As we near the final game of the preseason there are still jobs to be won on the Lions' roster. This game is where the bubble players get their chance to shine. The starters will see very few snaps, leaving the backups plenty of opportunity to show they can play.
One of the signs that the Detroit Lions have improved is the possibility that good players may be cut from the roster. One of the positions in which this is likely to be true is at running back.
The Lions know that Jahvid Best will make the team. Best has proved his ability to make big plays and impact the game. The Lions' fans are eagerly anticipating that Best will conjure memories of Barry Sanders and Billy Sims. We don't know if that will really happen, but we do know Best will be on the roster.
After Best, the roster choices get more difficult. Prior to this preseason we would have inked in Kevin Smith for a roster spot as well. But Smith has struggled to return to form after knee surgery and that has opened the door to speculation that he may be on the bubble.
The largest criticism of Kevin Smith is over his yards-per-carry average. Conventional wisdom says that effective running backs need to average more than 3.5 yards per carry and Smith has been well short of that mark. Smith has remained effective in passing routes and can still block very well.
Analyzing statistics from a few preseason games after a serious injury is not a valid indicator of what a player can do. It can mean that the player is not fully recovered from injury. It can also be a statistical glitch.
The Lions' coaches have commented about how quickly Smith returned from his knee injury. It is likely that Smith came back fast because he wants to compete with Best for his job. But Smith might not be as far along in the mental part of his recovery as he needs to be effective. He may not trust his knee enough yet to really push it.
Kevin Smith should not be in danger of being cut yet. A decision like this goes deeper than yards-per-carry statistics. Smith is a veteran that has given everything he has to the Lions and gotten banged up because of it.
Other players in the locker room will be looking to see if the Lions show loyalty for the sacrifices that they make. Smith can be cut, but only after the Lions have given him a fair chance to show he no longer has the ability to play effectively.
This situation will help to shape impressions of the team that play a role in being able to retain good players and sign free agents. Loyalty and trust will impact how much players are willing to risk for the team. The Lions need to give Kevin Smith this season to prove that he can still play.
The Lions can afford to wait for Smith because they have other running backs than can be effective. Jerome Felton has shown the ability to run the ball this preseason. When you add his ability to catch passes, Felton looks like a viable option as a third-down back.
Felton has the advantage of being able to play fullback. The Lions do not use a fullback often, but they sometimes use one in short yardage situations. The Lions have already cut Jake Nordin, so Felton is the only fullback on the roster and he will stay there.
Maurice Morris is a steady veteran that works as a third-down back. Morris has good hands as a receiver and can make some tough yards by breaking tackles when called upon. But keeping Felton on the roster may cause Morris to be squeezed out of a roster spot despite his ability to contribute.
Aaron Brown is in a very different situation. He is a speed back like Jahvid Best. As long as Best remains healthy, it is unlikely that Brown will see the field very often. So Brown needs to show value in other places to make the roster.
During the preseason, Aaron Brown has had the best kickoff returns on the team. That may provide the niche that Brown needs to stick with the team. But Brown would help his case considerably if he could play on coverage teams as a gunner. So far he has not done that but he should consider working on it.
Brown had a very impressive game against Cleveland in which he was the engine that drove the Lions into the end zone twice to win the game. This has given the Lions' coaches more confidence that he can provide an impact on the field when asked.
Maybe the most significant development for Aaron Brown is his ability to avoid mistakes on plays. Last season, the coaches lost confidence in Brown because he would not recognize blitzes and block when he was supposed to. Only the coaches are certain that Brown has blocked better this season, but the lack of sacks on Detroit quarterbacks makes you believe he probably has.
Poor DeDe Dorsey has a difficult situation. He is almost certainly the odd man out in the running back situation. Dorsey looked good during the preseason. But there just isn't room for him on the roster.
Since he cannot be placed on the practice squad, Dorsey will have to catch on with another team to stay in the NFL. Fortunately for DeDe, he has provided some good tape to scouts and he has a decent chance of catching on someplace.
If forced to commit, I would say that the Lions will keep Best, Smith, Felton, and Brown on the roster. Morris and Dorsey will be cut or traded.
While this situation is tough on the players, it is good for the Lions. No matter which players the Lions keep, some good running backs are going to get cut. That also means that all the running backs the Lions keep are pretty good. That is a welcome change.