Jim Caldwell loves to tell a story about former Indianapolis Colts receiver Blair White. Every year around this time, when he discusses the fourth preseason game and its importance to players, he’ll bring up the former Michigan State receiver.
It has turned into a bit of a tall tale -- White didn’t have double-digit catches in his final preseason game in 2010 and didn’t actually make the roster right away, instead signing to the team’s practice squad before being promoted later in the year -- but the feeling remains. Because Caldwell has seen similar success stories, including Kerry Hyder last season.
For players on the bubble, the last preseason game means a lot. It could mean the difference between employment and the sudden need to find a job.
And this season, the Lions have a few position battles -- and roster spots -- that could come down to Thursday night against Buffalo before cuts come this weekend.
1. Punt/kick returner: Frankly, no one has jumped out to win this job and there have been a lot of candidates. Some, like Dwayne Washington, seem likely to have a roster spot no matter what. But Jace Billingsley, Jamal Agnew and Jared Abbrederis would do well to win a returner job to secure a place on the roster. TJ Jones, likely the team’s No. 4 receiver, is also in this mix. But as late as Tuesday, Caldwell said the team had not decided on someone for either role.
2. Fifth receiver/fourth tight end: This is still a question and it’s possible the Lions carry both a No. 5 receiver and four tight ends. If they do decide on four TEs, Cole Wick seems to have the inside track. But if Khari Lee or Robert Tonyan have a strong final game, Wick could be pushed off the roster and on to the practice squad. The fifth receiver -- and potentially fourth receiver since TJ Jones seems likely but not a roster lock -- could come down to Billingsley and Abbrederis. It’s where the returner role could factor in, too. The No. 5 receiver could offer a surprise as well, if rookies Noel Thomas or Dontez Ford have big games. Both have shown flashes during the preseason of being possible NFL receivers.
3. The last linebacker: While Steve Longa has had an impressive preseason, particularly on special teams, he is no guarantee for a roster spot. He’s likely to get a long look at linebacker against the Bills and if he can play well there, that might lock up a gig for him. His main competition is Nick Bellore, a veteran special-teams player with more experience as an actual linebacker. Bellore hasn’t done as much as Longa in training camp, which is why Longa has the edge as of now, but Bellore still has time to impress.
4. The rookie defensive ends: The way the roster is constructed as of now, it would seem like Pat O'Connor, Jeremiah Valoaga or Alex Barrett will be on the 53-man roster. It’s unlikely all three of them make it, though, and it’s been a really close battle thus far. O’Connor was a seventh-round pick and Valoaga and Barrett undrafted free agents. Hyder clinched a roster spot -- and an eventual breakout season -- after a three-sack performance in last year’s preseason finale. If one of the three has a massive game against Buffalo, that could be the difference. As of now, I’ve projected Barrett and Valoaga to be on the roster and O’Connor on the practice squad.
5. Jake Rudock and Brad Kaaya: This isn’t a competition as Rudock has clearly won the No. 2 quarterback job, but it could be -- and the Lions hope it is -- his final work of the 2017 season. These live-game reps are critical to Rudock’s development so don’t be surprised if he gets some good work against the Bills. For Kaaya, it’s a similar situation, although his roster spot is far less secure considering Detroit’s other injury issues. This should be the most extensive work Kaaya gets and he can show how much he’s been able to learn over the past month. A big preseason finish could mean good things for him in the future.