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8 standouts from Detroit Lions OTAs, minicamp

These eight Detroit Lions players—including rookies Sam LaPorta and Brian Branch—stood out the most during 2023 OTAs and minicamp.

NFLPA Rookie Premiere Portrait Session Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions minicamp and OTAs are basically in the books. Some young players and those who are going through rehab will remain at the facility through this week, but for the most part, class is dismissed until late July.

The media attended a total of seven practices throughout offseason activities: one day of rookie minicamp, three OTA practices, and all three days of mandatory minicamp. Based on those observations, I have eight players who stood out the most.

Before I get into it, this is a list of players who made an impression on me, not necessarily a list of the best players. For example, Nate Sudfeld is on my list, but Jared Goff is not. That does not mean I think Sudfeld is better or even that he had a better camp than Goff. He just made the most positive impression on me compared to expectations. Additionally, there are a lot of positions that are not included in my list, because it is very hard to assess their play without 1-on-1 drills or padded practices. So positions like OL, DL, RB, and LB are tough to fully assess and are underrepresented on the list below.

QB Nate Sudfeld

Both Dan Campbell and quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell sung Sudfeld’s praises over the past couple weeks and I have to agree. I tried to come in with as few preconceived notions about Sudfeld as possible—after all, this was my first time actually seeing him fully practice—and I came away with more confidence in the backup position than I entered spring with.

Sudfeld has a strong enough arm to make most NFL throws, but even better, he looked in command of the offense. The Lions ran a lot of situational, end-of-game scenarios, and Sudfeld looked confident and fast with his play. Brunell called him an “intelligent, intelligent quarterback” and that seemed to translate to the field well.

TE Sam LaPorta

LaPorta was easily the best player during rookie minicamp, but his production didn’t stop there. Though he played almost exclusively with the second and third teams, the Lions second-round pick continued to look the part when the veterans arrived.

LaPorta’s athleticism is extremely easy to see on the field, and at times, he truly looks like another wideout rather than a tight end. But beyond his athleticism, he’s also got a pair of trusty hands.

I keep trying to talk myself down from LaPorta having a big rookie season given how rare it is at that position, but I’m not sure there was a more consistent player during all of camp than LaPorta.

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown

The first-team offense struggled for much of camp, but that does not include third-year receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. Sure, he’s already considered one of the team’s best players, but it truly is remarkable just how good he continues to be. He’s seemingly always open, and when the Lions ever need anywhere between 5-10 yards, he’s an automatic option.

St. Brown said he wants to develop his deep-ball game a little bit this year, but I didn’t see much of that on display yet. Still, as receivers coach Antwaan Randle-El said they’ll certainly be working on that going forward.

“We’ll do that and we have to, just from what we did last year and how do we improve on that?” Randle-El said. “Because maybe (defenders) are not extending to the sticks or they’re sitting on shorter routes, now we can go over the top with him.”

Can’t wait to see that.

LB Derrick Barnes

What impressed me about Barnes wasn’t so much what I saw on the field—again, linebacker play is a little tough to assess without pads. Instead, it was how everyone seemed to talk about him. Barnes was playing with the first-team offense even before Malcolm Rodriguez suffered an injury, and just about everyone noted how comfortable he looks.

Alex Anzalone:

He’s put in the work to really study the game and grow from an on-the-ball defender to a middle linebacker in the NFL. It’s way different. Yeah, it’s honestly remarkable how far he’s come.

Dan Campbell:

Barnes is having a good spring. And I just bring this up again, nobody is counting Barnes out. Nobody is counting Barnes out. And he’s going to get his opportunity, so and there again, there’s a reason you’ve got competition in your room, but he’s having a good spring.

LB coach Kelvin Sheppard

Light years. It’s been light years. I’m telling you right now, he’s not going away quietly. That is a player that I have seen walk in this building since we started Phase 2 and looked like a completely different player. I mean, a kid growing into a man, taking charge, holding people accountable, running the huddle, letting everybody know, ‘I know what I’m doing. Now let me help you out.’

Most people talk about a Year 2 jump for young players, but it makes a lot of sense for that to come a year later for Barnes, who played mostly edge at the college ranks.

Do I think Barnes will actually hold off Rodriguez and first-round pick Jack Campbell for a starting spot? Probably not. But I think Barnes is certainly heading towards at least having a significant role on defense in 2023.

CB Starling Thomas V

Thomas was identified early on as one of the team’s undrafted rookies who could make a play at the 53-man roster. And with Detroit dealing with a handful of injuries at the outside cornerback position, Thomas had the opportunity to play with the second-team defense often and made the most of those chances.

While I expected Thomas to impress with his speed and special teams potential, it was his feisty nature that stuck out to me. He was extremely physical in his coverage and sometimes pushed the boundaries of a “no-tackle” practice. The end result was a lot of passes broken up with a few pass interference penalties along the way. Still, I have to imagine that kind of mentality will endear him to this coaching staff.

DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson

Much has been made about Gardner-Johnson’s swagger on the field—and, yes, it’s immediately noticeable—but he’s also just a really, really good football player, and that much is clear. I could count the number of times Gardner-Johnson was beaten during all of offseason activities on a single hand.

Unfortunately, one-on-one drills aren’t allowed at this point in the offseason, but the battles between him and St. Brown are going to be absolutely amazing in training camp.

DB Brian Branch

Mostly playing nickel with the second or third-team defense, Branch looked like a man among boys. He’s already out there barking directions to the rest of the defense, and it’s clear the Lions plan on finding a role for him on defense this year. That isn’t speculation, that’s exactly what defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said.

“I can’t tell you exactly if he’s going to start or anything like that, but I’ll tell you what, he’ll have a role on this defense,” Glenn said.

Branch had a handful of breakups that I saw, but what I came away most intrigued by was his ability to blitz. His football instincts are very high, and it has allowed him to either disguise or perfectly time his blitz on several occasions. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s his early way into the defensive game plan in nickel or dime formations on obvious passing downs.

S Kerby Joseph

I cannot think of a single player who has taken a bigger Year 2 jump just in terms of confidence. Around this time last year, Joseph was an afterthought. He may play his rookie year, he may have to take an entire season to learn from the sidelines.

But after being forced into the lineup early and thriving, Joseph is entering this offseason with the swagger of a six-year veteran. He’s chirping at the offense, he’s hyping up his teammates, and—most importantly—he’s still playing at a very high level. There may not have been a practice that went by without a pass broken up by Joseph.

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