15,387 people were at Ford Field yesterday afternoon for Lions Uncaged. Fans had a chance to meet the players and head coach Jim Schwartz prior to the practice, as they signed autographs. From what I saw, the lines were extremely long, but once fans actually had a chance to meet the players or Schwartz, the wait was probably worth it. After the autograph session concluded, the players went down to the locker room and got ready for a 2-hour long practice that included 1-on-1 and 7-on-7 drills, full team drills, and one live contact session at the end.
Below is the first part of my recap of the event, which looks at how the offense performed.
As you can imagine, I focused on the play of the quarterbacks quite a bit. The biggest question right now is who will be the Lions' starting quarterback, and after what I watched, it's even harder to predict who will be at the top of the depth chart when the regular season begins. As I mentioned on Twitter, the majority of people calling in to 97.1 FM The Ticket after the practice thought Culpepper played better. I personally didn't see it that way, though. Neither Culpepper nor Matthew Stafford played that much better than one another. They were pretty even in my mind, though it's tough to judge them based on a few drills where they couldn't even take a hit. After all, both players seemed to keep playing when they would have been sacked, such as when Culpepper hit Calvin Johnson for a long touchdown pass. The crowd erupted, but Culpepper would have been sacked if contact was allowed. That was the case for each QB on a few occasions, though.
Like their overall play, Stafford and Culpepper were pretty even as far as their passing went. Stafford definitely throws a nice, tight spiral that can accurately be described as a bullet. I'd probably give him the edge over Culpepper in that respect, but not by much. The biggest positive about Culpepper I noticed was how in shape he now looks. The 30 pounds or so he dropped in the offseason is noticeable, as he looks a lot better than when he joined the Lions last season. If it weren't for showing that type of dedication in the offseason, it probably would be a no-brainer to start Stafford, as I wouldn't have too much faith in an out of shape QB trying to compete for a starting job. Since Culpepper showed that dedication, though, this QB race is pretty even in my opinion.
It seems like I'm ignoring Drew Stanton, but I don't think he is a viable candidate in this QB competition. Although Lions coaches have split the reps equally so far, I guess I don't see starting potential in Stanton. Don't get me wrong, he looked pretty good yesterday and much improved compared to a year ago, but Stafford and Culpepper are a level up from him as far as ability goes. One example of that is having patience in the pocket. Stanton still takes off too quickly after not finding an open man, whereas Stafford and Culpepper seemed more apt to wait for the play to develop. More experience will help Stanton gain more patience, but I doubt that experience will be as a starting QB.
Moving on to the running back position, there wasn't a whole lot that stood out. Kevin Smith had a nice run where he made a move to the outside, but that was pretty much it. Since most of the practice was non-contact, it was tough to tell when a run would have ended. Defenders sometimes came in and wrapped up the RB, but other times they simply stopped when a hit would have usually been made. Because of that, it was tough to get a good look at the running backs.
The one player that did stand out and kept making great play after great play was actually fullback Jerome Felton. He steamrolled a defender on one run, plowing through the defense for a solid gain. On another occasion, he absolutely lit up Cliff Avril on a block that opened up a huge hole for the running back. It seemed like every big it involved Felton, and he was the one delivering the hit, both as a blocker and as a runner. I have to say, he had a certain swagger about him that makes it seem like he will be the team's starting FB this year.
The wide receiver position really starts and ends with Calvin Johnson. It was amazing to see how much bigger he is compared to his teammates. Looking at him stand next to Dennis Northcutt was quite the sight, as it looked like he had a foot on him height-wise. I guess that is why Northcutt is a slot receiver, as he seemed pretty small. Standing next to Megatron will do that, though, and on the field he just is on another level when it comes to athleticism. Defenders had a tough time doing much with Calvin, as he made catches even when they were draped all over him.
The rest of the receivers did not impress me too much. There were a lot of dropped passes (Eric Fowler had a few of them), as has been mentioned throughout the first week of training camp. Route running also wasn't too great by a couple players, most notably Derrick Williams. I hope his return skills are better than his receiving skills, because I was not impressed with him at all. Maybe it's because he tried to fight Eric King at one point during practice (King didn't let go of him immediately after the whistle blew and the two got into it), but I really wasn't impressed with what Williams did at receiver.
There's not much to say about the tight ends, as Brandon Pettigrew and Casey FitzSimmons didn't practice. Dan Gronkowski has good hands, which is a major plus when you consider how many of the pass-catchers have a case of butterfingers. Will Heller didn't drop any passes from what I saw, either. The newly-signed Carson Butler caught a touchdown from Drew Stanton and was in on a couple other plays.
I don't have much to say about the offensive line for two reasons: 1) I didn't watch them very closely; 2) Even if I had, the majority of their time on the field was spent in individual drills. When they did participate in the full-team drill, it seemed like the defensive line was getting good penetration, both when the offense ran the ball and when they passed it. As mentioned earlier, there were a lot of times when the QB would have been sacked if contact was allowed. When running the ball, at least half of the plays had to have gone for no gain or a loss. Sometimes the defensive line was in the backfield when the handoff was being made. If that is any indication, the O-line still has a lot of work to do. Again, I can't give you a great assessment of how they played, but I think it's a good thing we are still a month removed from the regular season.
Next up I will look at the defense and special teams.