The Detroit Lions 2021 training camp is officially underway and both myself and Jeremy Reisman were in Allen Park for all the fun of the first day. We spent the day acclimating to the new fan-friendly setup, roaming around the campus looking for the best angles to observe practice, and taking notes of what we observed so we could feed the fanbase their first real exposure to fall football.
Today was Day 1 of the Lions’ acclimation period, meaning no pads (they’re projected to go on next week on Monday) and light work that allows the players to “truly get their legs under them”.
“Getting them acclimated–the reps aren’t that high,” coach Dan Campbell said at his morning presser. “We’re going to have 40 reps these first two days total. That’s between three groups, that’s not a lot. Our starters are going to get 16 reps. When the season comes, they’re going to play 60 plays, 65 plays, 70 plays. We’ll work them in. They’ll have some individual. Get their legs under them. We’ll be able to schematically get our system in because we’ll have the afternoon walkthrough as well. Let’s get their legs under them and get used to this a little bit. Because next week we’re rolling.”
With this lighter approach to the day, we saw a lot of rotations not just among position groups, but throughout the offense and defense as well. At times, the entire first team would work together, but when they rotated out, we saw different variations from the reserves, often mixing the second and third team position groups up in order to spread out the workloads. The Lions were also missing five players from practice, which also resulted in a shuffling of the rotations.
The Lions had 84 of their 89 players practicing today with the following sitting out for various reasons:
- C/G Evan Brown: reserve/NFI
- OG Evan Heim: COVID-19 list
- WR Javon McKinley: reserve/NFI
- EDGE Austin Bryant: reserve/PUP
- LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin: COVID-19 list
Shuffling the offensive line reserves
Teams often prefer to rotate through three offensive lines during training camp to keep wear and tear on their big men low. The Lions entered camp with 14 offensive linemen—one short of a full three-line rotation—but with Brown and Heim also out, the Lions needed to use some players at different positions in order to cover.
With only two centers healthy—Frank Ragnow and Drake Jackson—the Lions leaned on UDFA rookie Tommy Kraemer at center at times. This doesn’t constitute a position switch as he is still more of a natural guard with tackle range, but if he can get some reps in at center, it will only help his case.
The second-line offensive tackles—Tyrell Crosby and Matt Nelson— saw some time at guard on the third team. Again, this was more about filling in the gaps, but if the pair can show positional range it will solidify their spots on the 53.
Here’s a rough representation of what we saw on the OL today:
Offensive skill positions
Like with the offensive line, the skill players stayed pretty consistent with their starting unit but saw the reserves shuffle through the rotation. The offense kept only two receivers on the field during most scrimmage work today, asking their slot players to shift outside. That shift allowed some players, who would not normally be on the field at the same time, to get on the field in different looks.
For example, Kalif Raymond and Victor Bolden are expected to be in a battle for the slot role behind rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, yet today, both slot reserves saw the field at the same time, presenting a difficult matchup problem for the defense. Pairing the two together may not have been purposeful, but it was effective. It’s a good reminder that Raymond and Bolden both have a legitimate shot at making this roster independently, and the Lions’ don’t have to pick just one.
At tight end, I feel even more confident slotting Alize Mack as TE3 in my roster prediction after today, as he was clearly at the top of the rotation with T.J. Hockenson and Darren Fells.
The running backs continue to be used in the passing game with great success. The rookie Jermar Jefferson had a tough bobble that resulted in a drop after Alex Anzalone popped him, which drew a cheer from the defense. But D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams remain difficult to stop in the passing game.
Godwin Igwebuike converted from safety to running back over the summer, and he took the field with the offense for the first time in a Lions uniform. He spent a lot of the day hanging back with coaches and veteran backs, but when called upon threw himself into the mix.
“He’s learning,” Swift said of Igwebuike. “He’s doing a great job of learning. He’s real smart as well, his all-around effort is great, he looked good out there (today).”
The defensive front-seven stayed in their base formation throughout the day, meaning that they had three down interior defensive linemen, two EDGE rushers, and two off-the-ball linebackers.
Alim McNeill got the start at nose tackle—no surprise—but the rest of the rookies found themselves a bit further down the depth chart and receiving some extra attention from coaches. Levi Onwuzurike took reps behind Nick Williams (who started opposite Michael Brockers) and Da’Shawn Hand, but that’s common for coaches to favor veterans at this point in camp.
At linebacker, rookie Derrick Barnes was also being brought along slowly, and with Reeves-Maybin out due to COVID, it opened up an opportunity for Shaun Dion Hamilton to run with the second team. This is a good opportunity for Hamilton to impress and make his case for the 53-man roster.
Barnes spent time getting individual instruction and was even spotted having a long conversation with legendary Lions linebacker and front office assistant Chris Spielman after practice:
Must be a big advantage for Lions Derrick Barnes to get one-on-one time with the great Chris Spielman after practices. pic.twitter.com/aSCccoF7wt— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) July 28, 2021
One of the giveaways for how comfortable a coaching staff feels with its players is by seeing who is getting one-on-one coaching time while the others players are getting work on special teams. Most agree there is a battle for a starting role at corner, but when the team broke for special teams, Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye stepped aside, while Quinton Dunbar joined the special teams group to get some work at gunner. This doesn’t mean Dunbar is out of the mix for a starting job, but it’s a subtle indicator that he may be behind the two younger corners.
When on defense, the pecking order reflected this idea. Okudah and Oruwariye saw starter reps, with Dunbar and Mike Ford on the second team—remember the Lions stayed in base most of the day, meaning there weren’t many situations that called for a nickel corner. Third up was typically Alex Brown and Corn Elder. Ifeatu Melifonwu, like fellow rookies Onwuzurike and Barnes, was being brought along slowly and near the end of the rotation.
At safety, Tracy Walker and Will Harris continue to be the preferred starting duo, with Dean Marlowe and C.J. Moore with the second team. Moore’s special teams value will likely help him make this roster, but if he can also earn more time on defense, it will only help the team when it comes to making roster decisions.
The returner competition looks to be getting smaller, but the players in the mix have stayed the same. Raymond continues to be first up in the rotation, followed by Bolden, and then Tom Kennedy. St. Brown was also in the mix late but spent most of the time talking with coaches and observing the others field punts/kicks. This further supports the idea that St. Brown isn't really in the mix for a returner job, but is being cross-trained for emergency purposes.
One other change was at the Personal Protector (PP) position. Moore was a staple protecting Jack Fox last season and into the spring, but some other players got turns at the position, most notably UDFA WR Sage Surratt, who was first in line for reps. Another rookie UDFA D’Angelo Amos (safety) also got in some reps. This is a key role on special teams and will be worth monitoring as training camp progresses.
Speaking of Fox, he mishit a couple of punts today, but when he hits it clean (which he does more often than not) it looks like it’s shot out of a cannon.
Several Lions stuck around after practice to get in some extra work with veteran leaders.
EDGE rushers Julian Okwara, Charles Harris, and Robert McCray stayed behind to work bag drills with starters Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara. The group worked on hand placement, technique, and bending through tackling dummies. Nose tackles McNeill and John Penisini worked on a stationary tackling dummy, focusing on punching power.
St. Brown, Raymond, and Igwebuike, along with others, stayed back to work on the Jugs machine catching passes. The Free Press’ Dave Birkett caught some of the action and posted it on his Instagram: