Three days into Detroit Lions 2021 training camp and the atmosphere couldn't be any different than what it’s been over the last three seasons. The pace of practice is slowed without losing intensity. Instead of rushing from drill to drill, you can physically see coaches and players working on the technical part of the game. Everybody involved is visibly more relaxed, and that sentiment is echoed when talking to players after practices.
On the field, coaches continue to introduce creative ways to keep things loose while also maintaining a competitive atmosphere. In the spring we saw speed and agility races, along with a modified version of big man volleyball (only with a medicine ball). In this camp, we have witnessed the team do 40 up-downs on Day 1 including Dan Campbell and the rest of the defensive coaching staff, and a similar bonding exercise as a way of welcoming DT Bruce Hector to the team was used on Day 2.
Today, we saw another speed game that involved five up-downs and a race to get a football placed on the sidelines, each 10 yards apart. Complete the up-downs quicker and you get to race and claim the closest ball. But the longer it takes, the further you have to run, and if you are the last remaining player without a ball, you have to run to the 50-yard line for more up-downs.
Here’s a look at some of the defensive line performing this drill via The Athletic's Chris Burke (Note: That's Kevin Strong who was with the trail group when he noticed no one grabbed the first ball and peeled off to get it—Awareness stock up):
Today’s most entertaining #Lions drill (for the media, possibly not for the players): Up downs by groups of five defenders, then a race to footballs along the sideline. Last-place finisher had to do an extra set of up downs. pic.twitter.com/d2EeZD1Woe— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) July 30, 2021
Off the field, things are also considerably lighter. Look no further than RB Jamaal Williams—who admittedly is a bit of a high-energy character—challenged reporters who tried to ask questions at the same time to square off in a rock-paper-scissors competition for the right to ask their question first.
I was in the Tracy Walker scrum at the time and even he delayed the start of his interview session to watch Williams cut it up with reporters.
Tracy Walker won’t start his presser until Jamaal Williams is done because he wants to hear what Williams says. pic.twitter.com/uycSfgSWq8— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) July 30, 2021
And when Walker did settle in, he delivered one of the most telling quotes of the day. When asked if the defense was better suited to the skills sets of the secondary player like him and Will Harris, Walker replied:
“Definitely, definitely. It’s a better scheme for everybody, to be honest with you. I ain’t throwing no shade. It’s just it is what it is. But, yeah, I feel like we’re all great and we’re all happy right now. That’s the biggest thing.”
Now onto some actual football observations.
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
- TE Hunter Thedford: he went down with an injury on Day 2 and was not at practice today
- EDGE Austin Bryant: reserve/PUP
- LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin: COVID-19 list
Safety C.J. Moore returned to practice. He was given the day off after straining his back while weight lifting the day prior, per Campbell at his morning press conference.
The offense is still finding its rhythm, but quarterback Jared Goff is confident it is all part of a building process.
“Any time you come back at the beginning of training camp I think there’s a little rust, and you’re knocking some of that off,” Goff said after practice. “I think today was a better day, but we’re getting there. Every day is a step forward. Ever since we got here back in May, every day has been a step forward, and today was no different.”
He’s looked the sharpest of the signal-callers, but there will still be some timing and decision-making issues that creep up in these early days. On a positive note, you can see him putting in the conversations with his teammates in order to improve their efficiency.
For example, near the end of warmups, Goff shifted out of his line and moved over to the offensive line portion of the field and mirrored Frank Ragnow with his movements. They were far enough away from reporters that we don’t know what they were talking about but they conversed throughout the exercise. You can see Goff holding conversations with other coaches and teammates, like T.J. Hockenson, Tyrell Williams, and Breshad Perriman, throughout practice as well.
The reps are still light for the starters during the acclimation phase but Goff is making use of his time on the field.
The rest of the offense
Campbell said they planned on opening the playbook each week of the preseason and that this week’s offense was just basic concepts. Apparently, that means designing plays for your fullback because Jason Cabinda was on the receiving end of at least four plays today, including one innovative play that caught the defense off guard.
Keeping in mind the Saints (Campbell) and Chargers (offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn) kept a fullback on their roster, it’s possible that means there could only be room for three tight ends on the roster.
Right now, that TE3 is clearly Alize Mack.
“For the most part, he’s a rookie,” Campbell said of Mack. “So, he’s still learning and trying to grow here a little bit. I know this, the talent that I saw when I had him is still there. I know that. The more comfortable he can get in the offense to where he can play faster and really use it because I’m telling you he’s gifted. The kid is gifted, but the more comfortable he gets to where he can cut it loose, he’ll really grow. I’m hopeful. We’re going to give him an opportunity here to see what he can do. We’ll see where it goes. We’ll see how he handles it.”
The wide receiver group also continues to create separation between the top-six and the rest of the pack. Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, and Amon-Ra St. Brown continue to work with the top unit, while the reserves are getting looks at all three spots. Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond, and Victor Bolden round out the top of the depth chart, and if the Lions keep six receivers, they are the front runners. Now, if they decide to only keep five, things will get real interesting.
The Atheltic’s Chris Burke (a popular guy in my observations today) brought up an interesting thought on the reserve offensive line. If Tyrell Crosby and Matt Nelson continue to find success cross-training at tackle and guard, it may help Drake Jackson’s case for making the 53-man roster. Jackson looks to be a center-only prospect at this developmental stage, but with his primary competition for the reserve center spot (Evan Brown, Non-Football Injury) unable to practice, being only a center may not matter—especially with Jackson’s upside.
With the teams focusing on some third-down concepts today, we saw a few wrinkles with the front-seven, including giving Julian Okwara some fun looks at different spots on the field. Julian is firmly behind his brother (Romeo Okwara) and Trey Flowers on the depth chart, but it’s very possible he is the first man off the bench when either of them needs a breather.
Speaking of Romeo, he looks incredibly comfortable in his new role. He’s easily dropped into coverage and is making noise as a pass rusher. He had at least two forced fumbles today and made the offensive line work—which is exactly what coach Campbell is counting on.
“The best thing for (Penei Sewell) is going to be Romeo Okwara. That is the absolute best. That actually gives me hope because I know Romeo is going to give him a full day’s work every day, walkthrough to the finish of practice, start to end. (Sewell’s) going to get somebody that’s got length and a motor. (Okwara’s) crafty, knows how to use his skills. He’s going to force this guy to get better fast.”
As Jeremy Reisman identified in his “5 who impressed” article, Shaun Dion Hamilton is taking advantage of Reeves-Maybin being absent from practice. He has consistently found his way on the field with the second team—next to Jahlani Tavai in base and Derrick Barnes in subpackages—and has really improved his chances of making the 53-man roster. He has positive marks all over my notebook.
Barnes wasn’t the only rookie to see the field earlier than the previous two days. Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, and Ifeatu Melifonwu also got reps with the second team at different points during scrimmage drills today.
I don’t want to keep beating the same drum about the secondary but the hype surrounding Jeff Okudah is real and Mike Ford continues to make plays from the nickel spot.
“I definitely think that Mike’s found a more comfortable spot (at nickel),” Tracy Walker said of Ford. “I’m not saying he’s a bad (outside) corner, but I feel like he’s a much better nickel... He’s definitely been working, grinding to improve every day, which is great to see. To see him be so comfortable and relaxed, and be able to understand this defense, and be able to make plays, it’s a great thing to see.”
With C.J. Moore back on the field today, he was able to return to the second team, but it’s clear he’ll have some competition from second-year safeties Bobby Price and Jalen Elliott.
Moore also returned to his traditional spot at PP (Personal Protector) on punts and is still being backed up by Elliott and UDFA WR Sage Surratt.