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TWENTYMAN: 5 players who stood out in Lions' first preseason game

The Detroit Lions kicked off their preseason Friday night at Ford Field with a 21-16 victory over the New York Giants.

"Obviously it's always feels good to win," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said after the contest. "I thought the guys came out and we just wanted to cut it loose and play. We kept the plan simple. They knew what we were facing because we had faced them for two days now, and I felt like those young guys came out.

"I didn't feel like it was too big for them, they made plays, and then the vets that were out there for us I thought did a good job, too. So, it always feels good to win, we got a lot to clean up, but that's a good first start."

There were a number of players who stood Friday night, so let's take a look at five who had really nice preseason debuts:

1. Linebacker Julian Okwara

The Lions are very deep along the edge of their defensive line and Friday certainly proved that.

Fourth-year outside linebacker Julian Okwara has battled injuries throughout most of his three-year career, but when healthy he's shown the ability to be an impact player off the edge. Okwara notched three sacks against the Giants and had a few other nice rushes, including the last Giants offensive play of the game that resulted in a game-ending interception.

It's always been about health and consistency for Okwara, and it's now on him to use this performance as a springboard for the rest of training camp and the preseason.

2. Wide receiver Maurice Alexander

His 95-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter helped turn the tide of the game and sparked the Lions to victory. Alexander, who played in four games with the Lions last season, has been a consistent performer throughout camp as a receiver and return man. He also had a catch for seven yards in the game.

Players like Alexander, Dylan Drummond, Denzel Mims and Chase Cota are all fighting for one of the final roster spots at receiver or inclusion on the practice squad, and that punt return Friday night should stick out in coaches' minds when the time comes to make those decisions.

3. Tight end James Mitchell

Mitchell really came on at the end of last season after his rookie year got a late start as he rehabbed a torn ACL suffered in college. Mitchell is a big target and has shown off some elusive traits with his run-after-catch ability.

Sam LaPorta, Brock Wright and Mitchell have separated themselves as the top three at the position in camp, and Friday showed off Detroit's depth at the position with Mitchell catching all three of his targets for 53 yards, including a 32-yard grab in the contest. He's had a solid camp so far and it looks like that knee injury is firmly in the rearview for him.

4. Defensive back Brian Branch

Rookie Brian Branch has been one of the good storylines for the Lions in camp so far. A first-round talent who dropped to the second round of this year's NFL Draft, the Lions moved up to get him and that's proving to be a shrewd move by Lions GM Brad Holmes.

Branch's play through the first few weeks of camp is making it hard for the Lions to keep him off the field. He can cover, play in the box and he's got terrific instincts, which makes him an ideal slot corner.

His hit on Giants wide receiver Cole Beasley Friday night for a two-yard loss electrified the Ford Field crowd and his teammates as he laid the thunder on Beasley. He finished with three tackles and a tackle for loss in about a quarter's worth of work.

5. Wide receiver Chase Cota

The undrafted rookie out of Oregon has had a solid start to camp and led the Lions Friday night with four catches for 60 yards. The Lions had only six receivers active for the game with a bunch of starters getting the night off, so Cota knew he was going to get a lot of reps (42) and made the most of them.

"Yeah, I would say he's kind of the quiet sleeper," Campbell said of Cota. "I think he's done some things that every day – it's positive but it's kind of right under the radar. It's more like the guy doesn't mess things up and then today he shows up and makes these plays that really catch your eye.

"When you get a guy who's where he's supposed to be, he's accountable, he can really play all the positions and now he's making these plays. He's starting to produce. It's hard not to see it, right? It catches your eye, right? Because you're like the lights are on and all of a sudden, this guy is making some serious plays, so that makes me want to give him more reps. Let's bump him up a little bit, better group, better comp, and see where he can go."

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