Why split-squad practices make sense for the Detroit Lions amid pandemic

What's next for Stafford after being placed on COVID-19 list? (1:00)

Michael Rothstein details why Lions QB Matthew Stafford was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and when he's eligible to return to the team. (1:00)

The Detroit Lions had two options when deciding how to approach the football part of training camp amid a global pandemic.

  1. They could cut their roster down to 80 players and have everyone go at once.

  2. Keep the original 90-man roster they had signed and split the team in two.

Many teams chose Option 1. But Detroit is one of at least three teams deciding to stick with what it originally chose and give all 90 players (or, in the Lions’ case, 88 players because they had one open roster spot and John Atkins opted-out last Wednesday) a shot.

“We want to see all the guys we have on the roster,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said. “We feel like everybody on the roster has something to show us and they’re here for a reason. We have a small rookie class, as you know."

The Lions’ strategy of split-squad practices might have unintended benefits considering Detroit has had eight players end up on the COVID-19 reserve list in the first week of testing, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end T.J. Hockenson.

They hope the split-squad format will help keep cases down. Group 1 will consist of rookies and first-year players -- so it should include potential starters Jeff Okudah, Jonah Jackson and D’Andre Swift -- along with injured players and quarterbacks, if the team chooses to put them there. (The restrictions regarding injured players are not clear yet.)

A team could also split up its quarterbacks -- so for instance, David Blough could go with Group 1 and Chase Daniel, and Stafford when he is healthy, could go with Group 2, which will be the team’s veterans, to make sure they all get work.

The team can divide those groups into yet smaller groups -- say the quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs for one workout -- to further limit the possibility of contact and the number of people in the building at a given time.

That's something Lions coach Matt Patricia said the team will do early on as they ramp up practices -- even going further than individualized position groups.

"Even though it might be for a short period, I thought it was our obligation to the players to keep it at 90," Patricia said. "What we're trying to do is a build-up phase before we put everybody together. Put everybody in small groups for the first week -- maybe it's 20 to 25 guys through the building at a time. That kind of limits some of the crossover contact guys are going to have. Then build from 25 to 40 and then from 40 to 80 ... really take four to five days between the process where we put those groups together."

Patricia said that doesn't mean all the offensive linemen, for example, will work together in an effort to keep from wiping out an entire position group if someone ends up testing positive for COVID-19. The Lions will also stick with virtual meetings as much as possible and shuttle players in and out of the building as efficiently as they can.

None of this is ideal. It will, like so much of football preparation in 2020, be different. But it is a way for the Lions to see as many players as possible given the constraints.

“We’re going to try to keep the distance as much as possible before we have what we call ‘real practice’ starting in that second and third phase,” Quinn said.

There’s added benefit there, too.

The first is the Lions -- and every other team around the NFL -- can’t bring in players for workouts. It’s something that's being worked on, but the tryout circuit is basically on hold. It’s an area Quinn has used often in the past, so this gives his coaches a chance to stick with 10 more players for a couple of weeks. For young players -- like the three undrafted free-agent safeties the team has -- it’s a way for them to try to land some quick impressions and at least make it on to the 80-man roster, where reps will be very limited as the Lions need to get veterans ready to play.

For veterans, it’s a chance to show they are in shape. Quinn has not been shy from moving on from veteran free agents who don’t look like they’ll be capable producers.

Because it’s unknown when the players on the COVID-19 list will be able to return -- negative testing and NFL protocols will determine that -- this allows the club to work in small groups as it determines what works best for the team as a whole. Depending how long some of the Lions’ top-line players are out, the split-squad practices could provide more opportunities for players competing for roster spots at receiver and tight end to get valuable reps -- although at the moment Detroit is down to two tight ends – Jesse James and Hunter Bryant -- with Hockenson and Isaac Nauta on the COVID-19 reserve list.

The drawback, of course, is it could momentarily hurt the growth of players like Okudah and Jackson, who likely would have received early reps with starters. Okudah will lose at least a few days of reps against Golladay and Marvin Jones, and Jackson won’t be able to build chemistry with center Frank Ragnow.

With the status of workouts still nebulous, this also gives Detroit more detailed information on 10 players who will become free agents by mid-August in case the team needs a replacement. Consider, too, that in a pinch during the season, one of those players could come in and at least would know the crux of the playbook and offer some rapport with his position groups.

That rapport going to be both tougher to find in 2020 and even more valuable in places where it exists.