NFL's likely elimination of preseason another blow to Lions' roster hopefuls
After proposing a reduction of the preseason schedule from four games to two, the NFL has, according to multiple reports, now acquiesced to the demands of its players association, accepting the proposed elimination of the 2020 preseason in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With an understandable emphasis on completing its full, 16-game regular season, the removal of the preseason schedule reduces unnecessary risk through seemingly meaningless games, but the unintended consequence is another in an offseason full of blows to players not guaranteed roster spots. That group won't get a chance to make a lasting impression beyond the practice field.
Preseason games are the opportunity which allows unheralded players to impress decision-makers and work themselves off the bubble into a full-time job. One of the best recent examples for the Detroit Lions was defensive lineman Kerry Hyder.
In 2015, Hyder recovered three fumbles in the preseason finale. That solidified a spot on the team's practice squad. A year later, after Hyder tallied three sacks in the team's final preseason contest, he punched his ticket to a job on the main roster, going on to lead the team with eight sacks that season.
The preseason is particularly invaluable for undrafted rookies, players the team obviously liked coming out of college, but need to see more from before considering them for a regular-season role.
When it comes to the pandemic's disruption of the upcoming season, no one has been impacted more than this year's crop of undrafted players. That dates to before the draft, when many colleges eliminated their pro days, precluding many fringe prospects from showcasing their athletic gifts in front of NFL scouts. That was especially true of small-school hopefuls, who don't get anywhere near the in-season exposure a player from Ohio State or Clemson would.
"Pro days are really important to these guys especially, who might not have had the combine invite or being very visible on television week in and week out," NFL agent Greg Linton told The Detroit News in March. "The scouts that actually go to their games can tell a lot from the film, but the questions they might have had about speed or agility, those are questions that will be left unanswered."
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The Lions still signed seven undrafted players this offseason, but those players' ability to impress coaches and the team's front office has been limited to the classroom after the league converted offseason programs to a virtual setting.
"Obviously, the draft picks are going to get an awesome chance to come in and make the team," Lions general manager Bob Quinn said in May. "We’ll have our normal training camp, hopefully, if not more. But the rookie free agents, they’re going to get the same exact opportunity. They’re going to come in, they’re going to hit the ground running and they’re going to have every chance to make our team and show us what they can do. Those guys are hungry for NFL spots, it’s really up to them. ... They’re going to have to take the training very seriously, so they hit the ground running."
Last year, the Lions had four undrafted rookies made the team out of training camp — safety C.J. Moore, defensive tackle Kevin Strong, offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel and quarterback David Blough.
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Blough, acquired via trade at the end of last year's preseason, after playing against the Lions, represents another challenge all teams will face this year — the inability to scout other teams' players. Again, that only hinders opportunities for the hundreds of players who won't make a roster out of camp.
If there is a silver lining for those players, it's the expansion of both roster and the practice squad spots in 2020, part of the league's new collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified earlier this offseason.
NFL rosters are set to go from 53 to 55, while practice squads will expand from 10 to 12 in 2020. Additionally, there's a proposal on the table to boost practice squads to 16 players in response to the pandemic. An extra eight jobs, compared to last year, would give more than 200 players an extended opportunity, helping offset the loss of preseason games.