The third preseason game is commonly noted as the dress rehearsal for the regular season, the one exhibition contest where the starters play extensively.
For three Detroit Lions competing for starting jobs or more prominent roles, this game is the best chance to prove themselves. Friday night's home date with Jacksonville is a critical audition for Nick Fairley, Kevin Ogletree and Bill Bentley.
Two other critical position battles—right tackle and kicker—remain firmly undecided, but the magnitude of the Jaguars game is self-evident for those combatants. Fairley, Ogletree and Bentley all have quite a bit riding on the Ford Field turf too.
If life is indeed the highway that Tom Cochrane sang about, Nick Fairley's road twists and turns all around the mountain with several roadblocks and switchbacks. As this summer has proven, most of those roadblocks are self-imposed.
The offseason twists began with general manager Martin Mayhew electing to not pick up the final option year on Fairley's rookie contract. Mayhew was candid in both his optimism that his first-round pick in 2011 would respond positively to the motivational tactic as well as his disappointment in Fairley's inconsistency on and off the field.
Fairley's 2013 was quite literally a big fat disappointment. His weight ballooned to at least 320 pounds, making a mockery of his 298-pound listed weight.
His productivity didn't come near matching the expectations of a first-round talent with his considerable potential:
Player A: 24 solo tackles, 6 sacks Player B: 25 solo tackles, 6 sacks Player A: Nick Fairley, top 15 pick Player B: Chris Jones, 6th round— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) February 6, 2014
The early returns were positive. Fairley showed up to June's OTAs at a svelte 295 pounds, and it was easy to see the change in his physique and face.
Then came the switchback on the long mountain road. I even caustically alluded to its presence back at that time:
That is a great first step. The key is for Fairley to continue to make steps forward. If he checks in back over 300 pounds, or God forbid gets arrested again, all the positive developments go out the window.
Ladies and gentlemen, that window blew wide open. So too did Fairley's mouth. As Detroit sports radio host Terry Forster noted last week:
Here is the next Detroit athlete we need to look at. Nick Fairley looks like he gained 50 pounds since training camp began— Terry Foster (@TerryFoster971) August 14, 2014
Hyperbole aside, Fairley was definitely as hefty as he was at the end of the 2013 season. New head coach Jim Caldwell responded by demoting Fairley to the second unit heading into last Friday's game in Oakland. As Kyle Meinke of MLive reported, the overweight defensive tackle remains a reserve for the Jaguars contest.
Some of Fairley's issue is that the man replacing him in the starting lineup, veteran C.J. Mosley, is having a very strong preseason. He's graded out positively at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in both preseason games.
His superior play was also noted in a strong column by Meinke. In his exceptional piece, Meinke notes:
And the best barometer of all: Fairley's listless week of practice translated to a virtually nonexistent game against Oakland, finishing with just one tackle -- and making that tackle only because he was blown off the ball.
Mosley, meantime, turned a great week of practice into a unit-best three tackles.
If Fairley is to win back his starting job, he's going to have to earn it on the field. That starts, and perhaps ends, with his performance on the second unit against Jacksonville. His next NFL contract could very well depend on it, as teams generally don't hand over millions to brooding, inconsistent and overweight backups.
Wide receiver Kevin Ogletree is in a much different place than Fairley. Instead of being a lofty draft pick struggling with the weight of expectations, the veteran is a journeyman trying to establish himself as a more integral piece and secure some long-term stability.
He's flashed some real NFL ability in his five seasons on three teams, notably an eight-catch, 118-yard, two-touchdown effort for the Cowboys in the 2012 season opener. The Virginia product also grabbed five passes in the Lions' 2013 finale against Minnesota.
Ogletree built upon that this offseason, earning several looks with the first-team offense throughout camp. Heading into the first preseason game, Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press noted that "Kevin Ogletree has had a lot of first-team reps and has appeared to establish himself as the third receiver behind Johnson and Golden Tate."
His game performances have been uneven, however.
Against the Browns, he dropped the only ball thrown his way. This is a straight lack of concentration:
He did register a tackle on special teams versus Cleveland, but this is all about what Ogletree offers the offense.
Against Oakland, his only target finished much more positively.
Ogletree runs a great route, quickly finding the hole in the defense and presenting himself as a big target for the scrambling Matthew Stafford. He even lunges strongly towards the goal line to scrape up a few extra yards, setting up the touchdown fade to Kris Durham on the very next play.
He is in a stiff competition with Ryan Broyles for the third wideout spot. Broyles has been impressive in his quest to come back from a torn Achilles and two separate torn ACLs in the last three years.
Ryan Broyles with good YAC again. Did it last week, too.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) August 16, 2014
The 2012 second-round pick from Oklahoma has five preseason catches in six targets, and he's a more natural fit in the slot. The team has more invested in Broyles, which makes it all the more important for Ogletree to have a strong game against Jacksonville.
His performance in the third preseason game is likely the difference between seeing lots of action as the third wideout or sliding down into a specialty-role package, which sees just a handful of snaps per game.
The third-year cornerback is another divergent circumstance. He's a young player trying to prove he can make a jump in his level of play.
This has not been a good camp for Bentley, the team's third-round pick in 2012 out of Louisiana-Lafayette.
His performance against Oakland was especially troublesome...
Bill Bentley managed to pull a -2.6 rating from @PFF in just 7 plays against OAK. That's actually impressive. Terrible, but impressive.— SideLion Report (@SideLionReport) August 18, 2014
Much of that negative rating came as the result of two penalties, both of which were declined during the game. The first one came on the game's third play, and it's a microcosm of Bentley's biggest issue.
He's in good initial position covering the slot, but Bentley (No. 28 with the hair) cannot avoid using his hands to try to inhibit receiver Rod Streater's break.
Bentley has struggled all camp with the NFL's newfound emphasis on illegal contact by defensive backs. He already led all Lions corners in each of his first two seasons with five penalties per campaign.
Bentley was the team's regular slot corner in 2013, earning a minus-4.6 PFF score, and projects to that role once again. However, the coaching staff cannot feel too comfortable with his grabby technique now under the officiating microscope.
He needs a clean night against Jacksonville. Even though he's in little danger of being cut, it would be refreshing if he played a game which inspires confidence from the coaching staff.
Free-agent import Cassius Vaughn has been the better corner this summer, and if Bentley doesn't have a good showing to close the preseason he could lose his more prominent role in the Detroit defense.
Advanced statistics, including dropped passes, are from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and require a subscription for premium content.
Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist for the Detroit Lions. You can interact with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon.
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