Canceling NFL preseason games is right decision, but it could hurt these Detroit Lions

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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One of the biggest position battles of training camp this summer was slated to be at long snapper, where the Detroit Lions were ready to have an open competition for just the second time in five years.

Maybe they still will. Incumbent Don Muhlbach is fast approaching his 39th birthday, and the Lions lured college football’s top long snapper, Steve Wirtel, to town as an undrafted free agent.

But unlike years past, when challengers have had an entire spring and training camp to show their wares against the longest-tenured Lion, Wirtel will have comparatively little opportunity to prove he’s the right man for the job.

Don Muhlbach, the longest-tenured Lion, will compete with undrafted free agent Steve Wirtel for the long-snapping job this summer.

The coronavirus pandemic already has cost him six weeks of in-person spring evaluation, and if the Lions want to keep Wirtel for the 2020 season, they’ll have do so without ever seeing him snap in the pressure of a preseason game.

With the NFL canceling exhibition games this summer and expected to require a longer acclimation period at the start of camp, Wirtel is part of a group of undrafted rookies, late-round draft picks and young veterans who could see their dreams dashed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lions coach Matt Patricia lamented the luck of rookie tryout players earlier this spring, noting teams wouldn’t have the chance to find their Malcolm Butler this year. Butler, famously, made the New England Patriots after shining during a rookie tryout and went on to become a hero of the 2015 Super Bowl.

“There’s definitely guys out there that, because of the situation we’re in, maybe are missing those opportunities that normally would be available to them,” Patricia said. “Obviously, having an opportunity to bring a guy like that into a rookie mini-camp or rookie tryout and letting that player perform and produce and give him that opportunity to show us what they can do, it’s unfortunate that that’s the situation we’re in.”

Fourth-round pick Logan Stenberg will be hard-pressed to win a starting job out of training camp with no preseason games.

Wirtel and the Lions’ other undrafted rookies are in slightly different boats. Their jobs are safe for now, though teams will start camp with 80 players, not the customary 90, but they face an uphill battle to become contributors as teams rush to get their core players ready for the season and the veterans they’re competing with for jobs give coaches a built-in comfortability.

League-wide, rookie free agents may be most impacted by the pending preseason changes, but they’re hardly the only ones who stand to suffer. The NFL Players Association fears a rise in injury rates, like there was coming off the 2011 lockout, after formal offseason workouts were canceled, and the middle class of NFL players could be hit by future salary-cap changes due to the looming loss of in-season revenue.

From the Lions standpoint, here are four other players/positions who stand to be impacted by the elimination of preseason games.

OL Jonah Jackson/Logan Stenberg

The Lions spent middle-round picks on Jackson and Stenberg in hopes of finding both immediate and long-term help for the interior of the offensive line. Neither player is in any danger of not making the roster, but both may be hard-pressed to win starting jobs out of the gate. With a full offseason and four preseason games, Jackson probably would have been ready to start Week 1 at right guard. He still might be, but there’s a better chance now that a veteran like Kenny Wiggins wins the starting job because of his experience. Similarly, Stenberg could push for the starting left guard job in time, but it seems unlikely he’ll unseat incumbent Joe Dahl in a truncated preseason.

More on rookie:Stenberg is 'meanest prick in the draft' — and that's a good thing

WR Jamal Agnew

Agnew’s versatility could help him earn a roster spot this fall given the uncertainty teams are bound to face with their rosters every week. But Agnew is changing not just positions, from cornerback to wide receiver, but sides of the ball. That’s not an easy thing to do ever, but it seems like an especially difficult task with no formal offseason work and no preseason games. Agnew did spend time working out with quarterback Matthew Stafford this summer, so he’s not flying blind. But there are a lot intricacies that come with a position change that are best learned through practice.

Ohio State defensive lineman Jashon Cornell (9) recovers the fumble in the first quarter against Oklahoma at Ohio Stadium, Sept. 9, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio.

DL Jashon Cornell

A seventh-round pick out of Ohio State, Cornell is no different than most late-round picks (Lions’ fifth-rounder Jason Huntley and sixth-rounder John Penisini included) in that he’ll have to beat out more polished veterans for a roster spot and do so without a ton of reps in training camp. Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Danny Shelton, Da’Shawn Hand and Nick Williams are roster locks, so if Cornell doesn’t flash early it will be tough to overtake Penisini, Kevin Strong or John Atkins for a job. On the bright side, the NFL is expected to expand practice squad rosters to 16 players this summer, meaning late-round draft picks should at least have jobs and a chance to develop.

WR Geronimo Allison

Allison makes this list as a representative of all the low-priced veteran free agents who changed teams this offseason with no guarantee of a starting spot. The Lions return their top three receivers in Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola, which means Allison is competing for one or two openings. He has more experience than some of other contenders for the job, but he lacks some of the extras that often go into deciding roster spots. Quintez Cephus was a fifth-round draft pick. Fellow newcomer Geremy Davis played for assistant special teams coach Marquice Williams (and will likely make his biggest impact on special teams). And Marvin Hall left a positive impression or the organization in limited playing time last year.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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