Detroit Lions' 53-man roster prediction: Is a change at long snapper in the cards?

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Training camp is underway. Kind of.

The Detroit Lions reported for camp Tuesday and have spent the past few days taking COVID-19 tests and attending virtual meetings. We’re still a few days away from any on-field work, and a few weeks away from padded practices, so predicting a 53-man roster with any degree of certainty is like nailing the Daily 4 in the Michigan Lottery.

Consider this more of a general look at where the roster stands, and what decisions the Lions will face in the coming weeks, than any hard and fast forecast of what will happen at cut-down day Sept. 5.

[ Lions on edge after Miami Marlins' COVID-19 outbreak: 'Am I concerned? Obviously' ]

Much remains unknown, from what kind of havoc coronavirus will wreak on the Lions roster — they have five players currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list — to what players have made big strides (or lost a step) from last year.

Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford signals to his wide receivers during the second half in an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Glendale, Ariz.  The Cardinals defeated the Lions 25-21. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

One reminder: The NFL has some new roster rules that will go into effect this fall that will impact the decision making.

First, practice squads are expected to expand to 16 players to account for the coronavirus pandemic, and as many as eight of those spots could be taken up by veterans.

Second, teams are allowed 48-man game day rosters this fall, up from 46 last year, which could allow room for someone with a more specialized role or lessen a starter’s need to play on special teams. If a team elects to go with 48 players, at least eight of those players must be offensive linemen and two practice-squad players can be elevated to the roster each week without counting against the 53-man limit. (In years past, teams typically would keep seven offensive linemen active and there was no free movement between practice squad and the active roster.) 

Third, teams can’t have more than 80 players on their roster when padded practices begin next month. The Lions have chosen to go with 90 players for now, in part so they can make a thorough evaluation of their undrafted rookies.

With all that in mind, here’s my way-too-early initial 53-man roster prediction.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on the field before action against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 
Dec. 29, 2019 at Ford Field.

Quarterback (2)

In: Matthew Stafford, Chase Daniel.

Stafford is, of course, locked into the starting spot, and a prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. Daniel is the unquestioned backup after signing a three-year deal this offseason. The Lions could keep Blough as a third quarterback because of coronavirus concerns, but he’s not likely to get many reps this summer as the Lions push toward the regular season and from a roster management standpoint it makes more sense to keep a third quarterback on the practice squad. Because of those new NFL rules that allow teams to activate two players from the practice squad any given week, the Lions would have a safety net should Stafford or Daniel be lost to the virus just before a game.

Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson runs the ball against the New York Jets at Ford Field on Sept. 10, 2018 in Detroit.

Running back (5)

In: Kerryon Johnson, D’Andre Swift, Bo Scarbrough, Jason Huntley, Nick Bawden

It will be interesting to see how the Lions divvy the workload between Johnson and Swift this fall. With a 1 and 1A situation, it’s possible they go short-handed at running back this year. I’ll stick with five backs on the 53-man roster for now. Scarbrough, by virtue of his work late last season, and Huntley, because of his status as a rookie draft pick and ability as a return man, get the nod over Ty Johnson. Bawden has had injury problems the last two seasons, but I don’t know if Luke Sellers will get a long enough look in training camp to win the fullback job.

Detroit Lions WR Kenny Golladay runs after a catch during a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 24, 2018 in Tampa, Fla.

Wide receiver (5)

In: Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Quintez Cephus, Marvin Hall.

The first four players on this list are locks, though Golladay’s status bears watching as he’s currently on the COVID list and I wouldn’t expect much from Cephus on the field as a rookie, despite his ability to play both outside and in the slot. Hall gets the nod here as the No. 5 receiver because of his speed, but I really wanted to find a spot for Jamal Agnew. Agnew is electric as a return man and I’d want his versatility on my team, but learning a new spot won’t be easy this offseason. Geremy Davis, because of his special teams ability, and Geronimo Allison, because of his experience, are worth keeping an eye on, too. 

Lions tight end Jesse James warms up at Ford Field before the Giants game in Detroit, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

Tight end (3)

In: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta.

Like Golladay, Hockenson was placed on the COVID list this week and not much is known yet about his status. The Lions are counting on big things from him this fall, though he was slow recovering from the ankle injury that cut short his rookie season. Undrafted rookie Hunter Bryant has a chance to make the roster, but given the constraints of the offseason and the realities of the weeks ahead, I gave Nauta the No. 3 spot. Still, Bryant seems like a good bet for the practice squad.

Offensive line (9)

In: Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, Hal Vaitai, Logan Stenberg, Kenny Wiggins, Tyrell Crosby, Oday Aboushi.

This roster puts the Lions a little heavy on interior linemen, but that’s where their depth is. Crosby can play both tackle spots and Wiggins can play inside or at right tackle, so there is some versatility. Besides, the new practice squad and game day roster rules means the Lions don’t have to force a fit. One of the biggest battles to watch in camp is what happens at right guard, where Jackson could be a Week 1 starter with Wiggins, Stenberg and Aboushi among others who warrant reps.

Defensive line (7)

In: Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, Romeo Okwara, Austin Bryant, John Penisini.

It’s rare the Lions play more than three linemen at a time, and the makeup of their linebacking corps — I included rookie third-round pick Julian Okwara in that group — means they can go light here. Flowers, Shelton, Williams and Hand project to get the bulk of the playing time, and it’s too early to give up on Bryant as an edge player. If the Lions keep just seven linemen, Penisini, a sixth-round pick, will have to beat out the likes of Kevin Strong and Frank Herron, both of whom saw playing time last year, and seventh-rounder Jason Cornell. The back end of this position group seems especially up for grabs.

Detroit Lions' Da'Shawn Hand rushes Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson during the first half Sunday on October 28, 2018 at Ford Field in Detroit.

Linebacker (8)

In: Jamie Collins, Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai, Christian Jones, Julian Okwara, Reggie Ragland, Miles Killebrew, Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

If the defensive line seems light with seven players, the linebacking corps might be heavy with eight. But Collins, Davis, Tavai and Jones should comprise the top playing group, and Killebrew and Reeves-Maybin are core special-teamers. I’m interested to see what the Lions have in store for Davis once practices begin. His ability as a blitzer, and other injury concerns at the position — both Jones and Tavai finished last season on injured reserve — could create a spot for Ragland as a run defender.

Defensive back (11)

In: CB — Jeff Okudah, Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman, Amani Oruwariye, Darryl Roberts, Tony McRae; S — Tracy Walker, Duron Harmon, Will Harris, Jayron Kearse, C.J. Moore.

I view the secondary as the strength of the Lions defense, despite the turnover this offseason, and NFL teams play so much sub-package defense that it makes sense to keep 11 defensive backs in a year where depth will play such an important part in the success of a team. Okudah, Trufant and Coleman are this team’s starting cornerbacks, but Roberts is a nice insurance policy (plus the Lions paid him like he’ll be on the team, with a $500,000 signing bonus and $500,000 in base salary guarantees) and McRae adds special teams value. Both Kearse and Moore should be core special-teamers, too, and that’s enough to keep both on the roster, especially with Oruwariye and undrafted rookie safety Jalen Elliott on the COVID list.

Matt Prater, right, celebrates with Don Muhlbach after kicking the winning field goal in the Detroit Lions' 27-24 win over the Chicago Bears, Nov. 19, 2017 in Chicago.

Specialist (3)

In: K-Matt Prater, P-Jack Fox, LS-Steven Wirtel.

By keeping all 90 players on their roster for now, the Lions can cram a long-snapper competition into the next two weeks. Admittedly, the odds favor Don Muhlbach in that battle, but I’m playing a hunch here. Muhlbach turns 39 next month, is returning from offseason surgery and Wirtel was the best long snapper in the draft and someone the Lions got to see up close at the Senior Bowl. Fox gets the edge on the other undrafted rookie specialist on the Lions roster, punter Arryn Siposs, who’s on the COVID list for now, while Prater is locked into the kicking job, where an entire city’s beer consumption rests on his success.

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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