Technically, the Detroit Lions’ organized team activities (OTAs) began on Tuesday. However, those practices were quietly held behind closed doors. Later this week, the Lions will open doors to the media, giving us a first look at the full Lions 2022 roster (of players who decide to participate in these voluntary practices).
As always at this time of year, there are more questions than answers with this team. But there is a noticeable swell of excitement among the fanbase right now, and many will likely be searching for any signs of validation for their optimism. OTAs will be the first real chance to fuel that fire or throw some cold water on top of the burning flame.
Here are the top 10 things I’ll be watching during the team’s four weeks of practice that follow.
Cornerback room injury situation and depth chart
Perhaps the most intriguing story of OTAs will be the status of Jeff Okudah. All offseason, we’ve seen clips of him getting progressively faster and more agile as he rehabs from his September Achilles injury. Last week, Okudah returned to the practice field, but his level of participation was not decipherable from still photographs. Will he be participating in any way during OTAs? And if so, will it be at cornerback, or will the Lions be trying him at safety, as many have suggested may be best for the third-year player? At the very least, it seems like a press conference with the media is in line for Okudah, which should give us some insight into the last eight months of his life.
Okudah’s return would shake up the Lions' depth chart, which is already difficult to read. Amani Oruwariye is a locked-in starter, but who will play on the opposite side? Is it second-year corner Ifeatu Melifonwu, free agent signing Mike Hughes, or is it Jerry Jacobs—whom we presume is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December? The young corner promised earlier this month that he’ll be back “sooner than you think.” He, too, was spotted on the field during offseason workouts, so maybe he participates during OTAs.
Finally, there’s the nickel position, which is just as unsettled as any. Does last year’s undrafted rookie AJ Parker hold his spot, or will seventh-round pick Chase Lucas challenge for the job? Or will the Lions consider Hughes more of a nickel? Is this where Will Harris fits in?
So many questions. So few answers.
Jared Goff growth
This one is a little more straightforward. Last year, the Lions' offense looked lost and broken from the minute they stepped on the practice field. This year, most of the excuses are gone. It’s Year 2 under this coaching staff—even with a “new” offensive coordinator. The offensive line is fully healthy. And, more importantly, the Lions have better weapons surrounding their quarterback.
Jared Goff is undoubtedly in a make-or-break season. If he struggles, the Lions will almost certainly be on the search for a new franchise quarterback next offseason, and Goff may struggle to find a starting job elsewhere. If he shows signs of being that quarterback that he was in 2017 and 2018 in Los Angeles, the Lions could very well have their quarterback of the future.
With stakes that big and a supporting cast most quarterbacks would be happy with, the stage is set for Goff to display whatever potential is there.
DJ Chark impact
One of those additional weapons at Goff’s disposal is free agent pickup DJ Chark. Like Goff, Chark has a lot to prove this year. Injuries have shortened each of his last two seasons, and after missing 13 games last season, he’s hungry to take the field again.
“Being out watching the whole football season go by makes you, it gives you a lot of feelings. One feeling is hunger,” Chark said in March. “I really, really, can’t wait to get out there and be the best that I can be. I’m not afraid to fail. I just want to give my best, so that’s what I’m coming here to do.”
With first-round pick Jameson Williams almost certainly sidelined until, at least, training camp, now is the time for Chark to build chemistry with Goff and prove he can still be a viable WR 1 option.
Aidan Hutchinson impact
While we’ll have to hold most of our first impressions of Hutchinson until the pads come on during training camp, it will be fascinating to see how he initially holds up against Detroit’s formidable tackle duo of Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker. Those battles will be can’t-miss when the pads come on, but they’re still likely to be entertaining during OTAs.
With Romeo Okwara likely sidelined during OTAs, Hutchinson should be expected to rep with the first team right away, so it won’t take long to see some fireworks.
Levi Onwuzurike's health and growth
Onwuzurike was undoubtedly the most disappointing of Brad Holmes’ draft picks last season. A second-round pick, Onwuzurike struggled to find his groove and make an impact in Year 1.
But now we have important context: Onwuzurike was dealing with a back injury that made it difficult to even sit down during team meetings. Now he’s had substantial time to rest and build some lower-body strength to take the strain off that back. Additionally, the Lions’ transition to a more attacking defensive front should better play to his strengths.
Coaches have already sung praises for Onwuzurike’s commitment to strength-building this offseason, but it still has to translate on the field. Will we see any flashes during OTAs?
Who will be TE2?
The Lions’ search for a capable second tight end has stretched several seasons now. The closest they got was Darren Fells last year, but he wanted out midway through the season.
The candidates this year to complement T.J. Hockenson: free agent addition Garrett Griffin, last year's undrafted free agent Brock Wright, and fifth-round rookie James Mitchell. At this point, I couldn’t even tell you who the odds-on favorite is to win the job for Week 1. Mitchell has the potential to win the job long-term, but he’s coming off a torn ACL and did not participate during rookie minicamp. It sounds like he’s close to returning, but Detroit may keep him out of OTAs to be safe.
Defensive scheme changes noticeable?
When head coach Dan Campbell let it slip that Detroit would be adopting more four-men defensive fronts, it garnered a lot of attention. However, since then, just about every defensive coach has downplayed its significance, noting that a lot of these changes were made towards the end of last season.
If a four-down front is their base, there are a lot of questions to then answer. How will that change the role of the nose tackles on the roster? Will Alim McNeill be effective as a three-tech? Does John Penisini have a significant role anymore? How often will players like Aidan Hutchinson and Romeo Okwara (when healthy) have their hand in the dirt vs. being a standing-up pass rusher? And how will this impact players like Julian Okwara and rookie Justin Houston, who are better stand-up edge players than down defensive linemen?
What’s different on offense?
Amon-Ra St. Brown offered one of the most interesting quotes this offseason when talking about the offensive scheme.
“I would definitely say it’s different than last year. Definitely new language. You got to kind of start over. Obviously there’s a little bit of rollover from last year, but not much. [Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson] revamped it, kind of made it his own. It’s like a new language, it takes a minute, but once we get it all down, it’s going to be easy for us.”
Campbell later noted that there would be more tempo in and out of the huddle.
So what kind of changes will they show the media during OTAs? They’re likely still early in the install phase of the new offense, and they’re likely to keep it vanilla in front of reporters, but will there be any noticeable philosophical differences? More pass heavy? Any neat formations that we haven’t seen before? NFL teams are very secretive about these sorts of things, and some specifics are off-limits for reporting, but with Johnson now at the helm full-time, there should be some visible differences worth reporting.
Which Day 3 rookie could be headed for playing time?
There has already been a fair amount of hype around all four of the Lions’ Day 3 picks in the draft. Tight end James Mitchell, linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, edge/linebacker James Houston and cornerback Chase Lucas all have visible paths to the 53-man roster and maybe even some playing time beyond special teams in 2022. But where will they stand on the depth chart here in May, and how much progress can they make through mandatory minicamp?
This is their first chance to make a true impression on the coaching staff and potentially climb their way up the ranks before training camp.
How will the linebacker room play out?
The Lions did not make any aggressive personnel moves at the linebacker position, leaving an interesting competition ahead. At inside linebacker, it looks like Alex Anzalone will have a starting position on lock. Behind him, Malcolm Rodriguez and maybe even Jarrad Davis will battle for a reserve role. Derrick Barnes likely enters OTAs as the favorite for the other starting role, but free agent addition Chris Board shouldn’t be far behind, and last year’s (brief) camp darling Shaun Dion Hamilton will be in the conversation, too.
There also appears to be a situational role for an edge defender among the linebacker crew that will feature a camp battle between the likes of Davis, James Houston, and Natrez Patrick (and maybe Julian Okwara?), among others. Just another potentially new wrinkle of this defense to keep an eye on.