NFC North: Matt Willis

Detroit Lions cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
6:28
PM ET
Most significant move: There were no surprises for the Detroit Lions and, really, there were few big decisions. We noted earlier that the team decided to preserve a roster spot for No. 3 quarterback Kellen Moore, so the most significant move they did make was placing rookie tight end Michael Williams on injured reserve. The Lions had substantial plans for Williams this season as the third tight end in the jumbo package that lineman Riley Reiff filled last season. They also hoped to develop his receiving skills as veterans Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler enter contract years. Williams had surgery last week to repair a hand injury, and though coach Jim Schwartz said the team had no long-term injuries, Williams is in fact lost for the season. (NFL teams can't start placing players on short-term injured reserve until next week.) As a result, rookie Joseph Fauria -- a much better receiver but less of a blocker than Williams -- is on the 53-man roster with Pettigrew and Scheffler.

The dominoes: The Lions apparently chose veteran Michael Spurlock as their kick returner, necessitating the release of rookie Steven Miller, who could return on the practice squad. Spurlock is also a receiver, and for the now he is one of six on the roster, presumably because of Ryan Broyles' sore knees. The release of veteran Matt Willis means Kris Durham is the sixth receiver. You wonder if the Lions would change directions soon in that regard. The Lions sifted through their big group of veteran defensive backups by tapping Rashean Mathis as a swing cornerback/safety and Rocky McIntosh as a backup linebacker while releasing the rest. John Wendling and Don Carey are the backup safeties for now.

What's next: According to multiple reports, the Lions will place running back Montell Owens on short-term injured reserve. That can't happen until next week, so for now he is part of the 53-man roster. He must miss at least six weeks of the regular season. You would think the Lions will bring back a number of the players they cut Saturday for their practice squad, and it's worth remembering that they are No. 5 in priority for NFL waiver claims. Sunday could be a busy day.

List of players cut: WR: Corey Fuller, Matt Willis. RB: Steven Miller, Shaun Chapas. OL: Rodney Austin, Kevin Haslam, Darren Keyton, Jake Scott. DL: Andre Fluellen, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Xavier Proctor, Jimmy Sadler-McQueen. LB: Brandon Hepburn, Jon Morgan (waived/injured) Chris White. CB: Ron Bartell, Chris Greenwood. S: Amari Spievey, Tyrell Johnson, Martavius Neloms (waived/injured) P: Blake Clingan.

Observation deck: Lions-Bills

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
11:04
PM ET

 
Reviewing the merciful end of the Detroit Lions' preseason, a 35-13 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday:
  • The biggest news of any preseason finale is whether any prominent players suffered injuries. The Lions suffered no obvious ailments, partly because they rested six (relatively) healthy starters: running back Reggie Bush, receiver Calvin Johnson, safeties Louis Delmas and Glover Quin, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Ziggy Ansah. Also sidelined were receiver Ryan Broyles, running back Montell Owens, tight end Michael Williams and safety John Wendling.
  • The remainder of the starters played two series. First, the good news: The defense didn't allow a first down. It forced a three-and-out on the first possession against Bills emergency quarterback Matt Leinart, and nickelback Bill Bentley intercepted Leinart on the third play of the second.
  • The bad news: The remainder of the Lions' offensive starters -- including quarterback Matthew Stafford -- weren't sharp. Guards Rob Sims and Larry Warford collided in the backfield when both pulled, an error I'm going to attribute to Warford, and Stafford completed only 1 of 6 passes for 12 yards. He threw one interception when a high pass glanced off receiver Nate Burleson's hands. I'm not sure what to make of Stafford's preseason. It wasn't sharp by any means. He completed 49 percent of his passes for 310 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 64.9 passer rating. But Johnson hardly played, and Bush's absence took away Stafford's comfort receiver Thursday night.
  • As long as we're talking about Lions personal fouls -- Oh, wait. Were we? -- let's get on the record that center Dominic Raiola cost the team 15 yards with a personal foul while trying to make a tackle on the interception return.
  • With Johnson and Broyles inactive, the Lions gave receiver Patrick Edwards a long look. Results were mixed. Stafford overthrew him on the first play of the game for what could have been a 63-yard touchdown. On another deep pass, Edwards got open but seemed to slow down when looking for the ball. It glanced off his hands. Meanwhile, he let a third-down catch bounce off his chest but later broke a tackle to score on an 8-yard pass from backup quarterback Shaun Hill. Have the Lions seen enough from Edwards to give him a regular spot in their rotation? I think the better question as final cuts loom this weekend is whether they'll have a choice. It's worth noting that competitor Matt Willis made a sensational 39-yard catch from Hill and just missed a touchdown from Kellen Moore when he couldn't get both feet down in the end zone.
  • Moore wrapped up a strong preseason with a performance that suggests the Lions will at least have a very difficult decision to make. Moore entered in the second quarter and played the second half, throwing two touchdown passes to rookie running back Theo Riddick. Moore finished the preseason with four touchdown passes and a 99.4 passer rating. The Lions might want to use his roster spot to keep a player at another position, but this preseason he has looked at least like a future No. 2.
  • For what it's worth, the Lions started Jason Fox at right tackle and Warford at right guard for the second consecutive week. Does that mean they have won the Week 1 starting jobs? I suppose it depends on how their film grades out from Thursday night. But things appear to be going in that direction.
  • Joique Bell got the start at running back with Bush sidelined, and his best run was a 23-yard scoring jaunt. Mikel Leshoure managed 24 yards on seven carries. Each lost a fumble. At the very least, Bell has earned himself regular-season playing time even with Bush locked in as the starter.
  • Did you notice rookie cornerback Darius Slay matching Bills speedster Marquise Goodwin stride for stride on a go route in the first quarter? I did. I realize speed is a skill and not a reflection of technique, but it's nice to know the Lions have a cornerback who can run step for step with one of the fastest receivers in the 2013 draft.

Previewing Preseason Week 4: Lions

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
11:00
AM ET
In which we look ahead to the Detroit Lions' preseason finale:

Opponent: Buffalo Bills

Location: Ralph Wilson Stadium

Time: 7 p.m. ET

Personnel notes: Healthy starters are expected to get one series, which probably means that receiver Calvin Johnson (knee) will be among those sitting out. … The first-team offense, with or without Johnson, has managed one touchdown drive this preseason, providing enough incentive to give quarterback Matthew Stafford and others one more chance. … The Lions have a number of position battles to sort through, some of which will get a better run Thursday night than others. … You have to wonder how much the top candidates to start at right guard and right tackle (Larry Warford and Jason Fox?) will play. But we'll get a long look at the players competing to return kicks -- Steven Miller, Micheal Spurlock, Patrick Edwards and others -- and the same goes for the last few receiver positions. Edwards, Matt Willis, Spurlock and Kris Durham are all among those competing. Finally, we'll be looking for clues on how the Lions plan to work in the nickel. Is Bill Bentley still the third cornerback? Could Rashean Mathis unseat him?

Focal point: Tailback Reggie Bush has gotten 17 carries and caught 10 passes this preseason, so the guess is that he won't play much if it all. So that will make Thursday night a big final test for the Lions' backfield depth behind him. As we've discussed, Joique Bell has done just about everything he can to win the No. 2 job ahead of Mikel Leshoure, and I've gotten no sense that coaches are giving Leshoure the benefit of the doubt because he was a second-round pick. It's hard to imagine the Lions cutting Leshoure, even if he doesn't play a big role on special teams, but there is also a rookie running back in Theo Riddick that the Lions like and want to keep on the roster. Another possibility is rotating Bell and Leshoure based on game plans and matchups during the season. We'll see how it plays out Thursday night.
Along with the rest of the NFL, the Detroit Lions must reduce their roster to 75 players by Tuesday. They'll play their preseason finale Thursday at the Buffalo Bills and then cut their roster again to 53 players by Saturday. On the cusp of a busy week, both in the NFL and here on ESPN.com, let's review some of the biggest personnel issues the Lions have been working through this summer:

Right tackle/right guard
Seifert comment: Jason Fox started at right tackle and rookie Larry Warford at right guard in the presumably pivotal third preseason game, and that's the combination many of us thought would ultimately emerge from this competition. But the Lions haven't announced any winners, and coach Jim Schwartz said: "We have a lot of different options and a lot of guys that can potentially get the job done."

No. 2 receiver
Seifert comment: As we noted over the weekend, the Lions reportedly are making calls to see if they can upgrade here. That's understandable. Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are both working in the slot position. Patrick Edwards hasn't done much in the preseason after being given a nice opportunity to earn the role. Journeyman Matt Willis has been more productive. Chaz Schilens and Mike Thomas have already been released.

Strong-side linebacker
Seifert comment: The Lions started off veteran Ashlee Palmer in this role and he has not relinquished it. Second-year players Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis have not mounted a serious challenge, and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has suggested Lewis might be better suited in the middle. Two recent veteran acquisitions, Rocky McIntosh and Chris White, seem targeted more for special teams roles.

Safety
Seifert comment: So far, it appears that the Lions' limited plan for Louis Delmas' camp participation has worked. Delmas looked healthy and active in 12 preseason snaps last week, and barring a flare-up of his knee condition, he is expected to start in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings.

Cornerback
Seifert comment: Rookie Darius Slay had some predictably tough moments last week against Tom Brady, but there doesn't seem to be much reason to go back to veteran Ron Bartell. If anything, newly-signed Rashean Mathis will push for playing time, perhaps at nickel in competition with Bill Bentley.

Kick/Punt returner
Seifert comment: The Lions have gotten returns from five different players in preseason games. They're trying to decide whether to dedicate a roster spot for a returner or use a backup player to handle the job. To this point, none of the participants

Place-kicker
Seifert comment: Once David Akers proved he was healthy, it was clear the job would be his. Havard Rugland has been a fun camp story, but it's hard to imagine the Lions finding a spot on their roster for him -- especially with punter Sam Martin kicking off. Akers has converted seven of eight field goals in the preseason.
On Friday, the Detroit Lions released Chaz Schilens, the veteran they signed just before training camp to hedge against the injury rehabilitation and depth issues among their receiver group. With Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles apparently healthy, and Patrick Edwards generating significant training camp buzz, questions about the position seemed to be allayed.

The Lions seemed so confident, in fact, that they had already released veteran Mike Thomas despite a $1 million guarantee in his 2013 contract.

Did those moves reflect confidence? Or did they suggest the Lions simply weren't satisfied with the makeup of the position? I'm beginning to wonder if it is the latter, a belief fortified by Jason La Canfora's report that that the Lions are making league-wide calls to check availability of starting-caliber receivers.

What exactly is going on here?

The first and arguably most important fact to remember is that Burleson and Broyles are both assigned primarily to the slot position, a new role for Burleson as he enters his 11th NFL season. (Thomas is also a natural slot receiver, but the personnel logjam there had him working mostly on the outside.)

With Burleson and Broyles working the slot, the Lions have been hoping that Edwards could lock down the outside spot opposite Calvin Johnson. Yet for all the glowing reports of his work in practice, Edwards hasn't done much in the first three preseason games. He has caught four passes for 16 yards, working mostly against first-team defenders, and in an instructive moment, he lost a battle for a ball in the end zone against New York Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the preseason opener.

If anything, Edwards has been matched by six-year veteran Matt Willis, a journeyman trying to make his third NFL team.

Johnson hasn't played much this preseason, accentuating these question marks. And we all know the Lions have a number of proven receiving threats at other positions -- from tailback Reggie Bush to tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

But despite it all, it is beginning to looks like they don't have a No. 2 receiver -- a hole that jumped out from their roster all offseason. With NFL roster cuts looming, the Lions might have a chance to do something about it this week.

Note: According to Tim Twentyman of the Lions' web site, the team released four more players Sunday morning and have five left to go to meet the NFL's requirement of 75 by Tuesday. Those released were: defensive end Ronnell Lewis, receiver Cody Wilson, cornerback Myron Lewis and safety Chris Hope. Lewis was a fourth-round draft pick last season but got only one snap on defense. Hope's release suggests the Lions are comfortable with the health of starters Louis Delmas (knee) and Glover Quin (hip).

Detroit Lions: Preseason Week 2

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
12:00
PM ET
In which we look ahead to the Detroit Lions' second preseason game. (Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com previewed the Chicago Bears' matchup against the San Diego Chargers.)

Opponent: Cleveland Browns

Location: FirstEnergy Stadium

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Personnel notes: Most starters are expected to play into the second quarter. … Safety Louis Delmas won't play Thursday night and might not take the field before the regular-season opener. That seems to make sense given his chronic knee issues, but it also leaves us unable to pre-judge his capacity of making it through the season and playing at a high level. … It will be fun to see how rookie place-kicker Havard Rugland reacts to 1) the increased attention his 2-for-2 performance last week earned him and 2) kicking outdoors on grass. … I didn't see anything last week to suggest there is a serious competition for the strongside linebacker spot currently held by veteran Ashlee Palmer. We'll see if that changes. … Although the Lions haven't established a firm deadline for crowning a winner in their competitions at right guard and right tackle, it would be nice to see enough progress Thursday so that the presumptive regular-season Week 1 group could work together for an extended period in Week 3 of the preseason.

Of interest: Although there is plenty of excitement surrounding the Lions' offense, as usual, we still have some important questions to get answered. That seems like as good of a focus as any this week. We've already noted the offensive line. It's also worth pointing out that all three of quarterback Matthew Stafford's completions last week went to receiver Calvin Johnson. Patrick Edwards didn't have a catch in the preseason opener, and either he or another young receiver -- Matt Willis? -- will have to step up in the first-team environment to provide some production. The tight end situation also seems more unsettled than it initially appeared. Behind starter Brandon Pettigrew, are we positive that Tony Scheffler is a lock to make the team? Or could some strong preseason performances by rookies Michael Williams and Joseph Fauria give the Lions some previously unexpected roster flexibility?

BBAO: Timetable for Jerome Felton

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
7:30
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

At this point, the Minnesota Vikings do not believe that fullback Jerome Felton will miss the start of the regular season, even after he underwent an emergency appendectomy Wednesday on the final day of training camp.

There doesn't seem much reason for Felton to play in the preseason, but with 24 days remaining until the Vikings' regular-season opener at the Detroit Lions, there is an adequate time period for him to heal.

The only other fullback on the Vikings' roster is undrafted rookie Zach Line, who made a splash in the preseason opener with a 61-yard touchdown reception.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press speaks with Line.
  • There are four players, including rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, in line to compete with punt returner Marcus Sherels. More from Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Mark Craig of the Star Tribune speaks with former Vikings defensive end Kenechi Udeze, whose coaching internship with the team ended Thursday. Udeze just hit the five-year anniversary of receiving a bone marrow transplant to fight leukemia.
  • Receiver Matt Willis is one of five players to watch Thursday night in the Lions' preseason game at the Cleveland Browns, according to Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press wants to see better work from defensive backs Bill Bentley and Don Carey in this game.
  • John Niyo's Detroit News column on Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy is worth a read. Levy's eccentric personality has led him on some wild adventures. Niyo: "Last summer, that meant swimming with great white sharks in South Africa and bushwhacking his way through Botswana. This summer, he headed for Peru, spending five days hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu and then another week slogging through a remote area of the Amazon rainforest in Peru’s Loreto province. Five hours from the nearest town, it was just Levy and a couple local guides, living off the land. And for Levy, this was paradise found."
  • The starting job is there for the taking for Chicago Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic. More from Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com has a story on the unlikely connection between Bears rookie guard Kyle Long and defensive tackle Nate Collins.
  • Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Assignments will be blown, sacks will be given up and frustration will ensue. But Bears offensive coordinator/line coach Aaron Kromer wants that to continue right now for two rookies, right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills. Kromer will throw them to the wolves and let them learn and grow -- that's part of the plan to find the best five for the offensive line."
  • Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "There are hard workers, there are workaholics and then there's Jarrett Bush."
  • Packers quarterback Vince Young is making progress but has a long way to go, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com: "At age 29 and entering his ninth NFL season, Aaron Rodgers is on a rep count for the first time since he became the Green Bay Packers starting quarterback in 2008. It has been especially noticeable during team periods this week, when at times Rodgers has taken only the first rep or two before giving way to the backups. That’s a significant change from past camps in which Rodgers often took the first three or four reps of each period, and the backups would get two or one snaps each."
  • Packers tight end Matthew Mulligan brings a level of physicality to the team's running game. More from Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

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