Analyzing Detroit Lions’ moves: Why they already cut one of their 2020 draft picks

Detroit Free Press

Moving on from a legend is never easy, and at least among long snappers, that’s what Don Muhlbach is.

The man who made his Detroit Lions debut 16 years — and almost as many challengers ago — won the job again this training camp, by the smallest of margins, over undrafted rookie Steven Wirtel.

The Lions waived Wirtel on Saturday in what was arguably their toughest decision of training camp.

Muhlbach is Mr. Reliable. He has done his job so well for so long that it’s easy to forget he’s on the field.

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Wirtel is the future, or so the Lions hope; there’s a real chance they bring him back on practice squad if he clears waivers at noon Sunday. But he’s also a symbol of the opportunity lost this year for countless young players left to fight for jobs without the benefit of playing in preseason games.

I can’t say for certain that Wirtel would have made the 53-man roster had this been a normal preseason, but I suspect the Lions would have felt more comfortable about his ability to handle the pressure that comes with needing to play 10 or so perfect snaps every game.

Muhlbach, you may recall, flubbed a snap near the end of his rookie season against the Minnesota Vikings that cost the Lions a game.

He has become one of the most trusted specialists in the league, with virtually no mistakes in the seasons since. And as Lions coach Matt Patricia acknowledged last week, there is something comforting about having his experience on the field.

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“It’s not easy (to move on from a trusted vet), but that’s actually a good problem,” Patricia said. “That’s what you want to have. You want to have good competition all the way across the board. So that’s something that we look forward to. I know the players do a great job with it, too. Everybody’s different in those situations, everybody’s experience is different. I’ve certainly been around a lot of great players even towards the end of their careers and how they handled those situations. But in the end, we’ll always do what’s best for the team and try to go forward from there.”

I’ve been clear in my writing this training camp that I thought Wirtel was more consistent with the placement of his snaps than Muhlbach, but I can’t kill the Lions for their decision to keep Muhlbach given the intricacies of the position — from the pressure that goes into playing it, to the blocking that’s required, to what the hundredths of a second in snap-time difference mean to the unit as a whole — and how they relate to the contenders. 

This seems like they’re dipping their toe into the cold water of changing specialists — Jack Fox takes over for Sam Martin as punter, while Muhlbach turned 39 last month and kicker Matt Prater is in the final season of his contract — rather than diving in.

And at some point, probably in the near future, they’re going to have to take the plunge or their insistence on doing otherwise will cost them games.

A few more thoughts from Saturday’s cuts, and what they mean to the season ahead:

• The most shocking move Saturday was waiving rookie running back Jason Huntley.

Huntley had some explosive moments in training camp, especially as a receiver, and I thought he was safe as a fifth-round pick. The fact that Jamal Agnew played well enough at receiver to cement his status as return man didn’t help matters, and Ty Johnson, a back drafted in the sixth round in 2019 with a similar skill set, adds value on special teams.

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Ultimately, we’re talking about one of the final roster spots, as Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift will split most of the workload at running back. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Huntley gets promoted to the 53-man roster at some point this fall, assuming he clears waivers.

• When I was making my 53-man roster prediction this week, I mentioned that the Lions could go short-handed at either running back or tight end to squeeze six receivers on their roster. Well, they kept a full complement of five running backs, including fullback Jason Cabinda, and three tight ends, but really, they’ll go light at tight end the first couple weeks.

Along with T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James, who’ll get the bulk of the snaps at tight end this season, the Lions kept undrafted rookie Hunter Bryant, but he’s a prime candidate to go on injured reserve Sunday.

Bryant played well early in camp, then pulled a hamstring that kept him out most of the last two weeks. He’s expected to miss at least the first two weeks of the regular season, and given that he’ll need some practice time when he returns, the Lions can place him on injured reserve and re-sign a veteran offensive lineman like Oday Aboushi or Kenny Wiggins without having to worry about losing him to waivers (like they would Bryant, had they decided to cut him).

Ultimately, the Lions’ three backup receivers — Agnew, rookie Quintez Cephus and Marvin Hall — had better camps than backup tight ends Isaac Nauta and Matt Sokol (MSU), who’s expected to return on practice squad.

• If there was a surprise player who made the roster Saturday, it was probably second-year offensive tackle Matt Nelson. Nelson showed improvement from last season, when he was making a switch from his college position of defensive line.

Nelson is the type of developmental tackle that’s worth holding on to at 6-7 and 313 pounds, but considering that no team but the Lions has seen him play since last preseason, I was surprised they didn’t expose him to waivers.

Give the Lions credit, though, for identifying and signing a player they felt they could develop, and to Nelson for developing, because he has definitely come a long way since last summer.

For now, the Lions’ backup offensive linemen are Nelson, Tyrell Crosby and Logan Stenberg.

• Last observation: If you had any doubts about what this defense will look like this fall, take a look at this roster construction:

Defensive linemen: 6.

Linebackers: 8.

I’m including Julian Okwara in my linebacker group. He’s listed as a defensive lineman on the Lions’ roster, but he worked a lot with the linebackers in practice and posed for a picture with the group at Ford Field.

The linebacker unit is mildly inflated because of special teams. Elijah Lee and Jalen Reeves-Maybin have primary value in the kicking game. But those numbers suggest the Lions are continuing towards more of a 3-4 base defense, even though Patricia would insist they’re “multiple.”

If I was doing a depth chart for the Bears game in Week 1, I’d peg Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton and Nick Williams starting across the front, with Jarrad Davis, Jamie Collins and Christian Jones at linebacker (and five defensive backs).

The expanded practice squad should give the Lions the ability to elevate a defensive lineman should they need him for a given game, perhaps Kevin Strong if they want to go heavy up front. But I suspect Jahlani Tavai, the first linebacker off the bench, will see more playing time than any backup lineman this year.

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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