This weekend is one of the toughest for players and coaches around the league.
NFL teams have until 4 p.m. Saturday to cut their 80-man rosters to 53 players, and while practice squads have been expanded from 10 to 16 this year, meaning more jobs for players, it still is not easy to see someone’s dream come to an end.
“To be honest with you, I hate it,” Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s the worst. You invest in these guys, they invest so much in you and we’re trying to come together as a team and we’re building and we’re competing and you love these guys that you’re coaching every single day, and that tough reality of what this weekend is, it’s brutal.”
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While there’s no finality to the weekend — rosters remain constantly in flux, and when waiver claims are executed at noon Sunday, more players will be out of jobs — this year’s cut day has even more variables to it because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Modified practice squad rules allow for teams to keep six players with no service time restrictions, and to promote and protect some players without fear of losing them on waivers.
When the Lions pick their roster over the next few days, they’ll have interesting decisions to make at running back, defensive line and special teams, where veterans like Don Muhlbach are legitimately fighting for jobs and young players like C.J. Moore have opened eyes with their play on the punt and kickoff teams.
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“To be perfectly frank, (C.J.) is a guy probably that I underestimated coming in as a new coach and probably I was just wrong on, just going off of the tape and my perception of him coming in,” special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs said. “(He) did a great job, has really earned everything that he’s getting right now in terms of playing time and opportunities.”
Special teams roles usually factor heavily into the final few roster spots, and that’s reflected in my second and final roster prediction of the summer.
With no preseason and joint practices, evaluations on some players were tougher than usual. But here’s my 53-man Lions roster prediction:
In: Matthew Stafford, Chase Daniel.
Practice squad: David Blough.
The Lions gave Blough a lot of second-team reps this summer and seem genuinely interested in developing him as a backup. Problem is, Daniel has $1.5 million in base salary guarantees next year, which means he’s likely tied to Detroit through at least 2021. With no preseason games, and thus no fresh tape to evaluate, Blough seems like a player who will clear waivers and can be re-signed to the practice squad. Perhaps he gets a late-season call-up, but to start the year, the Lions roll with two quarterbacks.
Running back (5)
In: Kerryon Johnson, D’Andre Swift, Bo Scarbrough, Jason Huntley, Jason Cabinda.
Injured reserve: Nick Bawden.
Practice squad: Ty Johnson.
Out: Wes Hills, Jonathan Williams.
It’d be tough to keep just three tailbacks here, with rookies Swift and Huntley as the only backups, but new practice squad rules make it at least something to consider. Ultimately, I gave Scarbrough the No. 4 job ahead of Ty Johnson and Williams based on what he did last year, even though he barely practiced this summer because of injuries. Johnson offers more on special teams, but Cabinda’s conversion to fullback helps there and Scarbrough is a sledgehammer the backfield otherwise lacks. Williams started strong, but had a fumble in the scrimmage last week.
Wide receiver (6)
In: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Quintez Cephus, Marvin Hall, Jamal Agnew.
Practice squad: Tom Kennedy.
Out: Chris Lacy, Victor Bolden.
All six of these keepers earned a spot on the 53-man roster, and each backup brings something different to the table. While Golladay, Jones and Amendola are the clear-cut starters, Cephus had a strong camp and it will be interesting to see if his ability to separate at the top of his route continues against better competition whenever he gets on the field. Agnew has made the transition to receiver look easy, and he’s still a dangerous return man. And Hall is a burner with some position flexibility. With six receivers on the active roster, I don’t know how many practice squad spots the Lions need for receivers. But with 16 practice squad spots available, I put Kennedy on the list.
Tight end (3)
In: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta.
Practice squad: Hunter Bryant, Matt Sokol.
Tight end, like running back, is a position where the backups have done little to separate themselves in camp, primarily because of injuries. Both Nauta and Bryant missed time this summer, and Bryant still is dealing with a hamstring injury that puts the injured reserve list in play. Because the Lions would have to carry Bryant on their initial 53-man roster to activate him from IR at some point during the year (or cut him when he’s healthy), I think the better play is to try to keep him on practice squad. Nauta gets the edge over Sokol, who played well in camp, based on the investment the Lions made, and improvement he showed, last year.
Offensive line (9)
In: Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Hal Vaitai, Logan Stenberg, Kenny Wiggins, Tyrell Crosby, Beau Benzschawel.
Practice squad: Matt Nelson, Oday Aboushi.
Out: Dan Skipper.
The rotation that Patricia talked about at right guard never materialized this summer as Jackson took virtually every first-team snap at the position and appears locked into the starting job. Crosby is ticketed for one backup spot as a swing tackle, and Stenberg, a fourth-round pick, is guaranteed another. I suspect the Lions keep nine linemen, even with new game day rules that add value to having linemen on the practice squad. Wiggins can play right tackle or either guard spot, so his versatility gives him an edge. And Benzschawel has worked extensively as the Lions’ second-team center this summer. If something happens to Ragnow, he’s the player I’d feel most comfortable with as a fill-in, and as a young, developing lineman, there’s no reason to risk him to waivers. I don’t know that Aboushi would be keen about a practice squad spot in this situation, but if you’re the Lions, you want to use one of your practice squad veteran exemptions on a blocker.
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Defensive line (6)
In: Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, Romeo Okwara, Kevin Strong.
Physically unable to perform: Austin Bryant.
Injured reserve: Jashon Cornell.
Practice squad: Frank Herron, John Penisini.
Out: Albert Huggins, Will Clarke, Kevin Wilkins, Olive Sagapolu.
I admit this roster projection is light on defensive linemen, but I went with an extra defensive back on my roster for special teams purposes to start the season, knowing I could go heavy up front on the practice squad and that Bryant will be back eventually. Really, the top five — Flowers, Shelton, Williams, Hand and Okwara — are locked into not just jobs but roles. I kept Strong over Penisini and Herron because I figure he’s most likely of that group to get claimed on waivers based on his previous tape. Penisini would have gotten the nod as the seventh lineman had I gone that route. He’s a draft pick who can back up Shelton at nose tackle. But every team passed on him multiple times in the draft and there aren’t many teams in demand for a pure run defender, so if the Lions are going short at the position, this is a roll of the dice worth taking.
In: Jamie Collins, Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Reggie Ragland, Julian Okwara
Practice squad: Elijah Lee, Anthony Pittman.
The Lions have a pretty clear pecking order at linebacker, with Collins, Davis, Jones and Tavai essentially starters, and Reeves-Maybin one of the team’s best special teams players. Okwara has not practiced since suffering a leg injury in last week’s controlled scrimmage, and I don’t know how ready he is for extended NFL snaps even if he’s healthy. Ragland got off to a bit of a slow start, but this team will play a lot of linebackers so he squeezes into the final roster. Lee could find a home elsewhere because of his special teams ability.
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Defensive back (12)
In: CB-Jeff Okudah, Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman, Amani Oruwariye, Darryl Roberts, Tony McRae, Dee Virgin. S-Tracy Walker, Duron Harmon, Will Harris, Miles Killebrew, C.J. Moore.
Suspended: Jayron Kearse.
Practice squad: CB-Mike Ford. S-Jalen Elliott, Bobby Price.
This is a lot of defensive backs to keep, but realize that Killebrew and Moore are core special teams players who won’t contribute much on defense, and McRae and Virgin will have big special-teams roles, too. Honestly, I debated some of the players at the back end of this position group, but Virgin was working first-team gunner as recently as Wednesday’s practice at Ford Field and the Lions gave $1 million in guarantees to Roberts, who did not do much to distinguish himself in camp but has been a competent NFL player at a position where those are sometimes tough to find. Kearse likely will be the fourth safety when he returns from his three-game suspension.
In: K Matt Prater, P Jack Fox, LS Don Muhlbach.
Practice squad: LS Steven Wirtel, P Arryn Siposs.
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This is the first time in years the Lions have had real competition for specialists jobs, and not just one of them, either. At punter, Fox and Siposs have been neck-and-neck all camp. I’ve seen a few more “wow” punts out of Fox, but Siposs seems to have the edge as a directional punter. I went Fox here because he’s better at kickoffs, and the Lions would prefer that Prater not handle those, but both punters are in play for the 53-man roster and practice squad. Long snapper was an even tougher choice. Wirtel has been more consistent with his snaps than Muhlbach all camp, and the Lions are going to have to move on from their 39-year-old snapper at some point. But part me thinks, if this is the end for Muhlbach, the Lions would not have dragged this out till the end of the week and given their longest-tenured player a moment to walk off into the sunset. The Dolphins, Patriots and Cardinals did work out long snappers this week, so there’s no guarantee Wirtel makes it through to the practice squad.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.