The Detroit Lions Practice Squad will be a key piece to the puzzle when Bob Quinn builds his team in 2019
While there is a lot of talk right now coming out of the draft about the Detroit Lions draft choices this weekend, there will be some players, drafted and undrafted free agents both, who may not make the 53-man roster. This is where one of the most underrated tools in the minds of fans comes into play- the practice squad.
Explaining the Practice Squad
The practice squad is a tool that NFL teams including the Detroit Lions have at their disposal that allows them to stash up to 10 players, and in some cases (NFC South and AFC North teams) one international player chosen by the NFL, to stay with the team. The international player rule won’t be a main focus of this piece, as the Lions are one of the teams who have not yet adopted this program.
Up to four players can be chosen to fill veteran spots. These spots are available to players that have been with the team for up to a maximum of two seasons in the NFL. There is a rule in place however, that if any team holds 53 players on their roster throughout the entire season, that players can remain for up to three years. The Lions qualify for this rule, as do all the other 31 teams. Also of note, for the purposes of the practice squad one season is considered six games. There is also a special exception for being a third string quarterback, but that’s not really of note just yet.
The other six spots must remain rookie players, who have been on the 53-man roster for fewer than six games, or on the active 46-man roster on game day for nine or fewer games. For example, take Tracy Walker, the Lions third round draft choice last year. As soon as he was on the active roster for nine games last season, he became ineligible for the rookie spot, and would’ve had to been placed in a veteran spot.
Stealing Practice Squad Players
One common thing that will occur during the regular season is teams stealing players from another team’s practice squad. If a player gets offered a contract by an opposing team to be a part of their 53-man roster, they are free to take the “promotion” to be on another team’s active roster for a minimum of one week with no compensation to the original team. This is particularly notable during the first week of the regular season, as well as cut day. The Lions could cut someone and want to put them on their practice squad, however if another team signs that player to the active 53 man roster, they will not be added to the practice squad. A notable recent example of this was Brad Kaaya, the Lions sixth-round choice in the 2018 NFL Draft, who was signed out of camp by the Carolina Panthers instead of making the Detroit Lions practice squad.
This is a bigger concern for players who get drafted higher, as for example a team likely won’t try and stash a first round pick on a practice squad, as they’d certainly be picked up by another team. The lower a player gets drafted, the more likely they typically are to stick on the practice squad.
How Might The Lions Use Their Practice Squad In 2019?
While the higher draft picks the Lions selected this season won’t be practice squad contenders as they should make the active 53-man roster, some of the day three picks will be factors if they aren’t able to break through the Lions depth at their positions.
One notable name to watch for in this area is Ty Johnson, the Lions sixth-round pick in this year’s 2019 NFL Draft. The running back from Maryland is a speed demon, who was reportedly hand timed as fast as a 4.26 at his pro day. However, he still needs a lot of development in other areas, including pass protection, receiving, and running between the tackles. He is a fast running back who can win the edge well, but other areas of his game aren’t quite refined and polished at this point in his career. While he does have kick return upside, it is unlikely the Lions will carry five running backs in addition to a fullback this year. This puts Ty Johnson as the likely odd man out from the start, given he is eligible for the practice squad. To make the active roster, he’d have to beat out at least one of Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson, Theo Riddick or Zach Zenner, all of whom are more polished in other areas of their game than Johnson, making him a prime candidate for this year’s Detroit Lions practice squad.
Another name to watch out for during camp that could factor into the Detroit Lions practice squad discussions this year is Donald Parham, a tight end out of Stetson University who went undrafted and signed with the team as a UDFA. Parham is a tall TE, listed at 6’8″ who is rather small weight wise at under 250 pounds. Coming from a small school, he was really productive as a receiver against small school competition, and it remains to be seen if he can translate that to the NFL level. A good but not elite athlete with hands and upside as a blocker, he could develop into a solid player with proper coaching at the NFL level, however it’s unlikely he’s able to break through the Lions loaded tight end group that features eighth overall in the first round selection T.J. Hockenson, free agent addition Jesse James, Michael Roberts and seventh-round selection Isaac Nauta, who played at Georgia against far superior SEC competition last season. This makes a player like Parham, with a lot of upside but not a lot of polish, an ideal candidate for the Detroit Lions practice squad in 2019.
One more candidate who could factor in to the discussions to make the Detroit Lions practice squad this year is Tre Lamar, a linebacker out of Clemson. A big school guy coming off a national championship, Lamar was very productive playing behind one of the most talented defensive lines in College Football that included three first round selections (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence) and the Lions fourth round choice Austin Bryant. A leader of the linebacker unit, Lamar was a piece of the Tigers’ championship puzzle, fitting the Lions mantra of “bigger is better” at the linebacker position. A downhill thumper, Lamar is a solid tackler who is able to bring down running backs who try and attack gaps on the inside, and showed a lot of similarities to the Lions starting linebacker last year Christian Jones. However, his lack of athleticism and coverage ability could find him on the outside looking in as far as the 53-man roster. While he may be able to win a job on special teams in camp, if he isn’t able to do so, he could be headed to the Detroit Lions practice squad to begin his NFL career.
Other undrafted rookies who could be factors for the Detroit Lions practice squad in 2019 include Beau Benzschawel (though it’s likely he would be signed before making the practice squad), Ryan Pope (if he doesn’t beat out Andrew Donnal for a spot on the 53-man roster), Jonathan Duhart, and Malik Carney.
Overall, this will be something to re-visit once we see these players compete in training camp and particularly after the pre-season games, but for now, it’s an important tool that the Lions will definitely look to utilize in 2019 and can’t be forgotten as the Lions look to build a deep, championship caliber roster over the next 10 months.