakness in his game last year. Hiccups are still present, but he’s been tighter on his assignments, resulting in more pass breakups and a really nice interception while covering Golden Tate.
Hayden has been picking up as of late, and you can see the natural talent that made him a first-round pick a few years back. Whether he can overtake Diggs remains to be seen, but at worst, he gives the Lions a better security blanket if injuries strike.
Agnew has exhibited typical rookie inconsistencies, regularly losing his one-on-one matchups in convincing fashion, but he’s coming off his best practice and his return ability have him in the lead for one, if not both of those jobs on special teams while he develops as a defender.
THIRD-FIFTH WIDE RECEIVERS
Let’s be clear, rookie Kenny Golladay has taken a firm grasp on the third receiving spot. The remaining openings are impossible to project at this stage. TJ Jones, Jared Abbrederis, Jace Billingsley and Keshawn Martin have all performed well.
Jones, the most experienced in Detroit’s scheme, probably has a leg up. He’s had a couple bad drops, but plenty of receptions as well, with many coming while working with the top offensive group. Abbrederis is a smooth route runner at all depths with good hands, Billingsley can be a nightmare on short throws in space and Martin has been making Detroit’s rookie cornerbacks look silly with shiftiness off the line.
It might not be the most important role in the defense, but the strong side linebacker will probably be on the field between 25-40 percent of snaps, depending on the opponent.
Antwione Williams, the early favorite, has clearly made strides in his second season, but he’s currently locked in a highly competitive battle with do-everything veteran Brandon Copeland, who got the first-team reps in Indy.
Look for these two to split time throughout the preseason. Copeland’s ability to rush the passer, with his experience at defensive end, make him an intriguing option at the spot. Effectively playing in space while hovering around 260 pounds remains the question.
Even though the coaching staff implied this would be an open competition, there’s been no sign of Graham Glasgow relinquishing the job he took over in the middle of last season.
Glasgow has shown improvement, particularly as a pass protector, while Laken Tomlinson and Joe Dahl have failed to offer much of a challenge. At this point, those two are battling it out to be the top interior backup. Dahl holds the edge based on practice reps, but he’s had a rough camp. His best trait remains his versatility. He’s taken snaps at every spot along the line expect right tackle this offseason.
FOURTH-FIFTH DEFENSIVE END
The Lions have been so banged up at defensive end that it’s given the contenders plenty of reps to state an early case. Anthony Zettel has made the most of the opportunity, flashing vastly improved get-off on the edge. He still needs to show the ability to finish his rushes consistently.
Undrafted rookies Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Valoaga have displayed more potential than seventh-round pick Pat O’Connor, with Barrett showing the most consistency getting off the ball and penetrating the backfield. It wouldn’t be surprising to see one of the undrafteds crack the roster with a strong preseason.
THIRD-FOURTH RUNNING BACK
The Lions have made it difficult to get a strong read on their preferences here. Zach Zenner, Matt Asiata and Dwayne Washington have all received snaps with the first-team offense. Asiata appears to have a little more momentum heading into the preseason opener, while Washington has struggled with drops as a receiving option coming out of the backfield.
BACKUP DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Jordan Hill was generating some buzz as a pass-rushing force before suffering an undisclosed injury. He’s missed the past four practices and risks being out of sight, out of mind. The player who has taken advantage of more playing time has been rookie Jeremiah Ledbetter, who has been in the backfield more than you might expect for a young player in his first camp.
Ledbetter is unquestionably undersized, listed at 280 pounds, but he’s extremely athletic. He’s one to watch once the exhibition slate gets under way.
You can stick a fork in this one. Jake Rudock has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s the second-best quarterback in Lions camp. He’s more decisive, more accurate, has more zip on his throws, plus effective mobility when his pocket collapses.
Brad Kaaya hasn’t had a good camp, not that anyone should be surprised. It’s difficult to play quarterback in the NFL, no matter where you went to college. It seems likely the team will expose him to waivers and try to get him on the practice squad once it’s time to get the roster down to 53.