Detroit Lions vs. Indianapolis Colts: Make-or-break game for these 5 bubble players

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There won't be any charity cases. That's not how Dan Campbell works.

But when Campbell sits down with Brad Holmes after Friday's preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts to set the final 10 or so spots on the Detroit Lions' 53-man roster, the first-year head coach wants to reward players who do things right.

“I think it’s big," Campbell said Wednesday. "I think to reward a guy who does it the right way, and oh by the way, produces — there’s production in the game. Where it’s hard is, it’s easy to say, ‘This guy does it right every day. He does exactly what you’re asked to do, but yet physically, he’s just not good enough.’ You hate it for those guys because ultimately, there’s not enough in their body to do it. And that’s not their fault. But if you have a team full of those guys, it’s hard to win. I hate to say it, but that’s the reality."

Detroit Lions running back Craig Reynolds  (46) runs against Buffalo Bills cornerback Nick McCloud (38) during the second half of the preseason game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.
Detroit Lions running back Craig Reynolds (46) runs against Buffalo Bills cornerback Nick McCloud (38) during the second half of the preseason game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.

Campbell said about 80% of the Lions roster is spoken for a month into training camp.

The Lions close the preseason Friday at Ford Field, then have two full weeks to prepare for their Sept. 12 regular season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.

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NFL teams have until 4 p.m. Tuesday to set their initial 53-man rosters.

"Guys that give you everything that they have and do it the right way and maximize their ability and can produce and you can see it in the game?" Campbell said. "It’s hard not to reward those guys and want them on your team because you see it. There’s evidence."

The Lions will give weight to a player's entire body of work during the cut process, but Friday's game looms large for several do-rights who might be able to play their way onto the roster with another strong performance.

Campbell said the No. 5 receiver job is one of the most "interesting" battles left to shake out, and the Lions still have to pick a kicker and settle on backups at running back, linebacker, cornerback and on both lines.

Here are five bubble players whose production so far has put them in contention for a spot on the 53-man roster, and whose play Friday could be the difference between earning a job and landing on the waiver wire:

DT Bruce Hector

Hector flashed early in camp when the Lions were dealing with a ton of injuries on their defensive line. He had four tackles and a sack in the Lions' preseason-opening loss to the Buffalo Bills and has continued to make plays in practice the past two weeks. He wasn't quite as effective in last week's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, though Campbell praised him before the game as someone who is "consistent, he’s smart, he’s a workhorse, and it’s hard not to notice."

Detroit Lions defensive end Bruce Hector (76) celebrates a tackle against the Buffalo Bills during the second half of the preseason game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.
Detroit Lions defensive end Bruce Hector (76) celebrates a tackle against the Buffalo Bills during the second half of the preseason game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.

The Lions have five interior defensive linemen — Michael Brockers, Nick Williams, Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike and Da'Shawn Hand — locked into roster spots, and last year's starting nose tackle, John Penisini, is among others competing for a job. The numbers don't necessarily work in Hector's favor, but another strong showing against the Colts could be too much to ignore.

WR Tom Kennedy

Holmes talks frequently about identifying and using players' superpowers, and Kennedy has one most of the Lions' other receivers do not — the ability to get open. Kennedy leads the Lions in receptions and receiving yards this preseason and has been a trusted target for all three of the team's quarterbacks in practice.

The issue is, at 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds, Kennedy is largely relegated to playing out of the slot, where rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown is ticketed for duties, and has limited value on special teams. That leaves him without an obvious role on gamedays, which is why he enters preseason Week 3 on the bubble. Kennedy will get more special teams work Friday and might need to prove himself there to beat out Breshad Perriman and others for the No. 5 receiver job.

RB Craig Reynolds

Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn made an interesting admission when asked about the No. 3 running back job Wednesday: "We thought it was going to be an easy one (to figure out), but some of those young guys they have really stepped up and are playing well so that third running back spot, man, it’s very competitive right now."

Reynolds has emerged as the biggest challenger to seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson for the job. He ran for 49 yards and a touchdown against the Bills, a day after signing as a street free agent, then led the Lions with another 29 yards rushing in last week's loss to the Steelers. Like Kennedy, Reynolds will play a bigger role on special teams this week. How he does there will factor heavily into the Lions' roster decision.

Detroit Lions linebacker Anthony Pittman (57) and linebacker Tavante Beckett (59) work out during training camp at the practice facility in Allen Park, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.
Detroit Lions linebacker Anthony Pittman (57) and linebacker Tavante Beckett (59) work out during training camp at the practice facility in Allen Park, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

LB Anthony Pittman

Jahlani Tavai has gotten most of the scrutiny in the battle for the No. 5 inside linebacker job, but Pittman remains firmly in the mix for a roster spot, too. He has played mostly with the third-team defense (behind Tavai) after a strong start to camp, however, his value on the 53-man roster will be primarily on special teams.

There is no guarantee the Lions keep five inside linebackers, especially with undrafted rookie Tavante Beckett likely ticketed for the practice squad. If they do, their decision could be swayed by who plays better against the Colts, Pittman or Tavai.

DT Kevin Strong

Hector isn't the only young lineman making a push for a roster spot. Strong also has made a favorable impression while doing everything coaches asked. He took on extra reps early in camp when Brockers, Hand, Penisini and Onwuzurike were hurt and he shined with seven tackles and a forced fumble against the Bills.

The Lions seem to have good depth upfront for the first time in years, which presents a good problem — and perhaps an opportunity — for Holmes and Campbell.

"(The young guys have) been having a great camp," Williams said. "You can tell from the preseason games that they’ve kind of grown as players, some of our younger guys. So I’m looking forward to it. When roster cuts come, we go from there. And I feel good either way."

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' final few roster spots up for grabs in preseason finale