Lions vs. Jaguars: Detroit roster bubble players to watch in the preseason matchup

The second preseason game for the 2023 Detroit Lions will go a long way in determining which players wind up comprising the back half of the team’s 53-man roster. With head coach Dan Campbell indicating that pretty much every important Lions player will sit out Saturday’s matchup with the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, it’s showtime for the depth.

Position battles will dominate the conversation for the Lions against the Jaguars. Here are a few combatants who can help sort things out with their play against the visiting cats from Jacksonville.


DL Levi Onwuzurike

Detroit Lions defensive end Levi Onwuzurike (91) celebrates a tackle against the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:New York Giants;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">New York Giants</a> during the first half of a preseason game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023.

Onwuzurike played in his first game in over 18 months against the Giants last weekend. Not only did his troublesome, surgically-repaired back hold up, but the 2021 second-rounder made an impact with his strength and quickness on the defensive front.

He’s still got some work to do to crack a very crowded position group, but Onwuzurike is doing that work and doing it pretty well. Another game with three tackles and a TFL will make it that much harder for the Lions to move on from the feel-good story of training camp.

S Ifeatu Melifonwu

Detroit Lions safety Ifeatu Melifonwu (6) warms up during OTAs at Detroit Lions headquarters in Allen Park on Thursday, June 1, 2023.
Detroit Lions safety Ifeatu Melifonwu (6) warms up during OTAs at Detroit Lions headquarters in Allen Park on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Melifonwu, like Onwuzurike, is a Day 2 draft pick from 2021 who is trying hard to prove he deserves a third season in Detroit. And like his draft classmate, Melifownu played well in the exhibition win over the Giants.

It’s important for Melifonwu to string positive games together. The snap-to-snap, game-to-game consistency just hasn’t been there for No. 6, who has also had some injury woes.

He and Saivion Smith (and perhaps Brady Breeze) appear to be fighting for the same roster spot as the last defensive back on the 53-man roster. That’s a role that almost exclusively plays special teams when the secondary is healthy. Smith has stood out in punt and kick team drills all summer, so it’s incumbent upon Melifonwu to do something to change that dynamic against the Jaguars.


LB Anthony Pittman

(Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Speaking of special teams, that’s been where Pittman has buttered his NFL bread for five years, all in his hometown of Detroit. If he wants to make it a sixth, he’ll need a better game on both defense and special teams than he had in the preseason opener.

Pittman has a chance to prove he can handle a meaty role on defense. He’s facing off against a younger, faster and cheaper version of himself in undrafted rookie Trevor Nowaske, who also happened to make more plays on both defense and special teams against the Giants. Hard to imagine Pittman sticking around long if that happens against the Jaguars, too.

WRs Chase Cota, Dylan Drummond and Trinity Benson

David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports
David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

With the Denzel Mims trial now proven an error, there is a golden opportunity for a wideout deeper on the depth chart to rise up and seize a spot.

Drummond has been the best of the trio here all summer. Heck, outside of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Drummond has arguably been the best overall wideout in Lions camp. The undrafted rookie from Eastern Michigan runs great routes, catches everything thrown his way and has shown he can both block and cover on special teams.

Cota, another UDFA, had a great debut in Ford Field last Friday night. He led the Lions in targets (6), catches (4) and receiving yards (60). He’s more physically similar to Mims with his 6-foot-4 frame and initial speed. Cota has had a progressively impressive training camp in his own right.

Benson missed the opener with an injury, but the veteran strung together two solid joint practices against the Jaguars. He showed quick chemistry with QB Teddy Bridgewater, and that’s important for Saturday’s game when the two figure to be playing together a lot. Benson has proven himself on special teams in the past, but he’ll need to also show the practice performances on offense translate usefully to the field to get an edge on the competition.

TE Darrell Daniels

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It might be telling that we still don’t have a picture of Daniels in a Lions uniform in our database. Then again, blocking tight ends typically don’t attract much attention.

Daniels is hoping to make enough of an impression against the Jaguars to make the Lions consider keeping a fourth tight end. Rookie Sam LaPorta, returning starter Brock Wright and 2022 fifth-rounder James Mitchell are pretty well locked in as the TE trio for 2023.

Where Daniels can enter the conversation is on special teams and as a designated extra blocker. That bonus blocker has been an offensive lineman in the last couple of seasons, but that was more out of a lack of any real TE candidate. Every ball that fullback Jason Cabinda puts on the ground pushes him that much closer to bubble status, and Daniels would be the most likely beneficiary. Cabinda dropped a pass in the preseason opener and bobbled away another easy one in Wednesday’s joint practice.


The Okwara brothers

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Both Romeo and Julian turned in outstanding games against the Giants, with Julian bagging three sacks and completely overwhelming the bottom of the Giants depth chart. They’re both veterans and both perfectly worthy of being on an NFL roster in 2023.

The issue for the Okwara brothers is a numbers game. They’re not beating out Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal, Charles Harris, John Cominsky or James Houston at the EDGE spot. Simple math makes it very hard for the Lions to keep either Okwara brother and Onwuzurike, who plays primarily behind Cominsky and Paschal in the more interior-based part of the role.

With special teams being the recurring theme here, Julian might have an edge over his older brother. Julian was a fixture on special teams against the Giants, albeit a nondescript one. Romeo didn’t play one rep on the punt or kick units. Keeping an extra player at this position is contingent upon special teams numbers across the rest of the roster more than it’s about playing defense. The brothers are fighting as much with a potential fourth RB, a sixth WR, a fifth safety or a fifth LB as they are one another for a spot.

RBs Jermar Jefferson, Devine Ozigbo and Benny Snell

(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Not only are Jefferson, Ozigbo and Snell competing against one another for reps and attention, they’re needing to convince the Lions to keep a fourth RB. Each offers something unique that could swing the argument his way, too.

Jefferson returned from injury this week and looked speedy in the joint practices. When he attacks the hole, he’s a handful for defenses. His pass protection and special teams play are works in progress, but there is visible progress from last year too.

Ozigbo has quickly proven to be the best receiver of this group. Despite being some 230 pounds, the fifth-year journeyman is the most capable of filling in the role Jahmyr Gibbs provides to the offense. For a unit that figures to use the RBs in the passing game a lot, that’s important.

Snell is the more natural backup to David Montgomery as the between-the-tackles runner. His production declined over the course of his four seasons in Pittsburgh, though that was somewhat a function of the Steelers’ OL decline. Of this trio, Snell is the most blocking-dependent runner.

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Then again, head coach Dan Campbell rather emphatically said on Wednesday that the final RB spot will be determined by special teams. Snell has played almost 1,000 snaps in the NFL on punt and kick units. Ozigbo has just under 300 and Jefferson has exactly 12.

I originally had Craig Reynolds included in this RB lump, but he was pretty clearly the No. 3 back all week against the Jaguars and played well.

Every offensive lineman not named Colby Sorsdal

Lions offensive lineman Colby Sorsdal warms up minicamp at in Allen Park on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.
Lions offensive lineman Colby Sorsdal warms up minicamp at in Allen Park on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

Sorsdal is the Lions’ fifth-round rookie and he’s effectively guaranteed a roster spot thusly. The fact that no veterans have really challenged him for that, even though Sorsdal doesn’t look NFL-ready in making the jump from FCS-level tackle to NFL guard, is why the rest of the line depth is so unsettled behind the top six (the starting five and Graham Glasgow).

Coach Campbell said it before Wednesday’s practice,

“You want a job, go get it.”

That’s a direct message to guys like Kayode Awosika, Matt Nelson, Germain Ifedi, Brad Cecil, Bobby Hart, Darrin Paulo and Obinna Eze. Ifedi appears to have taken a slight lead over Nelson as the top reserve tackle, with Eze pushing them both. Awosika had a good day on Wednesday at guard, with Cecil showing some ability as a potential option at center. Paulo and Hart are both vets who can play guard or tackle.

Updating the Lions camp battle for the No. 3 offensive tackle

Go get it, gentlemen…

Story originally appeared on Lions Wire