By Michael Stets
After the opening two weeks of training camp in the uncomfortable Allen Park heat, plus three days of joint practices with the Patriots, the Lions are set to officially kick off the 2019 preseason tonight vs. New England at Ford Field.
As is customary for opening preseason games, the majority of starters will likely not see much action, if any at all. Thursday’s opener will mostly serve as the first proving ground for rookies, undrafted rookie free agents and backups who may be out of a job once the roster is trimmed down to 53 players in a few weeks.
Here are a six position groups to keep your eyes on in tonight’s game.
The Lions have been trying out plenty of different combinations throughout the first two weeks of training camp when it comes to the interior of the offensive line. Frank Ragnow is now in his natural position at center, and Graham Glasgow, who played center all of last season, has moved to right guard. But as for left guard, the battle for that starting spot between Kenny Wiggins and Joe Dahl, who just signed a two-year contract extension, is ongoing. Oday Aboushi, meanwhile, has been getting time at right guard behind Glasgow, and also some reps at left guard. The team has used multiple groupings so far, while Decker and Wagner remain the starting bookends. Keep an eye on Wiggins and Dahl and how they are being used vs. Patriots tonight.
What’s training camp without a contested wide receiver battle? There are several receivers battling it out for what will be the final one or two spots behind the starting triumverate of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola. Second-year receiver Brandon Powell has looked sharp in camp thus far, and has been used in a variety of ways while the Lions continue getting a firm grasp on offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s offense. Powell has speed, quickness, good hands and also has solid value as a punt and kick returner. Travis Fulgham, the Lions’ 2019 sixth-round draft pick out of Old Dominion, has shown the ability to stretch the field lining up outside and the rookie has made several big plays thus far.
Then there is eight-year veteran Jermaine Kearse, who has looked good in camp also. Kearse has the advantage of knowing Bevell’s offense having played under him while a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
“It’s been great,” Kearse told me during the first week of training camp, on playing under coach Bevell again. “Same offense. So it’s been really good. Some things that I gotta continue to just clean up an get detailed on. But it’s been really good. Just trying to compete out here and bust my tail every day and get better.”
I doubt you will see Golladay, Jones or Amendola play tonight. So you will be able to get a good luck at Fulham, Powell and Kearse.
Once the Lions’ defense takes the field, all eyes will be on No.51, the team’s 2019 second-round draft pick Jahlani Tavai, who should plenty of reps in tonight’s game. But you likely won’t see any of Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard or Christian Jones. Tavai has been playing with the ones since the start of camp. He’s looked solid during the first two weeks, but has struggled covering backs and tight ends in one-on-one drills. Tonight you will get a good look at him and some of what he’s capable of in his first game action.
Don’t expect to see Matthew Stafford tonight, who got plenty of solid work vs. the Patriots’ defense in the three joint sessions this week. No.9 will get another few days work against the Houston Texans’ defense this coming week. So don’t get up in arms about your starting quarterback not seeing the field. He’s getting great work and staying out of preseason games keeps him free from harm. It’s the best of both worlds.
Instead, you will see plenty from Tom Savage and David Fales. Savage is currently the favorite to win the backup position. He’s made some nice throws so far. And he’s made some terrible ones. Meanwhile, Fales hasn’t looked that great and it’s nearly a guarantee that he won’t be on final roster. Funny, though, preseason performances can always change things in a hurry. So these games will mean a great deal for both quarterbacks. And a surprise turn of events is never out of the question.
Fans are assuredly champing at the bit to see the No.8 overall pick T.J. Hockenson tonight, especially after an abysmal season for the position group that yielded just 45 receptions, 461 yds and 4 touchdowns. Hockenson has looked outstanding as a pass catcher so far, showing great hands and crisp route running. During the joint practice session with the Patriots, Hockenson reeled in a nice touchdown grab from Stafford during the two-minute drill. The rookie could end up being a bit of a problem in the red zone for opposing defenses in 2019.His blocking, however, while not bad, hasn’t been more than average. He needs to improve there. So keep an eye on his play there as well.
I doubt you will see much from fifth-year tight end Jesse James tonight. But his veteran presence has made a strong impression on Hockenson.
“Jesse is a great mentor,” Hockenson told me after last week’s intersquad scrimmage. “He knows a lot about the game of football … Been in it for a long time and obviously he sees the game a little different. And it’s nice to learn from that and see different things that he is seeing.”
Isaac Nauta, the seventh-round pick out of Georgia, has also looked solid in camp. He’s made some really nice catches, including a touchdown over Miles Kilebrew in last week’s intersquad scrimmage at Ford Field. I expect he will receive much more playing time than Hockenson, who is, obviously, a lock to make the roster. Seventh-round picks are never a guarantee to stick on the roster, so Nauta needs to play well and continue building momentum from an already strong start to training camp.
You’re not going to see Kerryon Johnson or C.J. Anderson tonight vs. Patriots. But you will get a chance to see sixth-round pick Ty Johnson get a lot of action. Johnson has blazing speed, and also shown some great explosiveness and burst in the hole. He’s received plenty of reps as a kick returner during training camp as well, so it’s possible you will see him take some kicks back tonight, too.
The back on the roster I have circled tonight, is fullback Nick Bawden. Bawden, who missed all of his rookie season after being taken by the Lions in the seventh round in 2018, has looked outstanding during the first two weeks of camp. He blew open a huge hole for Kerryon Johnson in the intersquad scrimmage, which led to a 31-yard game. Not only has his blocking looked good, but Bawden’s been giving the linebackers and safeties trouble catching balls out of the backfield. He’s run great routes and shown that he’s a very good pass catcher.
Lastly, Mark Thompson, who spent time on the New York Jets’ and Baltimore Raven’s practice squads in 2018, has also had a strong training camp. Thompson runs with power. Listed at 240 pounds, he’s the biggest back on the Lions’ roster. You will see him get some carries behind Johnson tonight vs. the Patriots.
WJR’s Lions coverage begins with “Countdown to Kickoff” at 4:30 pm ET with Steve Courtney and Sean Baligian. Then Lions vs. Patriots kicks off at 7:30 pm ET with Dan Miller and Lomas Brown calling all of the action from Ford Field.