The Detroit Lions have some big decisions to make in less than a week's time. Following Thursday's preseason finale against Cleveland, the team has to trim their roster from 90 players to an initial 53 by 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
That's usually one of the toughest days of the year for the 32 teams around the league. On Saturday, some dreams will come true. Others will be dashed.
Two Lions players who have made a strong case to be part of some tough conversations come Saturday are tight end Hakeem Valles and rookie wide receiver Brandon Powell.
Valles is coming off a game last Friday in Tampa Bay that saw him make three first-down catches and finish with 38 yards receiving in the regular season tune-up victory over the Buccaneers. Valles got some significant run with the first-team offense in Tampa Bay, and has seven catches for 69 yards in three preseason games.
"I think so, yeah," Valles said after Friday's game when asked if he thought he helped himself in the competition at tight end. "I wish I could have caught that drag over the middle (the only target Valles didn't catch in the game), that's going to loom on me a little bit, but I think I made a little case. We'll see what happens."
The Lions entered training camp with the competition at tight end wide open. Michael Roberts is returning for his second season after catching just four passes as a rookie. Lions general manager Bob Quinn also went out and signed veterans Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo to compete for roster spots, but really none of those three have stepped up and securely taken the reigns at the position left open by the departure of Eric Ebron in the offseason. Roberts, Willson and Toilolo have four catches combined this preseason. That's allowed Valles to quietly sneak into the conversation with his play on both offense and special teams.
"We talk about the kind of guys that are in different positions, in different competitions, in different roles, and different situations, and he's certainly one we've tried to put in some difficult ones," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said of Valles. "Good for him, he's shown up in a positive way there, too. That's been good."
We'll find out soon enough if he's done enough for the Lions to consider keeping a fourth tight end, or if he's considered at this point among the top three.
The wide receiver position, along with the secondary on defense, was one of the deepest position groups entering camp. Marvin Jones Jr., Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay and TJ Jones are all returning veteran playmakers, who have earned the trust of both offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterback Matthew Stafford over the years.
Those four haven't done anything to lose their standing as the top four on the roster this camp and preseason. The question is likely going to be whether a fifth player could force the Lions' hand into considering keeping a fifth guy at the position. Credit the rookie Powell for making that case.
Powell's been a playmaker throughout training camp practices, and leads the team in the preseason with 15 catches for 99 yards. His 15 receptions are seven more than the next highest pass catcher (TE Marcus Lucas with eight). Also part of his film is an electrifying 80-yard punt return touchdown that helped the Lions secure their 33-30 come-from-behind victory against the Buccaneers. Powell is averaging 18.2 yards per punt return on six tries in the preseason.
"He's a very competitive guy," Patricia said of Powell in a conference call Saturday afternoon. "He's a tough guy. He's smart and works really hard. He really cares about the game, so really not surprised in some of those situations that he's able to follow through and be productive.
"That's kind of what we've seen all the way through here. It was good to see it again (Friday) night and hopefully that continues. But certainly, I think he's definitely a guy that understands an opportunity and trying to make the most of it."
Powell (5-8, 181) is an undersized, undrafted free agent who's made the most of the opportunities that have come his way.
The same thing goes for Valles, and it's a credit to both players for potentially putting themselves in the conversation for roster inclusion next weekend.
Thursday's preseason finale against Cleveland at Ford Field will be a big one for Valles, Powell and a number of other players hoping to make one final good impression before rosters are trimmed down.