By: Will Burchfield
He was so close last year, Jace Billingsley, so close to realizing his dream.
Then cut day arrived and he lost his spot on the Lions’ roster.
Here he is a year later, back on the bubble and hoping for the best. Only this time around, he’s not fretting his fate.
“It can definitely get emotional. I think this year I’ve learned to not stress about it so much, just go out there and try and enjoy it all. In the big perspective of things you’re trying out for an NFL team, so it’s something to cherish and have fun with,” Billingsley said on Monday.
He had a strong showing in the Lions’ third preseason game on Friday versus the Patriots, continuing what’s been an impressive summer audition. The running-back-turned-wide-receiver leads the team in both catches (eight) and yards (108).
Of course, he led the team in receiving yards last preseason as well. All it got him was a spot on the practice squad.
Could this year be different? There’s a good chance.
“Jace has gotten better since last year,” said Jim Caldwell. “He gets better every week. He works so hard. A guy that’s made a transition from a running back to a receiver in this league is hard to do, but some of that helps him in terms of just his ability to run with the ball after he gets it in his hands. He’s coming along and we’re certainly pleased at what he’s been doing for us.”
Billingsley is fighting for a spot at wide receiver behind the trio of Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay. The Lions are likely to keep five players at that position. Jarred Abbrederis and TJ Jones are in the mix as well.
Cut day is Saturday, with the team needing to trim its roster from 90 players to 53. It’s something of an elephant in the room.
“Everyone knows about it. You don’t really have to talk about it because everyone knows what’s going on,” Billingsley said. “We just try to enjoy being around each other because we got great teammates.”
Billingsley’s final chance to impress the coaching staff will come Friday versus the Bills. As much as he’s hoping “to go out with a bang,” he said, he’s also wary of overthinking things and trying to do too much.
“I think that’s when you get in trouble. You just gotta play within yourself. It doesn’t all come down to just this one game,” he said. “It’s an important game, for sure, but we’ve been here practicing for I don’t know how many weeks. The coaches have seen us every single day.”
What they’ve seen out of Billingsley has been both different and the same compared to last year. He still works his tail off and scratches for every inch on the field — at 5’9, 190 pounds, he doesn’t have a choice. But his game is more refined.
“As soon as I got into the league one of the things I’ve had to work on is my route-running, learning how to create separation,” said Billingsley.
It may well be the difference between making the team and being cut. The Lions need a reliable slot receiver in the wake of Anquan Boldin’s departure, and Billingsley is showing the tools to fill the void.
“Good slot receivers, number one they get open. Number two, they can catch the ball and secure it and run with it afterwards,” Caldwell said. “They have to have the ability to work against big people and guys that are relatively their size. Nickel backs, linebackers will get bumped out there as well, so they have to have a combination of quickness to get away from the bigger guys.”
On top of honing his skills as a receiver, Billingsley has worked hard to prove his versatility on special teams. He can return punts, for one, but he can also make plays without the ball.
“Special teams is huge for anyone who’s on the bubble,” he said. “I’ve been able to play a few different positions on special teams this year, so they see me at different spots.”
The challenge in sharpening so many skills is that it’s hard to master just one.
“There’s definitely times when you wanna just focus on one thing and get really good at that, but next thing you know you’re doing something different. It’s definitely tough, but it’s part of the job. And the more you can do, the better,” said Billingsley.
With a week to go in the preseason and cut day looming, Billingsley is experiencing a bit of deja vu. Neither the questions nor the attention surprises him.
“Not too much. It’s kind of how it was last year, too. It’s what everyone gets excited about — week 4 in the preseason, not much else to talk about it,” he said.
He doesn’t pay it much mind, more focused on what he can do to improve his prospects of making the team. He earned a spot on the active roster for last year’s regular-season finale and ensuing playoff loss to the Seahawks, which only whetted his appetite for more.
To make the Week 1 roster, Billingsley said, would be “awesome.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of. It was cool being active the last couple games, but I wanna be out on the field this year and contributing to this team,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been doing my best to make it happen.”