Allen Park — The day after the NFL’s regular season concludes has been dubbed Black Monday due to fact multiple coaches are typically fired, but far less attention is given to the league’s roster cutdown day.
By Saturday afternoon, more than 800 players will lose their jobs as teams around the league reduce rosters from 80 to 53. And while more than half will resurface on the league’s expanded practice squads in the ensuing days, it’s an emotionally draining day for players on the bubble, as well as the coaches and general managers who have to break bad news to those who didn’t make it.
“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. That tough reality of what this weekend is – it’s brutal.
“In the back of my mind, I just have to understand that I’m going to do what’s best for the team.”
More: Projecting the Lions’ 53-man roster as cutdown day approaches
Another element Patricia takes solace in is those practice squad spots, plus the understanding injuries are part of the game, and opportunities are going to arise down the road for some of the players who will fall short of their goals this weekend.
“I think one of the things that’s real important for everybody to understand — this weekend is definitely not the end of anything,” Patricia said. “There’s always going to be roster movement, there’s going to be change, there’s going to be turnover. There’re going to be opportunities to come in and to compete again and keep working.”
The roster decisions this year are unique with much of the offseason program being moved to a virtual setting due to COVID-19, as well as preseason games being canceled. Those bubble players, particularly ones with little to no previous NFL experience, had a fraction of the time to make a lasting impression.
“I think that’s the way everyone feels across the league,” Patricia said. “I think this is going to be a year where guys might fall through the cracks, and we might be sitting here in a couple months from now and we might find someone, or someone might emerge from someone’s team that no one knew anything about. I think the part of that’ll play in for us is the practice squad expansion, to be able to get some more time to look at these guys and kind of get in to a rhythm of what we do.”
Five bubble decisions
► Running back
There’s little confusion about the top of the depth chart, where Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift figure to shoulder the bulk of the workload. Additionally, rookie Jason Huntley has flashed enough potential in training camp to merit a job. But it’s unclear which direction the Lions will go with the power component of the team’s backfield rotation.
Bo Scarbrough was excellent in his 2019 audition, but has been banged up all offseason, opening the door for late addition Jonathan Williams to take the job. Or the Lions could go with last year’s sixth-round pick Ty Johnson, who isn’t a traditional north-south runner, but has received the most work of the three with the top offense in camp.
► Offensive line
Jonah Jackson secured his starting spot with a strong camp, but the Lions have some decisions to make with their backup interior roles, including how many options to keep. Fourth-round draft pick Logan Stenberg is almost certainly safe, so the team is left to decide between Kenny Wiggins, Beau Benzschawel and Oday Aboushi for one, maybe two jobs.
► Defensive tackle
The Lions have a ton of defensive tackle depth on the roster, and with Da’Shawn Hand’s durability concerns, they might be forced to keep an extra big man as an insurance policy. Unlike Stenberg, sixth-rounder John Penisini isn’t a lock. What’s working in his favor is he’s stylistically the best fit to back up nose tackle Danny Shelton.
In terms of penetrators who can pick up some snaps in Hand’s stead, Kevin Strong and Frank Herron both had their moments in camp. It’s unclear where recent waiver claim Albert Huggins fits into the puzzle.
Looking at the numbers, it appears the Lions have four contenders for two jobs. In one corner are offseason additions Tony McRae and Darryl Roberts, and in the other corner, incumbents Dee Virgin and Mike Ford.
In our roster projection, we gave the edge to the new players. McRae’s experience with special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs is a strong selling point, while Roberts’ versatility, previous background with Patricia and opportunities with the first-team defense during camp point to him being the better bet.
Given the constant need for depth in the secondary, keeping three of the four also isn’t out of the question.
A tightly contested battle all offseason, the Lions must decide between Jack Fox and undrafted rookie Arryn Sippos. In camp practices open to the media, both had their moments, with Fox having the bigger leg on both punts and kickoffs.