The Detroit Lions began their training camp with most of their starting positions already set, with only a few exceptions. While there were some minor adjustments, such as rookie Brian Branch earning a spot in the starting lineup, the Lions largely kept their first-team players intact during training camp.
However, there were three notable exceptions where positional battles were underway. Even as the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs loomed just days away, the outcomes of these battles remained uncertain.
The first of these battles took place at right guard, where veterans Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Graham Glasgow shared reps throughout the offseason, with neither clearly outshining the other. On a recent occasion, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson declined to disclose the winner, expressing confidence in both players.
“We’re confident in six possible starters,” Johnson stated. “These individuals can consistently deliver top-notch performance. I won’t reveal the designated starter, but I have faith in both Big V and Graham.”
While there have been hints favoring Vaitai, who often led the rotation, and a recent practice session saw him practicing combo blocks alongside starting center Frank Ragnow, Glasgow continued to split his reps between guard and center. Nevertheless, the Lions may have been strategic in their actions, considering that the media observed only a portion of the practice.
Another unresolved position was kick returner. During the preseason, six different players handled kick returns, including Jermar Jefferson, Maurice Alexander, Starling Thomas V, Antoine Green, Dylan Drummond, and Khali Dorsey. Only two of these players (Green and Dorsey) remained on the 53-man roster, while Drummond and Alexander were on the practice squad.
Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp confirmed Kalif Raymond as the team’s punt returner but withheld information about the kick returner for this year.
“I won’t provide a definitive answer to that one. I apologize,” Fipp remarked. Instead, Fipp emphasized the team’s focus on assembling the right 11 players on the field for returns. This strategy appeared successful during the preseason, as the Lions achieved impressive results, averaging 25.9 yards per kick return, ranking third best in the NFL.
“In my view, the key factor is choosing the top 11 players, and it doesn’t always revolve around the returner,” Fipp elaborated. “If we had an exceptional returner, maybe. But it’s more about who we want as blockers for the returner.”
The final position in contention was at MIKE linebacker. Alex Anzalone had secured the WILL linebacker position, but the MIKE role saw competition between third-year linebacker Derrick Barnes and first-round rookie Jack Campbell. Barnes held the position for most of the preseason, suggesting he would likely start on Thursday. Nonetheless, the starting designation might not carry significant weight, as defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn indicated that most of Detroit’s linebacker depth would see playing time through sub-packages and special teams.
“Each of these players deserves their time on the field, and they will receive it,” Glenn affirmed. “They also hold crucial roles in our special teams, making it advantageous to deploy our top talents. I’m eager to witness their performance all season long. While I can’t specify exact playing time, they will make valuable contributions.”
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