Predicting the Last 5 In, Last 5 out for Detroit's Final 53-Man Roster
July is upon us, and that means training camp is close and preseason quick to follow. For the Detroit Lions and the other 31 NFL teams, one of the most important facets of those offseason activities is to sort out the bottom of the 53-man roster.
Competition for those final spots will be fierce. Inexperienced veterans will battle against untested rookies while players no longer worth their contracts struggle to fight off cheaper, young upstarts.
Special teams play will certainly make an impact on these decisions, too. Reserves must prove they can contribute on those units to build value.
It's still early, but based on the OTAs and minicamp as well as some educated guesswork, here are the final five players to make the 2014 Detroit Lions and the five players who just missed making it.
In: Rodney Austin
It's a do-or-die offseason for offensive lineman Rodney Austin.
He's spent almost all of the last two seasons on Detroit's practice squad. That was under the Jim Schwartz regime, however, so the Jim Caldwell staff doesn't have much of a vested interest in his Lions experience.
Austin impressed in OTAs, including when he got first-team reps at left guard in place of injured starter Rob Sims. He's also apparently endeared himself to Coach Caldwell, too. Paula Pasche of The Oakland Press listed that among her three reasons why Austin makes the final roster this year.
He's in competition with third-round rookie Travis Swanson—a roster lock—to be the active interior-line reserve on game days. Yet even if Austin loses that impending camp battle, he's still likely to make the team as the eighth lineman.
Austin did see his first regular-season action a year ago, playing special teams in the finale against Minnesota. His scant experience on those units matters as a reserve. So does his upside as a potential future starter, as noted by Pasche and others. Austin and Swanson could both be starters in 2015.
In: Aaron Hester
If you're looking for a surprise to make the final 53 in those "predict the roster" contests, consider cornerback Aaron Hester.
He gets very little notice in a crowded secondary, but Hester stands a much better chance of making the Lions than many folks believe.
The undrafted rookie from UCLA spent his rookie season on the fringes of Denver's practice squad. So why does he make the Lions?
His size/speed ratio is what elevates him. More specifically, his increased speed, as noted by Bruins coach Jim Mora Jr.:
Aaron Hester returns to UCLA to work with Coach Alosi and turns in a 4.37 electronic 40. Coach Alosi makes a difference these young men see— Jim Mora (@UCLACoachMora) March 11, 2014
At 6'1.5" and a solid 207 pounds, Hester running a 4.37 is very impressive. That nullifies any perceived advantage 2012 draft picks Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood have in the competition for the sixth cornerback spot.
It's going to be a real battle all through training camp and preseason for that spot. Don't be surprised when Hester makes it over some more familiar names.
In: Chad Abram
This is probably the biggest reach of the projected winners of the final roster spots. It's predicated on Detroit keeping two fullbacks.
That's a sea change for a franchise that has not regularly employed even one fullback recently. Yet undrafted rookie Chad Abram will convince the Lions to keep him around with starter Jed Collins.
The key here is special teams. Abram is a whiz on those units, a proven performer at Florida State. Reserves have to contribute on special teams, and Abram is NFL-ready in that aspect. I strongly believe the Lions would sacrifice an extra spot at linebacker or wide receiver in order to keep Abram.
The converted safety has the potential to win the starting job over Collins, though that's probably going to have to wait a season. In that case, Collins would be one of the odd men out.
In: Larry Webster
He looks fairly dour in his Lions profile picture above, but rookie defensive end Larry Webster should crack a wide smile.
Despite being completely overmatched by the competition at the Shrine Game practice sessions, Webster is going to make the final 53-man roster in Detroit.
That's what happens when the team spends a fourth-round pick on a player. Even if he's not ready for NFL action, that kind of draft status serves as a double net for Webster.
Cutting him would be tantamount to general manager Martin Mayhew acknowledging he reached for the lanky former basketball player from Bloomsburg. General managers don't typically like to admit that kind of error so readily.
It would also expose Webster to waiver-wire claims from other teams. Because of his raw athletic ability, it's very hard to see 31 other teams passing on his pretty strong long-term potential and letting Detroit sneak him through to the practice squad.
So Webster makes the Lions as a rookie. If he can develop one legit NFL skill quickly, be it a shoulder dip rush or propensity for blocking kicks on special teams, it's absolutely worth keeping him. Even though I've been quite critical of Webster throughout the draft process, I definitely see his high-developmental upside.
Hopefully his learning curve is rapid, and he can parlay his roster spot into something useful as a rookie.
In: James Franklin
The third quarterback in Detroit is essentially the 53rd and final roster spot. The winner of the competition for this position will not be active for games and will see scant reps in practice with the regular offense.
Instead, the third quarterback spends a lot of time directing the practice offense against the starting defense to help prepare Ndamukong Suh and his defensive mates for the upcoming opponent.
That's why James Franklin wins the job. The undrafted rookie from Missouri offers mobility and improvisational flair to help emulate opponents like Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, E.J. Manuel and Ryan Tannehill this season.
Franklin has enough natural ability to have some developmental upside behind Matthew Stafford, perhaps enough to take over as the primary backup after 2014. He earns a chance to prove it as the third quarterback behind Stafford and Dan Orlovsky this fall.
Out: Kellen Moore
Franklin's ascension to the 53-man roster comes at the expense of the man who has held that third-quarterback job the last two years: Kellen Moore.
The former undrafted free agent from Boise State has shown legitimate improvement during his Detroit tenure, but it's not quite enough to help him stick. Moore lacks viable NFL arm strength and doesn't have the mobility or athleticism to offer much in practice.
Also, Moore lost his primary benefactor in former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. He was a pet project for Linehan, and the coach's work was impressive: Moore was visibly stronger and more confident in the 2013 preseason.
Perhaps Moore will wind up reunited with Linehan, who is now the passing game coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.
Out: Chris Greenwood
This would be one of the more disappointing cuts. Cornerback Chris Greenwood certainly has the potential to make the Lions final roster.
Alas, he's never been able to do much with his considerable potential thus far. Since taking him in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft, the Lions have shown amazing patience with the former Albion College star.
Greenwood earned his draft status on the heels of an outstanding workout at Michigan's pro day back in 2012:
- 43" vertical leap
- 4.41 40-yard dash
- 1.58 10-yard dash
- 11'2" broad jump
Those are pretty impressive numbers for a 6'1" athlete.
Unfortunately, those figures have yet to translate much into anything on the field. An impressive showing in the finale last season was a rare bright spot.
He hasn't been able to capitalize on that late momentum as sports hernia surgery has kept him on the sidelines for much of the offseason.
If he can't definitively prove he can play, Greenwood is not going to make the Lions. It will be a tough cut for Mayhew but perhaps a necessary one.
Out: Kris Durham
For most of the 2013 season, Kris Durham functioned as the No. 2 wideout for the Lions.
Durham's inept performance in that role was a major catalyst in signing Golden Tate and drafting Eric Ebron.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) charted him with the worst grade (-12.3) of any Lions offensive player in the last three seasons. He caught just 13 of the last 37 balls thrown his way—a period coinciding with Detroit's offensive collapse down the stretch.
He'll pay for that with his roster spot.
Durham is now looking up at Jeremy Ross and Kevin Ogletree on the depth chart, behind starters Tate and Calvin Johnson. All those guys are better options as an outside receiver.
With T.J. Jones and Ryan Broyles both being more viable slot options, Durham simply doesn't fit anywhere on Detroit's roster.
His lack of special teams ability does him no favors here. The best hope for Durham is that Broyles opens the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list and either Ogletree or Jones flop in preseason trials.
Because he does have some experience and still has his impressive size, some other team will take a chance on him. Perhaps the Lions can deal him for a late-round conditional draft pick instead of outright releasing the fourth-year veteran from Georgia.
Out: DeJon Gomes
One of the fiercest camp battles figures to be for the fourth safety spot behind Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo and Don Carey.
DeJon Gomes and Isa Abdul-Quddus both have some NFL experience and special teams prowess. Both bring hard-hitting run support to the table. Yet only one is likely to make the final roster.
Abdul-Quddus carries some playoff experience from his New Orleans tenure, and that will trump Gomes' impressive effort on special teams a year ago in Detroit.
This is a battle that could go either way, and the loser is likely to wind up winning a roster spot on another team following the release from Detroit.
Out: Brandon Hepburn
In a stab at a roster prediction about a month ago for Detroit Lions Draft, I predicted the 2013 seventh-rounder would make the final 53.
After OTAs and minicamp, that attitude has changed. While Hepburn still offers a lot of potential, he probably needs another year on the practice squad.
The brainy linebacker's versatility and athleticism give him a fighting chance, but he's the victim of a numbers game. More experienced players like Tahir Whitehead, Ashlee Palmer and Darryl Tapp project to make the roster over him.
He should make it through waivers and land on Detroit's practice squad. For a longer breakdown of candidates for that unit, check out this piece from earlier this week.
Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist for the Detroit Lions. He is also the founder/editor at Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL/Draft writer at RealGM. You can interact with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon.
All biographical and workout info is from NFL.com, unless otherwise specified.
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