Training camp is one of my favorite times of year. It allows us as fans to get our first up close and personal view of the players we’re going to be watching all season. It’s as close to football as we can get—aside from watching foreign league football games—even if it isn’t really quite football just yet. There are a lot of things you can glean from training camp, little bits of insight that you otherwise wouldn’t have just by looking at a roster or reviewing highlights from year’s past. You can get an idea of who is going to have an impact and where. You can guess the depth chart based on both play and rep counts. You can even gauge the relative strength or weakness of the roster as a whole, for better or worse. Like last season, I’ll be trying to catch every player I can and noting whether I believe their stock is moving up or down based on their play in camp. Since this is the first time we’re getting a look at the 2017 Detroit Lions, it’s time to see where the roster stands before we start taking stock.
I don’t expect anything other than brilliance from Matthew Stafford in training camp. He always looks good there. Jake Rudock ranged from bad to really bad in 2016 training camp, but early reports have been positive. Rudock never really threatened the No. 2 quarterback position last year, but as the incumbent, he’ll be fending off newly drafted Brad Kaaya for those duties.
We can’t see the game prep and clipboard stuff in training camp, but it would go a long way to see an improved passer from Rudock or some of that presumed upside early from Kaaya.
Ameer Abdullah is expected to take the majority of touches for the Lions at running back in 2017 as long as he remains healthy. Theo Riddick is always in top form this time of year. I expect we’ll get more “Theo Riddick is ready to break out” posts during camp, but ultimately, I think he’s going to be more of the same: a pass catcher out of the backfield and a sub-par runner who has one very important use in the offense.
I don’t expect much difference out of Zach Zenner, either, but Dwayne Washington has to show improvement in nearly every area. We won’t find out if his atrocious vision has improved until at least the preseason, but he’s already been dropping passes in practice, and that was an area he really needed to improve if he wants to make the roster a second time.
Matt Asiata is a vet who can catch and block, so I’ll mostly be watching his work as a rusher while trying to also get a good look at Mike James and Tion Green in all phases, including special teams.
Golden Tate rarely looks bad in camp, while Marvin Jones looked very good in shorts last year, so I expect more of the same from them.
I’m higher on rookie third-round pick Kenny Golladay than most, but I’ll still be watching him as critically as possible since he will be looking for sizable targets in 2017. Jared Abbrederis lit up minicamp and OTAs, but it was undrafted rookie Noel Thomas turning heads in the first day of camp on Sunday. I’ll be watching both of them closely, as well as fan favorite Jace Billingsley to see if anyone can stand out in that fourth or possibly fifth receiver role.
Ryan Spadola has been on the practice squad for a long time and he’s already burnt Lions 2017 second-round pick Teez Tabor in camp-along with 2017 UDFA Michael Rector—so he’ll get a look in those spots as well. Fellow UDFA Dontez Ford and free agent Keshawn Martin have been mostly unheralded since joining the team, but I’ll be on the lookout to see if there’s anything there as well.
Eric Ebron is likely out with a tweaked hamstring, so I’ll be paying close attention to second-year UDFA Cole Wick to see if he can perform in that role. Wick was a camp star last season before fizzling out and going down with injury early in 2016.
I’ve seen enough of Darren Fells and Michael Roberts to get an idea of who they are, but I’ll be watching the rookie to see how far along he is. Since the roster is mostly set, I’m going to be watching undrafted rookies Robert Tonyan (a converted wide receiver) and Brandon Barnes to see if there is anything to be excited about. So far, neither has garnered much attention.
It’s tough to get an idea of where the line is at during training camp, especially when their competition is going to be as weak as it is this season going against a depleted and mostly untested Lions front.
Mostly, I’m going to be watching who is playing where and how often, as well as players who are switching positions. Moving guys around is often a sign of interest as depth, since it means they’re looking into whether the player can fill-in at multiple positions if needed.
Cyrus Kouandjio took first team reps with Greg Robinson coming off the NFI yesterday, so who starts and who plays there is going to be an important note on the day.
Much of this group is injured, so it’s going to be tough to form much of an opinion. Likewise, with Taylor Decker out injured, at least half of the defensive ends are going to be going against backup level talent, so that might skew our perspective a bit. Is it really that impressive to see someone besting the likes of Cyrus Kouandjio, Greg Robinson or Cornelius Lucas?
With so little to get excited about, I’m going to be paying attention to whomever is lining up across from free agent offensive tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang. Late-rounders Jeremiah Ledbetter and Pat O’Connor, as well as undrafted free agent Alex Barrett, will get a shot early, so maybe the Lions get lucky.
With little contact or tackling, and an athletic bunch of backers to watch, I expect this group to put on a bit of a show. Rookies Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin both move well in space, so we’ll get a good idea of where they are in coverage drills this week.
The big test for both, as well as free agent Paul Worrilow, is going to be in the preseason, where we can see if their collective tackling issues have been worked on to a meaningful degree. Antwione Williams and Steve Longa are two players I expect to get a bit of a longer look since the types of drills we see in camp are the areas in which they struggle—movement in space and tracking of receivers. Tahir Whitehead has a lot to prove and his work in camp can give us an idea if he’s still going to struggle in coverage or not.
Much has been made of Teez Tabor’s lack of speed and it showed on Sunday where he was beaten by several undrafted talents. Even as big of a critic as I am, I’m not worried about that. I don’t expect him to be fast, and if the Lions are asking him to trail receivers on 9-routes, then it’s their fault for being stupid and failing to utilize the talent they have correctly.
Undrafted rookie Desmond Lawrence got shook out of his shoes by Golladay on Sunday, so let’s see if he can rebound. Second-year player Adairius Barnes shocked Lions fans and media by making the roster in 2016, but his slender frame caused him problems early as he was injured almost immediately after stepping on the field. He’s put on 10 pounds since last year, so I’m excited to see if the athletic prospect can force his way into a crowded cornerback squad that is almost completely locked up for roster spots.
O akland Las Vegas Raiders first round pick D.J. Hayden will be getting a long look at nickelback since he was paid to start there, while rookie fifth-round speedster Jamal Agnew has a shot to muscle his way into that spot early given how poor the play was there in 2016.
Glover Quin is a boss and always shows out in camp. Tavon Wilson gained ground on Rafael Bush quickly in training camp last year before overtaking him completely, but I’ll be watching Miles Killebrew to see if the rotational standout can do the same in 2017. Former third-rounder Alex Carter disappointed as a corner, but reports are he has looked very good at safety to start.
I’m also going to be watching second-year player Charles Washington, who the team was very fond of in 2016, but my expectations are not very high. With Don Carey and Rolan Milligan on PUP, Washington is going to get plenty of opportunities to impress, but he’d have to show out pretty heavily to justify a roster spot.
Nothing to see here. Matt Prater is a beast. Sam Martin is hurt but expected to be back by the start of the regular season. Don Muhlbach is a good long snapper. There’s something called a Casey Redfern, too, but I’m not watching him.
Corey Robinson is still injured, but if he comes back some time during training camp I think he can give both Greg Robinson and Cyrus Kouandjio a run for their money at left tackle.
Cornelius Lucas is probably finished as a Lion, but any time you back someone into a corner there’s the chance they fight their hardest to hold onto their job.
Jeremiah Valoaga is someone the Lions were very, very interested in coming out of college. He’s injured and on the PUP, but he’s likely headed to the practice squad even if he isn’t healthy by the time the preseason starts.
There’s something to be said about last shots, but this is probably it for T.J. Jones. Put up or go home type of preseason forthcoming.
The Lions are probably going to be looking for a pass catcher if they roll with four tight ends, but blocking specialist Khari Lee might be able to secure that spot with a good enough showing considering the Lions OL issues.
Word is that undrafted rookie Storm Norton has struggled so far, but it’s always possible it is just rookie jitters for the athletic prospect out of Toledo.
Don’t forget about Joe Dahl. He was clearly not ready in training camp 2016, but a year removed and competition being as open as it is may see him leap into a more important role in 2017.
Jordan Hill is probably the most talented pass rusher of the Lions defensive tackle depth, with health issues being the biggest factor in leading to his release from Seattle. If healthy, that’s a talent the Lions desperately need.
Leo Koloamatangi is a good player and I immediately regretted waffling and leaving him off my initial 53-man roster prediction. Now is as good a time as any to start thinking about if that was good forethought or poor conviction.