Final preseason week meaningless for some Lions, 'critical' for others
Allen Park — It can be easy for fans, and even us in the media, to look past the fourth week of the preseason. With the majority of the starters placed in bubble wrap and glued to the sidelines, the final game of the exhibition slate can feel like you're going through the motions, just trying to get to the regular season, where the games count.
But the reality of the situation is more than 1,000 players are about to lose their jobs. Sure, a little more than 300 will land on a practice squad, and even more will find their ways to alternative leagues like the CFL or the second coming of the XFL. But for many, this is the end of the line, the end of the dream of playing professional football.
For those players, this week is a final chance to prove they have what it takes, to earn a job and keep the dream alive.
"It’s critical," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "I think there are a lot of examples through the years of guys that have come out and really have played outstanding in preseason game number four and practiced really hard in preseason week number four and have earned themselves an opportunity on the team. It’s still competition. It’s still competition all the way across the board through the course of the week of practice. We’re still trying to figure out players, we’re still trying to figure out positions, we’re still in a competitive mode, and that’s what’s important for us."
The Lions travel to Cleveland on Thursday to play the Browns, then on Saturday, the team must trim its roster from 90 players to 53 by 4 p.m.
This will be Charles Washington's fourth time through the emotional wringer of cut day. As an undrafted rookie in 2016, he didn't make it, but found his way back to the Lions' practice squad. The past two years, Washington's phone didn't ring.
And on cut day, no news is good news.
Don't be confused, just because he's gone through it before, it's not getting any easier.
"Every year is so hectic, with my role being so limited, I don't look forward to that day," Washington said. "Every year it's a nail-biter."
Washington has been one of Detroit's top special teams players in recent years. But defensively, the safety's practice snaps have dwindled. To top it off, the Lions are loaded at his position, adding another name to the mix this year with the selection of Will Harris in the third round in the draft.
Harris' addition to the room didn't bother Washington. He knows his ticket is special teams and he can't get by simply by being above-average. To keep his spot, he has to clearly be among the best at what he does.
Through this point in the preseason, he's pleased with what he's put on tape.
"I love pressure," Washington said. "Pressure makes diamonds, and honestly, I'm a diamond in the rough. Each year, I have to prove myself. That's the beauty of being an undrafted guy, three years of proving myself, why not again? That's how I see it."
Defensive end Mitchell Loewen also went undrafted in 2016, and like Washington, he's managed to stick around. Loewen spent most of his first three seasons with the New Orleans Saints before the Lions scooped him up off waivers late last year.
In his time with the organization, Loewen has caught the eye of Detroit's coaching staff with a string of strong preseason performances. Patricia has been particularly impressed with the way the young defensive lineman has grasped the creative freedom he's granted within the defensive scheme.
Loewen said it's important to approach this week like any other, to avoid any undue mental stress. As cut day approaches, he's not letting anxiety get the best of him. He's proud of the body of work he's put together this offseason and is embracing the power of positive thinking during these final days of his evaluation.
"I just love playing football," he said. "I'll play anywhere. At the end of the day, I just want to be on the field during the regular season.
"(On Saturday), the wife and I go out to eat because we're celebrating that I made the team. You always have to be positive."
When he says he'll play anywhere, Loewen is talking about any position on the field. There's something humorous about that considering he played at six different spots, on both sides of the ball, while in college.
But it also indirectly hits on another point. Most players understand this week's game isn't just an audition for their current situation, but also showcasing their skill sets for the league's other 31 franchises.
"For sure, everyone knows that," Washington said. "There's only 53 spots and there's 90 of us right now. Sometimes it works out when guys get claimed off waivers."
In 2018, the Lions claimed three players off waivers between cut day and the first game of the regular season. That group included defensive end Romeo Okwara.
So while we allow our minds to wander to Detroit's season-opening matchup with Arizona, Patricia insists he won't get too far ahead of himself and neglect the work that needs to be done this week.
"There are some things that you want to look at, but really our focus is Cleveland," Patricia said. "This is such a critical week. We have guys out there that are fighting for jobs, guys that are trying to live out their dreams, and things that are really important to them, and you want to make sure that as a coach you’re doing everything possible to allow them to have that opportunity.
"From a standpoint of being little kids, growing up in the game of football, we understand what the dreams are, and how passionate and important that is. Now, being in this situation, you want to make sure you’re giving every avenue possible to allow those guys to be able to hopefully fulfill that.”