Finishing strong in Thursday's preseason finale will give Detroit Lions quarterback Kellen Moore a realistic shot at both sticking as the team's No. 3 quarterback in 2013 and becoming Detroit's long-term answer as Matthew Stafford's backup.
The former undrafted free agent is expected to receive a majority of the snaps when the Lions take on the Buffalo Bills tonight. By Saturday night, he'll know if he's made the team's 53-man roster.
The changes in Moore as a quarterback from one August to the next have been startling.
His impressive preseason in 2013 has been fueled by obvious physical improvements, including a stronger and more accurate arm and a better understanding of the offense in his second year. Through three exhibition games, Moore has completed 20 of 30 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also hasn't taken a sack.
Among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts, the former Boise State star ranks seventh in passer rating (110.8) and 13th in completion percentage (66.7).
At this time last season, most considered Moore the longest of long shots to stick in the NFL past training camp. His size and arm were rarely an issue in college, when he won more games than any other collegiate quarterback in NCAA history. But when exposed to the strength and speed in the NFL, most expected Moore's professional journey—at least in the top league in the world—to be a short one.
Fast forward a year, and the Lions are likely developing their eventual front-runner for Stafford's backup job, a role that could open up as soon as next season.
Praise for Moore's work this offseason has come from every corner.
After seeing three stellar preseason performances, Chris McCosky of the Detroit News now fully expects the Lions to keep Moore as the team's third quarterback.
Kyle Meinke of MLive.com stated that because Moore has improved so much as a passer from Year 1 to 2, the Lions will find it "difficult" to keep just Stafford and current backup Shaun Hill as the only two quarterbacks.
Even Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard, who got a firsthand taste of Moore when the Lions drubbed the New England Patriots last week, is on board. He predicted Moore will "play for a long time in the league" while also comparing the lefty to former New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington.
He’s never going to wow anybody with his physical skills, but Moore is so good at the mental side and anticipates plays so well that his arm strength is not an issue. In that way, he reminds me of former Jets starter Chad Pennington.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz provided a complete picture look at how Moore has progressed from his rookie season to now, via Meinke:
He's a very improved player. He has played well when given the opportunities and has improved a lot from over the course of the season last year, but then particularly in our offseason program and training camp. In all facets, his understanding of our offense, his understanding of what defenses do, and also physically, he's improved.
It's now certainly possible that Moore doesn't even need a perfect performance against the Bills to ensure a roster spot. Against the Patriots last week, Moore threw two touchdowns and led three scoring drives with the second-team offense.
If he is selected as the team's third quarterback for 2013, Moore doesn't have to look far into the future to identify when he could have a real opportunity to become a legitimate No. 2 quarterback in the NFL.
Hill, a 33-year-old veteran who many consider to be one of the top backups in the NFL, is entering the last year of a two-year, $5.5 million deal he signed with Detroit in 2012. In any scenario, the Lions could bring back Hill on another short-term deal next spring to continue on as Stafford's backup.
Or, the Lions could continue grooming Moore on the 53-man roster this season in preparation for the young quarterback to take over Hill's role in 2014.
If he continues taking the same strides from year-to-year, why wouldn't the Lions view Moore as a long-term answer at backup?
A year in an NFL team's strength and conditioning program has helped Moore add much-needed mass to his frame and velocity to his passes. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, visiting scouts have noticed the improvement in his arm talent.
Throughout the preseason, Moore has stood confidently in the pocket while also threading attempts into small windows at a much higher rate of success. Both progressions are a result of Moore's work throughout last season (when he was on the Lions practice squad) and this spring and summer.
In the process, Moore convincingly beat out Thaddeus Lewis for the No. 3 job.
There's also something to be said about comfort within an offense. As the depths of the playbook are digested, quarterbacks typically find the game slowing down. Confidence rises. The second of hesitation that caused an incompletion as a rookie are now quick, on-time decisions in the second and third seasons in an offense.
Just because Moore entered the NFL as a heavily ridiculed free agent does not exclude him from the same progression that so many young quarterbacks undergo early in their respective careers.
One more solid showing to cap this preseason will ensure Moore gets to continue that progression with the Lions in 2013, and possibly beyond.
Once a castoff who figured to have a short NFL life, Moore now has the look of legitimate NFL backup. By 2014, it's certainly possible Moore will have established himself as the Lions' No. 2 quarterback behind Stafford.
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