Detroit Lions camp observations: Assessing bubble players’ chances of making roster

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia mentioned the “unnormal times” we’re in during his pre-practice video conference Saturday, and the challenges that presents for him and his staff to make thorough evaluations of the players on their 80-man roster.

“There’s not as many shots at it for everybody involved to get it right, to really evaluate the guys and get it right,” he said. “So all of the reps that we have are certainly critical. Every rep is going to be important for your evaluation, and that’s going to be really hard on everybody in the league to evaluate their players.”

I suspect that will mean fewer waiver claims when rosters are trimmed to 53 players in September. After all, not much could have changed in a team’s evaluation of a player since that player last took the field.

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I suspect teams will lean more towards veterans when they’re coming out of camp, the guys they know and have track records in the NFL.

With Patricia’s comments in mind — how meaningful every rep is — here’s a few thoughts on roster bubble players through the first five days of camp. One practice or one snap doesn’t make or break a player’s chances of surviving cut down day, but as Patricia said, it might weigh more in the final decision.

TE Hunter Bryant: Bryant has undeniable receiving skills, which Patricia praised before practice Saturday, and got a fair amount of work in the first four practices as Isaac Nauta and Matt Sokol were dealing with injuries. On Saturday, though, Bryant left the field clutching at his right hamstring, and that can’t be a good sign for his chances of making the team. Bryant had an injury history in college, and that has to be on the Lions’ mind as they weigh whether to keep him on the 53-man roster or try to slide him through to the practice squad.

Sokol, by the way, is wearing a red no-contact jersey, but with Bryant out, he made a diving touchdown catch Saturday.

WR Jamal Agnew: Agnew had a David Blough pass bounce of his finger tips in 11-on-11 work Saturday, when he slipped on his break. A few plays earlier, Justin Coleman ripped a slightly underthrown pass out of Agnew’s hands.

Overall, though, Agnew has impressed in his position change. He looks like a viable backup option at the slot receiver position behind Danny Amendola, and hasn’t done anything to hurt his chances to win the return job.

As mentioned Friday, lightning-quick rookie running back Jason Huntley — more on him later — muffed a pair of punts.

QB David Blough: Blough was put in a tough position last year, when he made five late-season starts after injuries sidelined Matthew Stafford and Jeff Driskel. The Lions signed Chase Daniel to be their backup this year, but they’ve given Blough a fair share of second-team reps this summer.

Stafford and Daniel are locked into roster spots, and Blough needs a strong summer to convince the Lions to keep three quarterbacks on their 53. There are people in the organization who like his moxie and believe he has an NFL future, and every once in a while he’ll throw a dime (like he did Friday to Chris Lacy). But he also threw a near interception to Dee Virgin on Saturday, and could get rid of the ball quicker.

LS Don Muhlbach and Steven Wirtel: I trained my binoculars on the Lions’ long snappers during one punt period Saturday. At 80 or 90 yards away, it was impossible to get a read on the speed of the snaps, but from an accuracy standpoint, Wirtel was a little more on point. Out of four snaps, Muhlbach had one low snap and a second that was slightly high, though all were fielded by the Lions’ punters. Wirtel put all four of his snaps on the money.

CB Darryl Roberts: With Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant basically sitting out practice Saturday — Okudah did individual drills — Roberts got first-team reps at cornerback. He gave up a touchdown to Marvin Jones in one-on-ones and had an interception slip through his hands in 11-on-11 work. Roberts seems like good insurance at cornerback, and his contract, with $500,000 in base salary guarantees, makes it more likely than he not he sticks around. But with four cornerbacks ahead of him (Okudah, Trufant, Coleman and Amani Oruwariye), he’d be wise to hold onto the next pick that comes his way.

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More observations from Saturday:

• I mentioned Huntley earlier, and in previous editions of the observations, but the guy can fly. He can absolutely be a weapon in the passing game, and me in one of the punt periods at practice.

The Lions were working half-line punts, with Huntley lined up as a gunner to the right of the ball. He beat jammers Oruwariye and Virgin off the line of scrimmage and flew down the middle of the field. Huntley, who talked his way into playing gunner at New Mexico State last season, got down with such ease that one of his teammates even marveled at what he’d just done.

• As short-handed as they are at running back, with D’Andre Swift and Bo Scarbrough sitting out, the Lions have a logjam at the position. Kerryon Johnson and Swift will be the top two backs this fall, Huntley should make the team, Jonathan Williams has had a nice camp, as has Ty Johnson.

A sixth-round pick last year, Ty Johnson made a superb catch Saturday against Jalen Reeves-Maybin in one-on-one drills. Reeves-Maybin had good coverage, but Stafford threw a perfect ball and Johnson looked like a receiver in tapping both feet in-bounds before falling into the sideline.

• A few plays earlier, Christian Jones made a leaping interception on a pass to Jason Cabinda that drew “oohs” from his defensive teammates. If I had to guess, I’d say Jamie Collins, Jarrad Davis and Jones are the starting linebackers Week 1, with Jahlani Tavai coming off the bench.

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• The Lions practiced without pads, but they had a couple competitive series of situational football. In the first, the offense had a first-and-10 at its own 42-yard line, down five points with no timeouts and 1:43 to play.

Officially, Stafford led the first-team offense on a touchdown drive, but Patricia let play go on would have been a sack by a blitzing defensive back. Stafford completed a pass that took the offense to the 1-yard line, and threw a touchdown to Jones in the back of the end zone two plays later.

There wasn’t any controversy on the second-team offense’s drive as Daniel led the offense down the field in three plays for an easy score. Agnew caught the touchdown pass on a nice seam route and spiked the ball emphatically in celebration. The only problem? There was 33 seconds on the clock, plenty of time for whoever the Lions were playing to march back down the field and score.

• In the final situational showdown of practice, the third-team offense drove for a 50-yard field goal after starting first-and-10 at its own 33. Quintez Cephus, who I seem to write about every day, had the play of the drive when he caught a deflected pass off Tom Kennedy for a first down.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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