Lions camp observations: Special teams offer hints on roster cuts

For all intents and purposes, Friday was the last day of Detroit Lions training camp. On Saturday, the team will travel to Pittsburgh. On Sunday, they’ll face off against the Steelers for their final preseason game. Less than 48 hours after the game ends, the team will cut their roster from 80 players all the way down to 53.

Though the Lions have taken intensity way down over the last two practices—essentially running walkthroughs on Thursday and Friday—there are still notable takeaways from those days. It’s not so much what specific tasks each player is doing, but where they are repping and in what depth chart unit order.

On Friday, multiple Lions coaches referenced the importance that special teams will play in determining final roster cuts.

“There’s always a tie-breaker, it’s going to be special teams,” coach Dan Campbell said. “That’s the first, and I mean if it’s close at all, it needs to be somebody we know can help us on special teams.”

Given that emphasis by the coaches, I paid attention to the players who took significant roles on special teams reps.

If you missed any of our previous observations, you can catch up here:

Attendance/Injury updates

The usual suspects remained out for Friday’s practice: Levi Onwuzurike, Julian Okwara, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kevin Jarvis, Eric Banks, and C.J. Moore. That said, Campbell provided some optimism about Okwara’s progress, noting that he could be back by Week 1’s contest against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We’re hoping for Philly that he’ll be back,” Campbell said. “He’s probably got the best shot out of all of them to be ready for Philly.”

Elsewhere, the Lions were a little healthier on the offensive line Friday. Tommy Kraemer and Matt Nelson missed Thursday’s practice, but Kraemer was back on Friday. Nelson was moving around a little bit but remained sidelined.

Other new additions to the injury list include cornerback Cedric Boswell, who missed practice on both Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, he appeared to have some sort of wrap around his right knee but was jogging along. On Friday, defensive tackle Jashon Cornell did not practice either—curious timing after the Lions hosted Malcolm Brown for a visit on Thursday.

Special teams contributors

While there are no clear-cut “first team” special teams units out there, I took note of the players who appeared to be taking the starting reps for both kick and punt returns. This is notable, because with only a couple weeks until the regular season, the Lions likely want to get these units finalized as quickly as possible to develop some chemistry. Here are the 11 players out there with the “first-team” kick return unit (in no particular order):

  • Godwin Igwebuike/Maurice Alexander splitting kick return duties
  • Craig Reynolds
  • Tom Kennedy
  • Bobby Price
  • Anthony Pittman
  • Malcolm Rodriguez
  • Shane Zylstra
  • Chris Board
  • Brock Wright
  • Will Harris
  • Josh Woods

And here are the 11 “starters” on punt return:

  • Kalif Raymond/Maurice Alexander/Kalil Pimpleton sharing return duties
  • Bobby Price
  • Will Harris
  • Kerby Joseph
  • Josh Woods
  • Godwin Igwebuike
  • Mike Hughes
  • Derrick Barnes
  • Chris Board
  • Anthony Pittman
  • Craig Reynolds

Of these names, a few stood out to me as players on the bubble who may be safer than expected. First and foremost is Josh Woods, a player who has performed quite well defensively over the past few weeks. Last year, Woods was a key contributor on special teams after being a midseason addition. Having proven himself during the regular season may give him some added consideration during cutdown time.

Fellow linebacker Anthony Pittman is also an interesting inclusion in both kicking game drills. Though Pittman’s special teams skills have been long apparent, he’s struggled to find a footing on defense this offseason. The former UDFA has split time between edge rusher and off-ball linebacker, but has not stood out in a positive way at either position.

Bobby Price and Godwin Igwebuike continue to be four-phase special teamers. Despite some improvements in the cornerback and running back room, their footing on the roster may still be solid.

Finally, Mike Hughes is a notable addition to the punt return squad. Hughes has started to see more reps with the first-team defense as the starting nickel. If he can stand out on special teams, that could solidify his place on the roster, even if he loses the starting nickel job to AJ Parker.

Safety help

Behind the starting duo of Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott, the Lions have relied almost exclusively on rookie Kerby Joseph and JuJu Hughes, as both Ifeatu Melifonwu and C.J. Moore deal with injuries. On Friday, they gave another player a try: Saivion Smith. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he certainly fits the athletic profile of a safety. Earlier this week defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant raved about Smith’s consistently high level of effort.

“That guy has just been fighting his tail off, no matter what it is you ask him to do,” Pleasant said. “Last year, we brought him here, Arizona short week, he comes in special teams and goes and makes a play. You hear coach Dan talk about grit, he embodies it. Just needs to keep playing well.”

The more a player can show he can do, the better his chances to make the roster. With the Lions tight at safety, Smith is someone who could sneak onto the roster while the Lions heal up in the secondary.

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