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2017 Detroit Lions practice squad: Eligible players, predictions

Now that the Lions have a 53-man roster, who is the team likely to stock its practice squad with?

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Detroit Lions v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ensuring valuable reps in practice

Fan speculation surrounding the players on the practice squad inevitably center around the notion of “stashing” talented players and using the extra spots on the team to develop future contributors. However, the coaching and personnel staffs have more immediate concerns that the practice squad addresses: the main roster players can only go so hard before they wear out.

Bill Parcells pointed this factor out in a book on leadership called Finding a Way to Win. In the context of giving blockers chances to see the different combinations of defensive pass rushes they might see, he felt it was physically impossible to prepare for everything because it would be too exhausting (p.33 - emphasis in the original):

For one thing, coaches like Buddy Ryan were transforming the way defense was played. In the old days you might see one or two defensive fronts, or deployments, on a given Sunday, and you’d rehearse your offense against those fronts. But now we faced more complex “multiple” defenses. You can only practice so long before players get bored, or exhausted, or injured, and there was no way we could prepare four different blocking schemes against four different fronts — that’s sixteen repetitions on the same basic play.

Later in the book, he offers a warning against overworking team members to the point where they break from asking them to do too much (p.145):

You have to know when enough is enough. You have to respect people’s limits, both mental and physical. We have about sixty basic plays in our offense. Our upcoming opponent probably runs another sixty. Now we’re up to 120 potential practice “repetitions” -- and that’s not counting the three or four different defensive fronts that a Buddy Ryan might throw at you. We’ve got ten offensive linemen on the team, and five go at once, so an individual lineman would get about half of those repetitions.

That’s nearly as much work as in a game — way too much for a daily practice. There are coaches who say, ‘We’ll just outwork ‘em,’ but outworking them can be counterproductive.

The athletes a team uses to simulate opponents or fill in for injured players must be able to credibly replicate in practice what will be seen on game day. A humorous example of how much coaches might worry about this this comes to us from Marv Levy, who was head coach at William and Mary for a while in the 1960s (p.115).

Every year, during the week that culminated with our game against Navy, we held highly charged, intensively focused practice sessions. I can recall an occasion, after one of those midweek practices, when I returned to the coaches’ locker room and found defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello sitting there and looking pensive and downcast. When I inquired about what was bothering him, Larry complained that, despite his explicit instructions to our scout team signal caller, the young man was not doing a good enough job of impersonating the Navy quarterback. My response helped, at least, to alleviate some of Larry’s consternation.

“You want the fourth-string quarterback at William and Mary to look like Roger Staubach?” I asked incredulously.

When we consider what the Detroit Lions might do with their ten practice squad slots, it is useful to think about how many players of each body type and position type they have carried in the past. For a more ordinary situation than trying to impersonate Roger Staubach, consider kick coverage drills: the person who lines up on a kickoff coverage team in the R1 spot next to the sideline on the right has to be a different body type (fast, agile) than the R5 guy to the kicker’s right hand in the center of the formation (wedge buster, big enough to crush blockers head-on). To effectively provide reps, players with approximately the right size and speed ought to be used so the timing of when they arrive downfield and how they appear to other people on the kick coverage team forms an appropriate mental picture similar to what it might look like in game action.

What did the Lions do last year?

There is no way to know what head coach Jim Caldwell’s staff considers the optimum mix of positions and players to carry on the practice squad, but what they did at the 53-man roster decision point last year gives us a rough idea of what would be realistic. In the table below, we show how many players of each position group were included in the initial 53-man roster announced after the fourth preseason game and the ten players selected for the initial practice squad immediately thereafter.

Initial rosters by position, 2016 and 2017

Position Initial 53-man in 2016 Initial PS in 2016 Total in 2016 Notes Current 53-man in 2017
Position Initial 53-man in 2016 Initial PS in 2016 Total in 2016 Notes Current 53-man in 2017
QB 2 Rudock 3 2
RB 5 Winn 6 Michael Burton included here 5
WR 4 Billingsley, Fruechte, Jones 7 5
TE 3 Leonhardt 4 3
OT 4 4 4
OG/C 5 Thomas 6 5
DE 5 5 5
DT 6 6 4
LB 6 Longa 7 6
CB 5 Carter 6 Alex Carter was still a CB 6
S 5 Washington 6 5
Specialists 3 3 3

Consider now the number of players on the current 2017 Detroit Lions 53-man roster from Saturday. The last column on the right side of the table shows the number of players the team has in each position group right now.

The two places where the current count diverges by more than one from the “main roster plus practice squad total” are at wide receiver and defensive tackle. If coach Caldwell’s staff wanted exactly the same mix of position types after adding the ten players of the new practice squad, they would need the following: one QB, one RB, two WR, one TE, one interior lineman, two DT, one LB, and one S.

Players we want to keep, but cannot

Professional football teams tend to bring back many of the players they cut at the 53-man roster deadline to work on their practice squads. Marv Levy’s explanation of how roster limits helped his Montreal Alouettes push the cost of scouting off onto richer NFL teams is revealing (p.168):

Our scout stayed at training camp, looking closely at NFL players, while we prepared to make our move at those players who failed to make final NFL rosters.

But these players are rejects, you might be saying. Not really. Almost all NFL teams part with players late in training camp for whom they have high regard. Only the restrictions posed by roster limits dictate that they be released.

Here are the PS-eligible players who were on the team until Saturday, when the team was forced to drop down to 53 players on the roster:

Waived 2017 players eligible for the PS

Name Position Age Experience Eligibility Notes
Name Position Age Experience Eligibility Notes
Kaaya, Brad QB 21 R M1
Thomas, Noel WR 22 R M1
Ford, Dontez WR 23 R M1
Rector, Michael WR 23 R M1
Billingsley, Jace WR 24 1 M1
Stewart, Dez WR 24 1 M1
Orndoff, Scott TE 23 R M1
Tonyan, Robert TE 23 R M1
Wick, Cole TE 23 2 M2 6 Active Roster games in 2016
Lee, Khari TE 25 3 EXCEPTION Played 16 for CHI in 2015
Norton, Storm T 23 R M1
Becton, Nick T 27 3 M2 5 Active Roster games for CHI in 2015
Bozick, Connor G 23 R M1
Koloamatangi, Leo C 23 R M1
O'Connor, Pat DE 22 R M1
Newberry, Giorgio DE 25 1 M1
Ferguson, Ego DT 25 3 EXCEPTION Played 16 CHI in 2014
Thornton, Khyri DT 27 4 EXCEPTION Played 13 in 2016
Lott, Derrick DT 27 2 M1
Armbrister, Thurston LB 24 3 EXCEPTION Played 14+ in 2015 and 2016
Williams, Antwione LB 24 2 EXCEPTION Roster Lock
Barnes, Adairius CB 23 2 M2 7 Active Roster games in 2016
Thornton, Josh CB 24 R M1
Jacobs, Tramain CB 25 3 M2 5 Active Roster games for NYG in 2015
Carter, Alex S 22 2 M2 1 Active Roster game in 2016
Milligan, Rolan S 23 1 M1

Considering the position count comparison from 2016 and 2017, and what happened in the final preseason game against Buffalo, the most likely players to be retained from this list are the following:

  1. QB Brad Kaaya
  2. WR Jace Billingsley
  3. TE Cole Wick
  4. TE Khari Lee
  5. C Leo Koloamatangi
  6. DT Ego Ferguson
  7. DT Derrick Lott
  8. LB Antwione Williams
  9. CB Adairius Barnes

Why no tenth player? That will probably be a wide receiver or running back who was not already on the team. Instead of 1 RB + 2 WR + 1 TE, signing a RB cut from another team would put the Lions’ practice squad at 1 RB + 1 WR + 2 TE, which is probably fine. The only other positional difference would be keeping an additional cornerback in Adairius Barnes instead of another safety. The last safety kept would probably have been Rolan Milligan, judging by the snap counts against the Bills, but we know from last year that the team likes young Adairius Barnes a lot.

We shall find out in a few hours who the team inks practice squad contracts with. Stay tuned as Pride of Detroit keeps you up to speed on announcements throughout the day on our practice squad tracker.

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