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Observations from Detroit Lions minicamp, Day 1

A little bit of everything in today’s observations.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Unlike the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions opened minicamp with no drama and continued the positive momentum they established in OTAs.

The Lions had 88 of their 89 rostered players in attendance, with the sole missing player being oft-injured EDGE Austin Bryant. Rookies LB Derrick Barnes and CB Jerry Jacobs were in attendance but without a helmet and unable to practice. The rest of the players practiced in full, though LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin did leave halfway through practice with a lower-body injury—he was able to walk off under his own power and it appeared to be a cautionary measure.

Jamie Collins, who missed OTAs to be home for the birth of his second son, returned to Allen Park today, as did Tyrell Crosby, who despite trade rumors was also in attendance. Crosby disclosed that after not being able to spend time with his family during the pandemic, he chose to spend OTAs with his family and “being appreciative of loved ones.”

The Lions' practice today was pretty straightforward. Warm-ups, positional drills, one-on-ones, and two sets of 7-on-7’s, with special teams work in between sessions.

Positional drills

I spent the first half of the Lions opening session watching the defense and their whole unit drills had a lot of familiar players taking first-team reps. Jeff Okudah was paired with Amani Oruwariye at outside corner with Mike Ford in the slot, along with Tracy Walker and Will Harris at safety. Collins was inserted back in with the ones next to Alex Anzalone at the linebacker level. It’s still plenty early to make any conclusions about if these players are slotted to be starters, but it is an indicator that the coaches like what they’re seeing from them.

In the last half of positional drills, myself and Jeremy Reisman took advantage of the looser media rules from this coaching staff and made our way over to the offensive linemen. Typically, they practice out of the way, and quite some distance away from the media, but with a wider range of access, we watched them work from roughly 20 yards away.

Without pads, you’re a bit limited with your evaluations, but there is still plenty to learn. I focused on who the players were paired with, which positions players saw reps at, movement off the snap, and hand placement with bag work.

The Lions didn’t run drills as a full five-man unit but instead spent time working in pairs of two (center-guard) and three (tackle-guard-center). The starters remained the same—it was Crosby’s first day back on the field, so it’s too early to say if he will challenge Penei Sewell—but the reserves got work at different spots. If players like Matt Nelson can show he is capable of playing tackle and guard, or if Logan Stenberg can perform at both left and right guard, it’ll go a long way towards them making an impression on coaches.

Even though Sewell admitted it’s “not that easy” switching back to right tackle, he looked plenty comfortable to me and showed both quickness off the snap and pop in his hands when hitting the bags.

One-on-ones

While the linemen continued their work with their position groups during the next session, the skill players on both sides of the ball matched up for some fun one-on-one battles. It’s worth noting that Jared Goff was throwing to the receivers against cornerbacks/safeties, Tim Boyle threw to the running backs against the linebackers/EDGE, and David Blough targeted the tight ends versus the safeties/EDGE.

Because the tight ends versus safeties/EDGE were matching up next where the offensive line was, I stuck around for the first cycle of matchups. T.J. Hockenson and Darren Fells won their matchups, as expected, but the third tight end that continues to show up is Alize Mack, who could be the early front runner for the TE3 spot. We also got to see Julian Okwara drop into coverage and it looked very natural for the edge rusher.

For the second cycle I shifted down to the running backs versus linebackers/EDGE, and I quickly realized this was the place to be for energy level and trash talk. Running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley and linebackers coach Mark DeLeone had a ton of fun banter back and forth showing faith in their players. Staley wasn’t shy about extending the trash-talking to the players as well. This banter is healthy competitive fun that typically involves a lot of laughing and embracing after some witty comments.

As far as the actual players, let’s be frank, I’m not sure I’ve seen a defensive answer for either D’Andre Swift or Jamaal Williams in coverage. They’re both too smooth and too quick in their routes to handle. That’s a great sign for the offense, but also something defensive coaches have to be hoping improves on their side of the ball.

Punting drills

The Lions continue to cycle players through key positions on special teams looking for standouts. C.J. Moore is still the preferred option at the all-important Personel Protector (PP) spot, but the rest of the surrounding blocker spots saw a rotation of players. Potential gunners got some work on a new drill asking them to dip or swim a block at full speed, which really illustrates a players agility—or lack thereof.

While these drills were going on, players new to the field today got some one-on-one coaching time. Collins spent the session working with DeLeone, while outside linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard worked with newly signed Reggie Gilbert.

7-on-7s

We got to witness these take place in both directions, first watching from behind the offense, then behind the defense.

I once again want to place the caveat that it’s still way too early to make any assumptions on who the starters may be, but both sessions opened up with the same five matchups:

  • Jeff Okudah vs Tyrell Williams
  • Amani Oruwariye vs Breshad Perriman
  • Amon-Ra St. Brown vs Mike Ford
  • Tracy Walker vs T.J. Hockenson
  • D’Andre Swift vs Alex Anzalone

Unlike last week in OTAs when the offense was making plays, today it was the defense's time to show off. The highlight of the day for the defense had to be the first play of the second session when it produced a Will Harris interception.

Without getting into too much detail, the offensive play was designed to suck up the safety into coverage and slide a receiver in behind to the vacated area. The problem for the offense began at the snap when Okudah jammed up Williams at the line of scrimmage, altering his release and throwing off the timing. By the time Williams broke free, Harris drifted over into the vacated gap and jumped the route for the interception that probably would have gone for six.

This wasn’t the only time we saw the benefits of a split safety look. On another play, Hockenson was matched up with a defensive back in the slot and a quick stab step inside caught the defender leaning hard inside to cover. Hockenson shifted back outside with ease and started to pull away, a look we have seen from this defense far too often in recent years. But this time, with the safety Dean Marlow available, he dropped down to cover Hockenson mid-route, rode him to the sidelines, and the play ended up being incomplete. If this was straight man-coverage, like in the previous system, that’s an easy touchdown.

We also saw several other defensive highlights including pass breakups from rookies CB Ifeatu Melifonwu and LB Tavante Beckett, as well as from vet CB Quinton Dunbar. Safety D’Angelo Amos stood up rookie RB Jermar Jefferson at the goal line, which drew some more playful banter from the trash talkers.

While the defense stood out, the offense did have some highlights. Fullback Jason Cabinda, WR Damion Ratley, and WR Tyrell Williams all had their first touchdowns that I’ve seen in camp, while second-year WR Quintez Cephus caught two touchdowns and continues to look strong.