Projecting Lions' 53-man roster as deadline draws near

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matt Cassel passes in the third quarter against the Buccaneers on Friday night.

Allen Park – With less than a week until the Detroit Lions have to get down to their 53-man roster, Saturday at 4 p.m., here's our latest projection. 

Quarterback (2)

In: Matthew Stafford, Matt Cassel

Work to do: Jake Rudock

Thoughts: We’re holding steady on our belief Cassel has the leg up in this race, and the quarterback rotation in Friday’s game against the Bucs supports that.

Rudock entered the offseason with the advantage of having played in Detroit’s scheme for two seasons, but Cassel has caught up and surpassed his younger competitor.

Rudock has been plagued with downfield accuracy issues this offseason, inflating his preseason stat line with dump-off passes. The average distance his throws have traveled in the air has been the lowest of any qualifying quarterback this preseason, by a wide margin. And almost all of his success has come late in games, against third-string defenders. 

Running back (5)

In: LeGarrette Blount, Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Nick Bellore

Work to do: Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington

Injured: Nick Bawden

Thoughts: Again, no changes from our last projection. The Lions might not use a fullback a lot, but Bellore solidifies his spot on the roster with excellent work on special teams. Abdullah, despite some ball-security issues in the second preseason game, has looked more explosive than he did last year and would give the Lions the versatility of a trio of dual-threat options.

Bradley Marquez

Wide receiver (5)

In: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones, Bradley Marquez

Work to do: Jace Billingsley, Dontez Ford, Andy Jones, Chris Lacy, Brandon Powell, Brian Brown, Teo Redding

Thoughts: There’s a realistic possibility the Lions carry just four receivers, but instead of popular fifth options such as Billingsley or preseason standout Powell, I’m leaning toward a more under-the-radar option in Marquez.

I’d love to reward Powell’s preseason with a roster spot, but I’m troubled by the overlap of his skill set with roster locks. Powell doesn’t offer much on special teams beyond return skills, where the Lions already have All-Pro Jamal Agnew. And as a shifty slot receiver, Tate is going to take all those reps on Sundays. If Powell gets through waivers, he’s a perfect practice squad option with an eye on 2019 and beyond.

As for Marquez, he’s been one of the team’s most-active special team contributors this preseason. He’s probably not going to offer much as a receiver, but he has some time in the system and can contribute in a pinch.

Tight end (3)

In: Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, Hakeem Valles

Work to do: Michael Roberts,Sean McGrath, Marcus Lewis

Thoughts: This one is going to be a little controversial. Valles has earned a job with his consistent practice and preseason performance. Most of my fellow reporters on the beat would agree and probably will look for ways the Lions can keep four tight ends, but that’s a tough sell.

Roberts is one of my favorite people on the roster, and we’ve seen flashes of an intriguing ceiling after making significant improvements as a blocker his rookie year, but his performance has tailed off badly in training camp and the preseason, both as a pass-catcher and a blocker.

Offensive line (9)

In: Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow, Frank Ragnow, T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner, Corey Robinson, Tyrell Crosby, Kenny Wiggins, Joe Dahl

Work to do: Brian Mihalik, Wesley Johnson, Dan Skipper, Jamar McGloster, Leo Koloamatangi, John Montelus, Beau Nunn

Thoughts: There’s still some wiggle room on the interior of the line and I could see Johnson, or long shot Koloamatangi, sneaking in over Dahl, but the third-year guard is coming off his best performance against the Bucs, giving me faith he’ll fend off those challenges.

Robinson is another player on the bubble who had his best preseason showing at the most critical time, solidifying his chances.

Da'Shawn Hand

Defensive line (9)

In: Ziggy Ansah, A’Shawn Robinson, Sylvester Williams, Anthony Zettel, Kerry Hyder, Da’Shawn Hand, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Ricky Jean Francois, Cam Johnson

Work to do: Alex Barrett, Josh Fatu, Toby Johnson, Christian Ringo, Jeremiah Valoaga

Thoughts: I’m still a little surprised the team dumped Cornelius Washington. He wasn’t a star, by any means, but he set a solid edge (something the Lions are struggling with right now) and could be good for a powerful bull rush here and there.

Hand will likely get most of the reps that would have gone to Washington, but it was tricky to figure out how the team will take advantage of the extra roster spot. I slotted Cam Johnson in there for now, but there's no obvious choice.

Johnson had an injury early in camp, costing him some time, but his snap count trended upward the past two weeks and he has far more experience than Barrett or Valoaga.   

Miles Killebrew

Linebackers (8)

In: Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jonathan Freeney, Trevor Bates, Miles Killebrew, Eli Harold

Work to do: Darnell Sankey, Chad Meredith, Freddie Bishop

Injured: Steve Longa

Thoughts: There’s some shuffling with this group since our last projection thanks to an injury and a trade. With Longa out for the year, the Lions can insert Bates into that multi-faceted special teams role without losing the production Longa brought to the table.

Harold, acquired in a trade, gets the nod even though we haven’t seen him on the field for the Lions. The team could still cut him, and not owe the 49ers any compensation, but you have to imagine the deal was made with a role in mind. He’s an athletic edge rusher who looks to be a natural fit backing up Kennard.

And in a surprising move, I have the Lions keeping an eighth linebacker, Killebrew. He offers so much on special teams. Plus, with the way Kennard and Harold are likely to be used, spending so much time on the line of scrimmage, they almost act as defensive linemen.  

Defensive backs (9)

In: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, Quandre Diggs, Teez Tabor, Jamal Agnew, Tracey Walker, DeShawn Shead

Work to do: Charles Washington, Mike Ford, Chris Jones, Rolan Milligan, Josh Okonye, Dexter McDougle, Sterling Moore

Thoughts: Shead hasn’t appeared in the last two preseason games and the Lions have given no indication the free-agent addition is injured. Even though he hasn’t been good this offseason, I’m not ready to trim him from the roster quite yet. But the addition of veterans McDougale and Moore could possibly change the defensive backfield makeup.

This is one of two position groups, along with defensive line, where the Lions are likely to scour waivers next weekend looking for a potential last-minute upgrade.

Specialists (3)

Starters: Matt Prater, Sam Martin, Don Muhlbach

Work to do: Ryan Santoso

Thoughts: Yeah, nothing to see here.