Lions rookies fight for one — maybe two — spots at DE
Allen Park — Several Lions hopefuls have spent the week preparing for the final exam, Thursday’s preseason finale in Buffalo.
Among them, as Lions coaches begin the unenviable task of paring the roster down from its current 86 to 53 by Saturday’s deadline — that’s a nearly 40-percent roster reduction — are three rookie defensive ends.
The Lions almost certainly will keep one and possibly two of the following gents: Pat O’Connor, a seventh-round pick out of Eastern Michigan; Jeremiah Valoaga, an undrafted free agent out of UNLV; and Alex Barrett, an undrafted free agent out of San Diego State.
“It’s a pretty tight competition, obviously, which you notice and understand,” coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. “All three guys have a certain level of expertise, depending on their size, body types, etc., that they use to their fullest to try and make certain that they get in position to do their absolute best.
“And so this week is one where they’ll get a decent amount of playing time.
“We’ll see what happens.”
It’s tough to decipher a leader in the clubhouse for that prized roster spot, though O’Connor would figure to have a good shot, given he’s the one of the three who Lions GM Bob Quinn saw fit to draft.
Not that O’Connor is taking anything for granted — other than the undeniable fact his beard game is strong.
It remains to be seen if his actual game is strong enough.
“It’s a big week,” said O’Connor, who’s 6-foot-4 and 271 pounds. “You’ve just gotta take every opportunity like it’s your last.
“When your name’s called, you’ve gotta make the best of it.”
Fighting for a roster spot in OTAs, training camp and the preseason camp is a grueling process — but it can be especially tough on rookies, who come from college where they were starters, playing every down. All of a sudden, they’re backups, and getting limited reps, and trying to make the most of them.
That’s tough stuff, especially when your career could be on the line.
“Yeah, big difference,” O’Connor said of the rotational process. “You have to stay loose at all times. You have to be aware in the game, take mental reps, so you don’t mess up. Just being active, and when your name’s called, just doing what you always do. Prepare the best, the best you can.”
And then, hope by the time Saturday rolls around, you’ve done enough.
“Oh, it’d mean the world,” O’Connor said of making the active roster. “People only get limited opportunities like this, so I’m going to make the best of it.”
Valoaga, who is 6-6 and 275 pounds, is a bit more reserved in his comments than O’Connor. He’s quieter, keeps his answers short and sweet, and seems much more interested in letting his play do the talking.
He’s also leaning on the veterans to keep him calm and keep him in perspective — especially his locker neighbor to the left, Ziggy Ansah, and to the right, Haloti Ngata.
He was understandably thrilled when he first walked into the locker room in Allen Park and saw who he’d be sitting next to.
“Yeah, that was the first thing I looked at actually,” Valoaga said. “These guys are a big help. I’m fortunate to be where I’m at right now, just having two by my side.
“The knowledge I can gain from is unimaginable, really.”
Barrett, meanwhile, is 6-3 and 260.
Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel are slotted in as the starters at defensive end, with veteran Armonty Bryant (who will open with a four-game suspension) the first backup. That’s three, and the Lions will keep at least four. That means the Lions are certain to keep one of the three rookies — though there is a chance, since all three are rookies, Caldwell could opt to keep two of them, and five defensive ends in all.
The theory there would be to keep one for one particular strength and another for another particular strength, and essentially use the pair as a “one-player” hybrid — all while allowing both to continue to develop in other areas, and, ideally, become well-rounded players.
“We look at all across the board, those are always considerations,” Caldwell said. “But we look at not only that position, but several others that probably would fall in line with that.
“We have certain numbers and parameters that we would like, but those numbers and parameters change — a guy being hurt or whatever it might be. So, we make adjustments. Those are some of the considerations.”