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10 things we learned from Detroit Lions OTAs, minicamp

Here’s what we’ve learned about the team over the past month of practices.

Detroit Lions Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are wrapping up offseason workouts this week with the third set of organized team activities (OTAs). In this final week, only about half of the team is expected to attend with a focus mostly on the young players on the team.

Because this last week of OTAs is closed to the media, our coverage of the Lions’ offseason practices has essentially ended until training camp begins in late July. But we have a handful of practices to reflect upon until then, and we’ve already learned a lot about this team and where they’re headed in 2021 and beyond.

So here are 10 things I’ve learned about the Detroit Lions from their past month of offseason activities.

1. The Lions’ coaching staff is relating to players

Any regime change is going to bring energy to a franchise and its players, but it certainly seems like Dan Campbell and company are taking that to an extreme. Some of the most important players on the Lions roster have already mentioned how this entire coaching staff is making them see the game differently and allowing them to be themselves. Tracy Walker, Jeff Okudah, and T.J. Hockenson all made comments that seem to suggest they’re in a much better place than they were last year. Walker’s comments on the coaching staff seem the most salient:

“I feel like those guys have coached some of the best corners and safeties in the NFL and I feel like they’re going to help transform my game and I’m listening to them and I’m bought in, all the way.”

2. Practice is much looser than the previous regime

Detroit’s slower pace at practice during OTAs was immediately noticeable. It’s not that the players aren’t as intense during drills, but rather the tempo between drills isn’t at a frenetically—almost panicked—paced. There is no desperation to get every second out of every practice.

Also, there is a clear focus on fun competition during practice. Whether they’re racing each other in circles or playing a weird volleyball-esque game, it appears the coaching staff wants to instill competitiveness in practice while also keeping things light.

3. Mike Ford will contend for the starting nickelback job

Entering offseason activities, the nickel corner position appeared to be the thinnest of any for the Lions. With Justin Coleman cut and Jamal Agnew signing elsewhere, it appeared free agent addition Corn Elder was the only pure nickel on the roster.

But after OTAs, it’s clear Elder may not even be the starter going into training camp. Mike Ford, who has spent most of his three-year career on special teams, had most of the first-team reps at nickel and could be headed for a much bigger role this year.

4. Running backs are going to be fun in the passing game

Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn admitted it was hard to assess running backs during OTAs, when no contact is allowed, and therefore no running game can truly be established. So he had an idea: let’s just throw all the running backs into the passing game and see how they react.

“Sometimes they’re like a fish out of water when they get out there,” Lynn said.

That is not the case for the Lions’ two primary backs. Both D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams were huge threats in the passing game, consistently beating both linebackers and safeties in coverage. They were coming out of the backfield, they were playing off the line in the slot, and nothing seemed to slow them down.

It’s hard to know how much they’ll be used in these roles during the season—seeing as this was simply all they could do during 7-on-7s—but it’s clear they’re both big mismatches in the passing game.

5. T.J. Hockenson will be a focal point of the offense

If you were to simply count targets during 7-on-7 sessions, that would be enough to convince you that the Lions’ Pro Bowl tight end will be a major piece of this offense. Combine it with the amount of time Hockenson spent one-on-one just talking with Jared Goff, and it’s absolutely clear he may be the major piece of the offense.

It will be hard for Hockenson to top 67-catch, 723-yard season from last year, but if I were a betting man, I’d certainly take the over.

6. The Lions’ wide receiving corps has a lot to prove

If there was one unit that underwhelmed during camp, it was the wide receivers. Detroit’s bonafide top two receivers—Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams—were somewhat quiet during all of OTAs. Admittedly, part of that has to do with Detroit’s focus on the red zone during 7-on-7s (both Perriman and Williams will be bigger threats between the 20s), but you’d still like to see those guys stand out from the rest. Simply, they did not.

7. Jeff Okudah is playing with confidence

When it comes to on-field demeanor, 2021 Jeff Okudah is unrecognizable from 2020 Jeff Okudah. He’s much more vocal, he’s much more energized, and you can literally see the confidence building in the second-year cornerback. This is no coincidence, as defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn specifically said this his primary goal this offseason.

“The one thing, we have to change that narrative of the players, of their thinking, so they can go out there and play with confidence and get them to play fast,” Glenn said back in February. “What we’re going to do as a staff is make sure that happens. That’s our number one job; get the players playing fast, get ‘em confident and let those guys let loose.”

Whether that newfound confidence leads to results on the field is still to be determined, but the early returns from OTAs were promising.

8. Detroit’s CB2 job is open for competition

Okudah has that starting job as good as locked up, but who will be playing alongside him? Quinton Dunbar started offseason activities as the No. 2, but Amani Oruwariye got a fair share of first-team reps, as well. Both showed flashes of being a capable starter, but neither distanced themselves enough to be considered a true front-runner. This position will be decided in training camp.

And in case you were wondering, it seems unlikely rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu will start right off the bat but don’t be surprised to see him get some playing time.

9. Jared Goff is off to a decent start

Goff had an up-and-down set of Phase Three practices, but he was certainly more good than bad (as he should be in 7-on-7s). He certainly came into OTAs looking confident and in command of the offense, leading a couple of almost-perfect 7-on-7 sessions early on. However, he seemed to cool off a bit as OTAs continued with the defense starting to come alive, specifically in the red zone.

Goff’s biggest test will come when the defensive line starts providing some pressure, but at this point, the Lions' clear No. 1 quarterback did well for himself thus far.

10. Jahlani Tavai will be given a real chance to fit in this defense

Tavai shed nearly 20 pounds to gain some of his speed and agility back. And while it seems unlikely he’ll earn one of the two off-ball linebacker starting spots—those belong to Jamie Collins Sr. and Alex Anzalone until further notice—I am now at a point where I’d be a little surprised if he gets cut.

Prior to OTAs, Tavai seemed like a long-shot to fit in this defense. Playing at nearly 270 pounds last year, there was simply no way he’d fit on a roster that’s trying to add speed. But to both the coaching staff’s and Tavai’s credit, they simply gave him a chance to transform his body back to his college days, and the results speak for themselves.

Tavai isn’t suddenly a sideline-to-sideline speed demon, but he’s clearly got the right attitude, and he’s now in a place where he can actually compete against speedier offensive weapons. We even saw that work out in a couple of instances when he had decent coverage on the near-uncoverable D’Andre Swift.