Never be surprised.
Never – ever – use the word "final" when NFL teams make the mandatory cuts to the regular-season roster limit of 53 players.
Those are just a couple of the things we learned again – and should remember – from the Detroit Lions' cuts at the deadline Saturday afternoon to get to the limit.
Among the others: Experience mattered at some positions, quarterback being one of them in the battle of backups; performance in the fourth and final preseason game didn't matter in some cases; position changes can open the door to opportunity for players instead of directions to the exit.
And be ready for more roster moves up to the last week of the regular season. Because that's how the NFL rolls when it comes to the roster. It never stops.
We start with the battle of the backups:
View photos of the Detroit Lions Cheerleaders performing during the Lions preseason game against the Browns.
Going to the Matt: Matt Cassel beat out Jake Rudock more by resume than performance to be the backup to starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. That was not a surprise.
If the competition really came down to performance in the final preseason game – a dreary 35-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns – then Rudock was a statistical winner. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. Cassel completed four of 11 for 64 yards, with an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
But it wasn't a one-game competition. I thought Rudock had to show dramatic improvement over his first two seasons and be more aggressive in throwing the ball downfield. He didn't do that. He was efficient throwing short, but there was nothing that indicated he could lead the offense with his arm.
Cassel's big advantage was experience. He has played 13 seasons – the first four with the Patriots – with 81 starts out of 106 games played. He has thrown 2,666 passes in the regular season. Rudock has thrown five passes and played just nine offensive snaps – all last season – in two seasons with the Lions.
There comes a time when experience doesn't matter. Every player reaches the end – starters and career backups – at some point.
But that didn't happen this year in the competition between Cassel and Rudock.
Position "surprises:" Some positions panned out as projected – two quarterbacks, five running backs, three specialists. Many others didn't, and in defense of the local beat writers who make best-effort projections, it would have been a reach to predict keeping six receivers, 10 offensive linemen, seven each at linebacker and defensive line and nine defensive backs.
The roster juggling act that began Sunday will change some of those position totals. But one thing we've learned that was reinforced at the cutdown deadline is that head coach Matt Patricia runs a defense that's different than the 4-3 that was the Lions' base for the previous 21 seasons.
It's a different mix of linemen and linebackers in whatever combination Patricia has up front in a given situation.
Killebrew factor: The result of moving Miles Killebrew from safety to linebacker before the first preseason game could be interpreted as changing the numbers on both positions. It adds one linebacker – from six to seven – and takes away one from the secondary – from 10 to nine.
But in practical terms, he's a combination of both with a skill set that makes him a big safety or relatively under-sized linebacker with a role that maximizes what he does best.
Fullback factor: Nick Bellore was another player asked to make a position switch this year, only his came early in the offseason program. He was moved from linebacker, his primary position his first seven seasons, to full-time fullback – where he played 13 snaps last year.
Bellore was the only fullback on the roster after rookie Nick Bawden, a seventh-round draft pick, sustained a season-ending knee injury early in the offseason program.
Bellore is a superior special teams player, and he has starting experience at linebacker from the two seasons he spent with the 49ers before signing with the Lions last year. He's another example of how versatility and football smarts add to a player's roster value.
Fourth-game factor: It didn't really exist, at least not to the degree last season when running back Tion Green won a roster spot with a big performance.
Undrafted rookie Brandon Powell was a prime example of winning a roster spot based on his overall performance. He had one catch for four yards, a one-yard punt return and an average of 17.3 yards on four kickoff returns but got one of the six roster spots at wide receiver based on what he did in the first three games.
"Final" cuts: The "mandatory cuts" should not be confused with "final" cuts.
When it comes to shaping the roster, few things are final. As an example, after the mandatory cuts last year, the Lions made 10 moves with the 53-player roster that involved eight players – all before Game 4.
Bellore was involved twice – released on Sept. 9, signed back on Sept 11 for what would be the rest of the season, the day after the Lions opened the season with a win over Arizona.