For 15 players, that game will be their last appearance in a Lions uniform. Most of those cuts are fairly obvious, however, such as Tuesday’s waiving of cornerback Drayton Florence, per Kyle Meinke of MLive. It’s the next round of cuts where the real intrigue lies. New head coach Jim Caldwell, the man pictured above, has some tough choices to make.
Here are eight players firmly on the roster bubble for the final cut, which comes after the fourth and final preseason game. Will they make it to the final 53, or will they hit the waiver wire?
By now, Lions fans can recite the alarming failure of Kris Durham in his extended action as Detroit’s No. 2 receiver last season. From the minus-16.5 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) to his abysmal 33 percent catch rate over the final seven games, it was clear the third-year pro from Georgia was in well over his head.
Yet he’s quietly assimilated nicely to his lesser role in the new offense. His excellent touchdown grab versus Oakland (pictured above) demonstrated what camp observers have noticed all summer long:
— Paula Pasche (@paulapasche) August 16, 2014
Now that he’s no more than fourth on the wideout depth chart, Durham is no longer a liability. The Lions can deploy him as the role player his skills dictate him to be. The end-zone fade from Matthew Stafford, his college roommate, is a great example of how he can contribute.
If the final cuts were up to the fans, Durham wouldn’t stand a chance, but he’s performed well enough to the eyes that truly matter to earn another season in Detroit.
Verdict: Makes the cut
Now in his third season in Detroit, it’s clearly do-or-die time for cornerback Jonte Green. Unfortunately, a steep decline in his play after a solid start to training camp is pulling the plug on his Lions tenure.
The final nail in the coffin likely came in Oakland, where the Raiders rallied to victory almost exclusively by picking on Green. As Michael Rothstein of ESPN documented in his game notes:
Even when he didn’t give up the reception, he was beaten on a play — including on a deep route where Carr overthrew Greg Little. If it was a more accurate pass, Little had a touchdown. Green also picked up a defensive holding call on the final drive. On the final drive, McGloin went at Green at least five times. Green was also in the general area of McGloin‘s touchdown pass.
Green’s loss is likely fellow 2012 draft pick Chris Greenwood’s gain. Only one of them appears apt to make it, and Greenwood has been the better player this summer.
Every team needs a feel-good story. Detroit’s is journeyman defensive end George Johnson.
A relative afterthought when he signed in Detroit, Johnson has jumped off the field in both practice and the preseason games. His great first step and relentless motor have proved quite effective in disrupting opposing offenses.
He has worked his newly slimmer self into first-team reps with starter Ezekiel Ansah sidelined as he recovers from shoulder surgery. That audition has been wildly successful:
Re-watching this #Lions game again and George Johnson really had a good game at DE. Didn’t show up a ton on stats, but was effective.
— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) August 17, 2014
The rascal in me hopes that Coach Caldwell holds up Johnson as an example to Nick Fairley, who is eating and playing his way down the depth chart. The former undrafted free agent from Rutgers is a testament to hard work and perseverance, two characteristics the first-round pick from Auburn sorely lacks.
Verdict: Makes the cut
This one surprises me on a personal level, because I jumped off my chair and cheered when the Lions selected Utah State cornerback Nevin Lawson in the fourth round of May’s draft.
I loved that he was a natural in the slot for the Aggies, able to handle quicker receivers but also crash the edge in run support and even blitz. Most NFL slot corners have to transition inside from playing outside—but not Lawson.
Alas, it has not gone well for Lawson. His propensity for grabbing and using his hands instead of his feet to stick with a receiver has been a serious issue throughout camp. He’s been penalized in both preseason games, too. Even with nickelback Bill Bentley struggling above him on the depth chart, Lawson has only played his way down the pecking order.
Fourth-round picks typically make the final cut, but in this case, Lawson’s lack of progress and glaring need for technical refinement put Lawson squarely on the bubble.
Verdict: Makes the cut but tenuously
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of William & Mary, rookie safety Jerome “The Osprey” Couplin initially faced long odds to make the Lions. Yet through a month of camp and preseason, he’s played his way onto the second-team defense.
Barring an unforeseen bad game against Jacksonville, Couplin should maintain that status. He brings a physical presence to the run defense, an attribute that is hard to show off in practice but stands out when facing opponents in different jerseys.
With one of his competitors, DeJon Gomes, sidelined from practices after a bone-jarring hit of his own against Oakland, the rangy rookie is likely to get more reps to make a favorable impression.
Per PFF, Couplin has logged the most preseason snaps of any Lions defensive back. He’s also earned higher marks than his two primary competitors for the fourth safety spot, Gomes and Don Carey.
One other feather in his cap: Unlike his veteran cohorts, another team could potentially swoop in and claim Couplin if the Lions cut him and attempt to slide him to the practice squad. His future is bright enough that it buys him job security.
The Osprey lands on the final roster.
Verdict: Makes the cut
Quarterback Kellen Moore has served as the Lions’ third-stringer for the last two years. The former Boise State legend has yet to take a regular-season snap in that capacity.
Despite going undrafted because of limited athleticism and a weak arm, the lefty has managed to stick around thanks to his cerebral approach and steady improvement. He outdueled the more heralded Ryan Mallett in the 2013 preseason, and his game-winning drive upstaged Johnny Manziel in this year’s preseason opener.
Still, he’s not likely to overtake Dan Orlovsky for the No. 2 gig. Coach Caldwell has experience with Orlovsky, who also has much better size and almost a decade of NFL experience. The veteran bounced back from an abysmal performance against Cleveland to outplay Moore in Oakland.
This decision is less about Moore and more about the overall roster composition. The bottom line is that the Lions are likely to keep just two quarterbacks, and that leaves Moore on the outside.
Verdict: Cut if he’s not dealt for a conditional pick
Two years ago, Mikel Leshoure led the Lions in carries, yards and touchdowns. Yet the addition of Reggie Bush and the emergence of Joique Bell pushed the 2011 second-round pick well down the running back depth chart.
Now he faces an uphill battle to make the team in 2014, the final year of his rookie contract.
Leshoure is clearly behind Bush, Bell and Theo Riddick, the 2013 sixth-round pick who has impressed throughout the offseason and in camp.
He’s now fighting with undrafted rookie George Winn and hybrid fullback/halfback Montell Owens for that fourth roster spot.
Winn runs with a similar physical style, and in the two preseason games, he’s demonstrated superior vision and burst out of cuts. Owens’ ability to handle multiple roles augments his chances as he attempts to return from two knee injuries that limited him to two plays in 2013.
Special teams make a big difference in determining the reserves. Leshoure has shown some ability on those units, but Owens and Winn have both been better on coverage teams.
Leshoure probably needs another negative play by Winn, like his fumble versus Cleveland, to regain the upper hand.
Ashlee Palmer has been a popular choice as a potential ex-Lion this entire offseason. His $1.58 million salary left him vulnerable as a cap casualty as Detroit scraped against the salary cap.
Yet he survived. Even though the Lions drafted Kyle Van Noy in the second round to replace him at outside linebacker, Palmer continues to get first-team reps.
He’s not been very good, notably in Van Noy’s strong suit of pass coverage. Palmer’s minus-2.1 PFF score in that critical category is dwarfed by the rookie’s 1.9. Even so, the sixth-year veteran from Ole Miss is solidly the fourth-best linebacker on the roster.
Consider his roster survival an indictment of the middling competition for the reserve linebacker spots. He’s the best of the rest, unless the Lions unexpectedly sign someone cut from another team.
Verdict: Makes the cut
All salary information is courtesy of Spotrac. All camp observations not otherwise attributed were obtained in person by the author.