The Detroit Lions are in the middle of their 2023 rookie minicamp, and on Saturday, they opened their practice facility doors to the media.
In addition to the eight players selected as part of the 2023 Draft class, the Lions also had their 15 undrafted free agents on the field, 10 players trying out for a spot on the roster, and three 2022 rookies who qualified to attend based on lack of playing time last season—including OL Obinna Eze, OL Darrin Paulo, and TE Derrick Deese Jr.
Unfortunately, there were four players unable to practice due to injuries, with the only significant injury being to quarterback Hendon Hooker, who is recovering from ACL surgery. Jahmyr Gibbs was nursing an ankle injury, Branch was sitting out after practicing on Friday, and UDFA Steven Gilmore was working off to the side with trainers. All three injuries were considered minor as the team is being cautious with their investments.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Lions drafted rookies did at Saturday’s minicamp, as well as a few other players who stood out.
RB Jahmyr Gibbs
When asked about the ankle injury that was keeping him off the field, Gibbs responded, “I’m straight, I’m good,” then followed that up by confirming that the Lions were keeping him out as a precautionary measure.
Gibbs ended up spending most of practice on the side making observations, then told the media following practice that his current focus is to “learn the playbook, take mental reps. I think the game is more mental than physical. That’ll be good for me.”
Hopefully, he’ll be ready to go for OTAs in two weeks.
LB Jack Campbell
Campbell lined up at the MIKE and for the most part, he looked solid and athletic, especially in team drills. There are still several nuances about the position that linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard needed to point out, but to Campbell’s credit, he made those adaptations quickly.
The clip below is an example of Campbell’s ability to make corrections. In the rep prior to this one, Campbell dropped back and to his left, but when he opened his hips, he didn’t properly position his feet in order to reach his coverage target. Sheppard showed him a minor tweak, and Campbell put it into practice.
“Shep’s a great coach,” Campbell said after practice. “When he steps on the field, there’s nothing more important to him than performing at the highest level. And I like that kind of coaching style. He’ll get into you when he needs to get into you, and just to bring out the best in you, because he loves you as a player. For me, (I) try to take the message of what he is trying to say, and then apply it, and not make the same mistake twice. So, he’s a fantastic coach and these past two days have been awesome.”
Campbell moves very well for a player his size, showing an impressive downhill burst that featured his burst and aggressiveness. He showed above-average dip and bend when blitzing, as well as power when engaging blocks. As a defensive leader, he was vocal and directed traffic well.
TE Sam LaPorta
Sam LaPorta was easily the best player on the field at Saturday’s practice. He ran precise routes, showed soft hands, and (likely) caught more passes than any other player on the field. When he puts his foot in the ground and cut, there is no wasted movement and he is often leaving the defender in a trail position. Some of his crossing routes were simply uncoverable for any of the defenders on the field.
The show-stealing moment of the day was during a special teams drill when offensive and defensive players went one-on-one. In the drill, there was an “alley” for the offensive player to run down and the defender was asked to get hands on him to simulate a tackle (no pads on Saturday, so tackling was not permitted).
LaPorta and Campbell faced off several times in this special teams drill with LaPorta winning the majority. But after LaPorta beat Campbell decisively on one rep, the players called for a quick rematch, so the duo lined up once again. It was over in an instant, as LaPorta executed a nasty dead leg move that left Campbell grasping at air and LaPorta literally pointing back at him as he ran past.
“Competition brings out the best in both people,” Campbell said of LaPorta. “Hats off to him. He’s a hell of a player. You guys know that. All you can do is keep going every rep, give it your all, focus, fundamentally sound. Obviously, I’ll look back on it, there’s probably something—there’s definitely something—better I could have done, but it was a hell of a play by him.”
LaPorta was quick to point out that while he got the better of Campbell today, these reps tend to even out throughout practices: “You guys just saw that one (rep). I win some and lose some, and he does, too.”
DB Brian Branch
An undisclosed injury kept Branch from participating on Saturday, leaving him disappointed that he was not able to improve his game:
“Yeah. Hate that I’m not practicing... yesterday I practiced, and today—like each practice, I want to get better. And just knowing that I wasn’t able to practice today. I wasn’t able to get better or play with my teammates.”
Branch did note that he is focused on studying the Lions’ playbook every day and trying to learn as many positions as possible so he can get on the field—though he did point out that nickel and safety is where most of his attention is right now.
QB Hendon Hooker
Hooker was unable to practice due to his ACL recovery, but he was as involved as he could possibly be. All practice, he was taking mental reps, working off the side with coaches, and spent the majority of his time attached to the hip of assistant quarterbacks coach J.T. Barrett.
“We’re just taking a different route, just relax(ing),” Hooker said after Day 2 of Lions rookie minicamp. “So of the routes on air, it’s kind of tough, because I want to do things that I can’t really do right now. In terms of just speeding my feet up, putting a lot of pressure on that left leg, and trying to change directions that I can’t do right now.”
The only time I didn’t see Hooker next to Barrett was when he was next to quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell or when he was encouraging his teammates after a drill. That type of encouragement didn’t go unnoticed by players who have already noticed Hooker’s leadership, noting that he has already made a strong, positive impression on them.
DT Brodric Martin
Martin is as big and long as advertised, towering over the other defensive linemen at camp. He got a lot of work at the 1-technique on Saturday, and while his primary focus is on run defense, he did get a “sack” during practice, mentioning that he believes he thinks that part of his game will “surprise some people.”
One of the criticisms of Martin was that, at 6-foot-5, he had trouble staying low and gaining leverage, but some of the defensive line drills forced him to stay low and he showed nice mobility, illustrating that it’s a part of his game that is within his reach.
Martin made sure to note that while there are parts of his game that can be developed, he is motivated to not only make the 53-man roster but to be taking meaningful snaps.
“I want to play this year,” Martin said. “I want to do this now. I know I came from a small school and all that. But I’m looking to play each and every time. Nothing about waiting. I don’t want to wait to play. I want to play now. I want to be in Kansas City on the first day.”
Martin seems very aware of his situation and knows the value of being on the practice field. On a play early in the day, he injured his elbow. After getting seen by trainers, he returned to game action. Trainers then brought out an arm brace as a precautionary measure and Martin put it on as was right back in the mix.
“The best ability is availability, so I need to be out there,” Martin noted.
OL Colby Sorsdal
A right tackle at William and Mary, Sorsdal was announced as a guard, and listed there on the official roster. And sure enough, when he took the field on Saturday, he took every rep at right guard, and quite frankly, looked very natural.
“Everything happens so much faster when you’re at guard,” Sorsdal said. “Things get on you real quick and that’s one thing I need to adjust to. But I like having something new to work on, challenging myself, and I feel like I am doing that out here.”
So how does he shorten that learning curve?
“A lot of film study,” Sorsdal continued. “Right now it’s a lot of film, a lot of getting the plays right, and getting into the playbook. So yeah, right now it’s on the up.”
To his credit, everything looked pretty easy for Sorsdal. He is a smooth mover and he held his anchor without much problem against the competition across from him—note: he didn’t square up across from Martin that I saw.
WR Antoine Green
An easy mover, Green was taking reps on the outside and in the slot on Saturday. He gets up to speed quickly and showed nice hands, bringing in all the passes I saw thrown his way. Green was mainly a vertical option at North Carolina, but he showed more range than just that in practice, which is something he is working towards.
“I wanna be able to do it all,” Green said. “Our offense at UNC, I was a vertical threat for that offense, mainly. I just wanna show that I can do everything else outside of running that deep ball.”
Green also looked pretty solid during special teams drills. There wasn’t a ton of work on display, but with the few reps he has, he got the job done.
Also of note, Green had a minor left leg injury during practice, but after getting looked at by a trainer, he looked back to normal after a couple of series of reps.
RB Mohamed Ibrahim
With Gibbs unable to practice, Ibrahim was the only running back on the roster at camp and he put in a ton of work. In addition to being on the field for every team rep, he didn’t take any reps off during individual or special teams drills.
Ibrahim caught quite a few passes, showed nice burst in his routes, and stood out early in special teams drills—though he seemed to get gassed about three-quarters of the way through as he squared off more than anyone.
Overall, it was a solid day and a nice display of endurance.
CB/NB Starling Thomas V
Starling Thomas’ experience on special teams showed up on Saturday, as he was easily the most dominant player in those drills. His quickness was noticeable, he played with controlled speed, and showed starting gunner capabilities. There’s a lot to like in Thomas’ skillset here and if he keeps it up in camp, he’ll have a legit shot at making the 53-man roster.
The Lions used four different OL combinations at Saturday’s practice:
Beyond noting that Soradal took every rep at right guard, it was interesting to see the Lions leaning on Obinna Eze at three different positions. If the second-year offensive lineman is going to have a shot at a roster spot, this sort of flexibility is encouraging.
Right tackle Ryan Swoboda is a half helmet taller than everyone else. If you make it out to training camp in the fall, he’s incredibly noticeable.
One final note. The Lions have two roster spots open, and while one of them may be held for kicker competition, the last spot could go to a tryout player. Of the 10 try-out players at Lions’ camp, wide receiver Darrius Shepard stood out the most. He looked very quick and fast in the slot, and did well in special teams drills.