Allen Park — With fewer than two weeks until roster decisions must be made, the Detroit Lions backup quarterback competition remains wide open.
The Lions have continued to rotate veteran Matt Cassel and third-year pro Jake Rudock on the practice field and in the preseason games to get a proper evaluation. Neither player has been able to establish a commanding lead in the race, although both showed modest improvement from the first to the second week of the preseason.
At first glance, Rudock’s stat line looks far more impressive. He has completed 71.4 percent of his 49 throws for 255 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. But you must take into account that he’s taken almost no risks.
Rudock’s average pass has traveled 4.37 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, easily the lowest among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts this preseason. And he’s completed just three throws longer than 10 yards downfield.
Rudock’s best success came in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants last Friday, leading a pair of touchdown drives in the losing effort.
Cassel, on the other hand, has completed 16 of 27 passes (59.3 percent) with no touchdowns and one interception. The pick wasn’t the quarterback’s fault as it went through the hands of receiver TJ Jones and was snagged by Giants linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong off the deflection.
With the starters expected to see a healthy workload in the third preseason game in Tampa Bay Friday night, the first quarterback off the bench could be viewed as a strong indicator of which way the team is leaning with its decision.
“They’re in competition with each other, and everybody is in competition, and we’re going to try to keep putting them in a situation where they both compete equally to see where that’s going from that standpoint,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “I think they have both done some good things. I think there are things in there they both need to improve on.
“It’s been good though that we have kind of been able to put them in different situations. We’ve had some two-minute type of situations that they have both been able to kind of compete against in, third down, red (zone) area. So, we’re still early, kind of in the middle of training camp really to be honest with you, and we’ve got a couple more weeks to evaluate it.”
Cassel, in his 14th season, has the obvious experience edge, both with his 81 professional starts and his familiarity with the coaching staff. He and Patricia overlapped for four seasons in New England (2005-08) early in their careers.
Rudock, a sixth-round draft pick in 2016, spent most of his rookie season on Detroit’s practice squad. He won the backup job last season, marking the first time in Matthew Stafford’s career the guy behind him on the depth chart was younger than him.
Stafford obviously isn’t picking sides in the current competition and is prepared to work side-by-side with whomever the team settles on at the end of the preseason.
“I’ve kind of had all different kinds (of backups) and been able to co-exist and play well with all kinds,” Stafford said. “It’s really not my decision, to tell you the truth. We’re just looking for guys who can help this team.”
Stafford has started 125 games. In an ideal world, his backup won’t need to see the field. The value of that roster spot then becomes the insight they can provide in the class room.
“It’s important,” Stafford said. “I can’t watch every snap of every game a team has played for the last however many years. There’s not enough time in the day. Being able to get a separate set of eyes on some tape and get some ideas, thoughts. Maybe a guy has played against a guy in college or played against him two years ago in the pros or was on his team. All that stuff is information that is relevant and can help.”
With preseason games against Tampa Bay and Cleveland remaining, Patricia will be wrapping up his evaluation of the race, with a keen focus on on-field performance, just in case of an emergency.
“With the preseason, with the opportunities that we have to play everybody, we’re certainly going to want to see their on-field performance first and foremost right now,” he said. “But, their preparation, their professionalism, how they attack the day, the daily game plan, the weekly game plan, how they prepare themselves, is definitely all part of the evaluation.”