This week’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions is not going to be full of marquee match ups, star players, or likely even half of the final 53 man roster on the field at all. The fourth preseason game is when the GM gets to look at what’s left. The players Bob Quinn deemed not having any shot at the roster went away a few days before, and this is the last chance for those that are left to prove they’re the one standing above the rest at their position. The Bills will also be tweaking the bottom of the roster, so it is natural for someone to ask what the point of watching this game is. The truth is that short of championship games, you are never going to see a group of 22 players on the field who care more, who are putting their blood sweat and tears on the field for your entertainment more than the men on the field this week. The majority of the players who get sent home after this game will never play football again. Some might catch on to the practice squad, and a few more might go play in Canada, but the cold reality of this game for most of them is that if they don’t get it done right here, right now, they have to figure out what’s next. It takes but one special teams tackle, one return for big yardage, an interception, or a throw into tight coverage where only the receiver could make the catch, or making the catch when you know there’s another man desperately trying to extend his dream with a cross-hair on the ball trying to punch it out before you can make a move. Ladies and gentlemen, this is their last chance.
Dwayne Washington vs. Andre Roberts vs. TJ Jones vs. Jace Billingsley
Jeremy Kerley was traded for a likely fourth interior offensive line candidate, removing him from the kick return equation. The choice for a return specialist has been whittled down to four names. Dwayne Washington has been the most electrifying of the group, with his week one 96-yard return elevating his average return to 39.8 yards. Without that return though, his average has been about even with the rest of the returners at 21 yards per return, although they looked dangerous. Andre Roberts has been the model of consistency at 21 yards per return and a longest return of 27 yards, but those are uninspiring numbers to say the least and make teams likely to simply kick the ball high and short, putting the team in a worse position than a touch back the majority of the time, and increasing the chance of injury for the team. Roberts has also averaged only 3.8 yards per punt return with no fair catches, by far the worst numbers on the team. TJ Jones has also been annoyingly consistent, averaging 21.3 yards per kick return with a long return of 24 yards. He had a nice looking return in week three, but the simple truth is had he just continued forward, he likely would have netted more yardage than his flashy sprint to the sideline. Jace Billingsley literally came out of nowhere to get into this conversation. Not a single mention in OTAs and suddenly he lit up the preseason in week one. Billingsley has averaged 10.5 yards per punt return and 32.5 yards per kick return, if there was going to be one person in the dedicated role of returning both punts and kicks, the statistics point toward Billingsley at this point. Roberts will make the team, it is hard not to imagine him on the roster at this point as the steady fourth wide receiver. He is a natural stand in for Golden Tate in the event of an injury, bringing a similar skill set to the table, though significantly less talent. Unseating him is a chore. TJ Jones also has the advantage of being an excellent stand in for Marvin Jones in the event of an injury, though the talent drop between the two is much greater. Being able to perform on both offense and special teams could lead to the freezing out of Billingsley, who has performed reasonably well on offense, but against lesser competition. Washington has also shown exceptional punt coverage ability from the upback position, though reportedly had some issues in blocking from that spot during practices. He has downed a punt inside the five and was personally responsible for a fair catch this preseason, using his speed to the Lions advantage. Based on the preseason footage, this really is going to come down to the fourth game.
Brandon Copeland vs. Wallace Gilberry vs. Anthony Zettel vs. Kerry Hyder
Two of these men are going to make this team barring a free agent addition, though I wouldn’t want to be the one making the choices. Hyder has had the most impressive preseason by far, lining up inside and on the edge and recording seven tackles. Zettel is close behind, having recorded six solo tackles and a sack. Both of those men however, have been playing in the second half of games almost exclusively and beating up on some competition that make those statistics unreliable indicators. Gilberry has recorded two tackles in the entire preseason but has a history of tape to indicate that he can contribute in a similar role, though likely a lower snap count with the emergence of Devin Taylor and Jason Jones last season. But as we have seen this week, Bob Quinn does not seem to be all that interested in past tape while putting the Lions’ 53 man roster together for 2016. Brandon Copeland has not recorded a statistic in the 2016 preseason according to nfl.com and has called his own play terrible. That needs to change against the Bills this week or all the praise that has been heaped on him for his transition from linebacker last season back to his college position of defensive end will be meaningless noise. He risks being forgotten alongside players like Antoine Cason, Amari Spievey, and many others right before they were cut and never heard from again after being hyped for the entire off-season. He was a nice story, having fallen through the cracks and becoming the poster boy for the veteran combine the NFL tried last season, but he needs to actually do something.
Brandon Thomas vs. Joe Dahl
Being new to the team, and having only one opportunity to see game action, Brandon Thomas needs to come up big for the Lions this week. Dahl is a draft pick and has been in the scheme for his entire professional career, but has had as many moments that called his status into question as those that have shown he belonged. Lemuel Jeanpierre is still on the team as I write this, but it is almost a lock that he and Gabe Ikard will miss out on the 53 man roster following the final set of cuts. It seems likely that the most important thing Joe Dahl needs to do against the Bills is avoid injury, as this is his race to win or lose. The cutting of Geoff Schwartz all but locks Dahl into the reserve role barring an incredible performance by Thomas.
Cornelius Lucas vs. Corey Robinson
The final Lions tackle spot comes down to these two players. Neither has had a great preseason but reports from those who get to see any of the practice action put Robinson in the lead. Neither of the two seem likely to see game action during the regular season barring multiple injuries at the tackle spot, but this week they’re definitely fighting for their professional lives. Luke Marquardt is still on the roster but seems likely to be the easiest decision at the tackle position, as he has not fared well in any of the preseason games.
Gabe Wright vs Caraun Reid vs. Stefan Charles vs. Khyri Thornton
One or two of these men will be Lions next week, depending on the philosophy employed by Bob Quinn. Historically, the Lions have kept five of the big men around but with the change, it might be just four of them on the 53 man roster. Wright was picked just one year ago, leaving him available for the practice squad if he clears waivers, meaning that he needs to straight up win this battle to have a spot. Caraun Reid is likely in his last chance to prove he belongs in the NFL and has flashed the ability to belong at times this preseason. Khyri Thornton has also had his moments though, recording a sack and often meriting mention later in games. Stefan Charles is the least flashy of the three. He is a solid run defender who brings little in the way of penetration or pass rush. He doesn’t get pushed but he also does precious little pushing. He holds his place, which has not been the hallmark of the Lions’ defensive scheme. I could easily see Charles falling in to the same pit that has swallowed many of the veteran signings Quinn has made this off season. Decent players who simply have not fit what the staff were trying to do.
Tavon Wilson vs. Isaiah Johnson
The Lions’ backup secondary has not looked very good, and these two players fit into the reason why. Neither of these men have played well enough at this point to justify jettisoning special teams ace Don Carey for slightly better backup safety play, or a slightly lower price tag. Miles Killebrew is unlikely to be cut, having been a fourth round pick this year. Wilson is playing ahead of Johnson on the depth chart at the moment and has the far better resume, but their preseasons have been too close to really call. Wilson leads all safeties in tackles, but has not exactly been knifing through the defense and killing screen plays to get them. Johnson is tied with Killebrew for second among the safety group but the majority of his tackles are also of the sort that are caused by other players missing their responsibility and forcing the safety to chase someone down rather than solid play in his own responsibilities. Only one of these two feels likely to make the team and the fourth preseason game is when it will likely be determined.
Khaseem Greene vs Chi Chi Ariguzo vs Zaviar Gooden
With Josh Bynes being the clear backup at the WLB spot and rookie Antwione Williams having led the team in preseason tackles, there seems to be only two spots left for linebackers, and they’ll likely be playing only special teams. Orson Charles has been in the mix for the same roles on special teams and doing a good job. He plays a position where the Lions are paper thin, making him all but a lock to make the team if Brandon Pettigrew is not going to be ready to start the season. Statistically the three have had very similar preseasons, but have all been a part of a Lions defense that did not look particularly competent in the second half. Green has looked the best of the three to my eyes, which is not saying much. I don’t really think any of them have earned a roster spot but with a solid performance against the Bills in what will likely be extended playing time for all three, one could step into a role for the team.
Lions vs. Bills
The score in this game could not matter less, but it should be an interesting game nonetheless. The Bills have some injuries, making it even less likely that any of their players who fill a role in the offense or defense will see the field. They do have quite a few interesting young players who likely know they’re not going to make the 53 man roster and will thus be trying to audition for the Lions GM among others. EJ Manuel will be trying to fight off Cardale Jones; Greg Salas and Greg Little will be trying to hold off Jarrett Boykin; Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson are potential trade bait at offensive tackle as the Bills possibly look to fill holes elsewhere. On defense for the Bills Lavar Edwards, Leger Douzable, and Justin Zimmer battle it out for what will likely be two places on the line; Bryson Albright is making a push to leapfrog Kroy Biermann and make the team in the wake of Shaq Lawson and IK Enemkpali being unavailable at OLB; the deep corner group could be tempting for Bob Quinn were he willing to part with pieces that the Bills need in other areas; and former Viking Robert Blanton could be outside the bubble at the safety spot.