The Detroit Lions made the cuts down to their initial 53-man roster, and just like every year, there were some pretty significant surprises. The Lions went unusually low on offensive linemen and high on defensive backs.
Let’s get into some specifics. Here are my five quick thoughts from the Lions’ 53-man roster.
The offensive line just got a whole lot younger
The Lions decided to cut both Kenny Wiggins and Oday Aboushi—their two veteran interior linemen. That means it’s time for the young ones to take over. Rookie third-round pick Jonah Jackson is starting at right guard. There is no question there. And while Joe Dahl likely has the other spot, the only current backup on the interior is fourth-round rookie Logan Stenberg.
Or is it....
The other surprise on the offensive line was converted defensive lineman Matt Nelson making the 53-man roster. And while he’s listed as an offensive tackle, we noted from this highlight in camp that Nelson has actually been playing some left guard with the starters (He’s No. 67).
With Aboushi and Wiggins gone, the Lions’ oldest offensive lineman is now just 27 years old. Here’s a breakdown of ages:
LT Taylor Decker - 27
RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai - 27
OT Tyrell Crosby - 25
OT Matt Nelson - 24
G Joe Dahl - 27
C Frank Ragnow - 24
G Jonah Jackson - 23
G Logan Stenberg - 23
That’s a young nucleus.
What are the Lions doing at tight end?
While the Lions look thin on the offensive line, they are in an even more precarious situation at tight end. After cutting both Isaac Nauta and Matt Sokol, the Lions are left with T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James and undrafted rookie Hunter Bryant. Bryant suffered an injury at camp, and doesn’t appear ready for a return.
So what the hell are they doing?
ESPN’s Mike Rothstein has a pretty good theory. The Lions could be putting Bryant on injured reserve with the hopes that he comes back in 2020. If the Lions placed him on IR prior to cutdowns, he would not be eligible to play at all in 2020. But because of the new CBA rules, Bryant only needs to spend three weeks on IR before he can return to practice now that he has made the initial roster.
Given how good Bryant looked during camp, it’s easy to understand why the Lions didn’t want to subject him to waivers, while they may not have been as concerned about Nauta or Sokol. If Bryant does go to IR, the Lions may temporarily bring Nauta or Sokol back to the 53-man roster for a few weeks.
Secondary special teams galore
I was trying to fit as many defensive backs on my 53-man roster prediction, expecting Detroit to keep a lot of special teamers. However, I did not expect them to keep 12. Valued special teams contributors C.J. Moore, Tony McRae, Mike Ford and Miles Killebrew all made the roster. Really, the only significant special teams cut was Dee Virgin.
Now, this isn’t a completely surprise. The Lions actually kept the exact same number of cornerbacks (7) and safeties (5) last year. However, given the lack of depth at other positions, it’s still a bit surprising to see almost all of these primarily special teams players make the cut.
Easily the most surprising player to make the 53-man roster was linebacker Elijah Lee. If you need a reminder about who he is, Lee signed on the same day as Reggie Ragland after spending the last three seasons with the 49ers. He started six games in San Francisco and tallied 76 tackles and one sack.
As you may have suspected, Lee was also very active on special teams with the 49ers. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he’s not exactly the big-bodied linebacker that Matt Patricia loves, but there’s a good chance he plays on special teams this season.
Perhaps we should have all seen this coming when his teammate Reggie Ragland was talking about the linebacker room:
This is why I started thinking Elijah Lee could make the roster:— John Whiticar (@Whiticar) September 5, 2020
““All they did was add me, Elijah (Lee), and Jamie (Collins) this year to solidify this group and make us a good group.””
Made me think the Lions had a plan for those three. https://t.co/4pX2RZ1Nd4
Defensive line depth is ... worrisome
The Lions chose to keep just six defensive linemen, parting ways with all the newly-added players (Kevin Wilkins, Will Clarke and Albert Huggins). But the bigger surprise was cutting an experienced player like Kevin Strong.
Now the Lions have their four starters: Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand, Danny Shelton and Trey Flowers. But behind them are just two backups: Romeo Okwara and sixth-round rookie John Penisini.
For a position group that dealt with a lot of injuries last year, the depth here is more than concerning. Don’t be surprised if the Lions go out and try to find some big bodies very soon.