The Detroit Lions opened their 2023 mandatory minicamp on Tuesday, welcoming in the media for the first of three practices this week.
For the most part, the Lions roster is healthy as only 10 of their 90 players missed practice entirely, while another four were limited participants. That left a lot of players on the field for a spread-out practice that consisted of a walkthrough, individual drills, as well as team 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s.
Let’s get started with our observations from the day.
With Hendon Hooker still unable to practice, the Lions cycled through their three remaining quarterbacks. Jared Goff was the obvious focus, Nate Sudfeld getting work as the primary backup, and UDFA rookie Adrian Martinez with the third string.
Goff drew praise from coach Dan Campbell in his morning press conference, with the coach commenting that he believes Goff is playing better now than he did with the L.A. Rams—even in his Super Bowl season.
Goff looked solid today, and while he is still building chemistry with some of the younger players, he remains in lockstep with veterans like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, and Brock Wright. Goff wasn’t spectacular, but he also wasn’t nearly as bad as some publications have suggested. Overall, he was about where I expected him to be at this stage of the spring.
Sudfeld was the top reserve quarterback and has a legitimate NFL arm, while Martinez struggled with accuracy when he ratcheted up his power but lost way too much throwing speed when he focused on accuracy. There is a clear separation between the two.
Once again, rookie Sam LaPorta stole the show. When comparing him against his fellow tight ends during routes and individual drills—a true apples-to-apples comparison—he was smoother, faster, and more consistent in his routes and catches.
LaPorta started the day with the second group during walkthroughs but saw snaps with the first, second, and third teams. Gaining separation was challenging for most of the Lions' offensive players, but LaPorta was one of the more natural at that skill. He caught multiple touchdowns in team drills, including elevating over Ifeatu Melifonwu (who was in good position but facing away from the ball) and powerfully snatching it from over the top of his body.
Tap in if you're a LaPorta supporta ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/8GwEHOECme— Detroit Lions (@Lions) June 6, 2023
Rounding out the tight ends group, Wright had a solid day, Shane Zylstra looked a bit less athletic than normal (but that could be the LaPorta effect), and Derrick Deese showed me more today than I saw all of last training camp combined.
At running back, it was Craig Reynolds leading drills and first-team snaps, but there was a healthy rotation, including a lot of Jahmyr Gibbs with the ones during team drills. In individual drills, Reynolds was first up, and Gibbs was fourth in line, but that was by design, as each was receiving passes from Goff in the rotation. Gibbs surprisingly struggled with few catches during individuals—even audibly expressing his shock/frustration—but in team activities, he corrected the issue and was consistently solid.
As mentioned in the quarterbacks section, the veteran returning receivers (St. Brown, Reynolds, and Raymond) looked solid, while chemistry was still being worked out with the new arrivals.
The big question on most fans' minds is: how is the chemistry between Goff and Jameson Williams? And my answer is: in progress.
Like with Gibbs, Williams had a hard time hauling in passes from Goff during individual drills and even repeated some drills in order to try and correct the issue. But even if they corrected the issue on one route, they’d run into another issue on the next.
It’s hard to tell exactly what the issue is, but from what I saw on Tuesday, I believe it’s a combination of Williams having elite speed/athleticism—which makes everything happen faster—yet being too inconsistent in his route tree to allow for a timing route to work. Because his routes aren’t always identical in their patterns—and because he’s so athletic—Goff's anticipation of where Williams will be is a bit off, resulting in incompletions.
On the plus side, in team drills, Williams and Goff were on the same page several times and made a few nice connections on the outside at mid-range and down the seam. Experience will help the duo.
With Frank Ragnow still out at center, his reps continued to go to Ross Pierschbacher, while center/guard Graham Glasgow was once again rotating with Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right guard while the Lions take his return to the field slow. Matt Nelson was the third primary reserve to get into the first-string rotation, seeing time at left guard and both tackle spots, allowing Jonah Jackson, Penei Sewell, and Taylor Decker to get some rest. Those eight players were consistently with the top unit.
Among the deeper reserves, there was some positional cross-training going on—like Logan Stenberg continuing to rep at center and both guard spots—but it’s worth noting that fifth-round pick Colby Sorsdal was almost exclusively at right guard and Germain Ifedi was at right tackle, while Obinna Eze spent a lot of time at left tackle.
While it’s just the spring and there is plenty of time for things to change, this is how I see the offensive line stacking up at this time:
The defensive line did a lot of rotating personnel and altering front size, switching between 4 and 5-man looks.
On the edge, Aidan Hutchinson was a consistent starter, while the other side saw a combination of a variety of players, from John Cominsky (walkthroughs only) to Charles Harris to Romeo Okwara. Their veteran skill sets allowed for lots of side switching and matching up, and on one play in the red zone, Hutchinson ate Nelson’s lunch on his way to a “sack,” while Romeo had a terrific batted-down pass at the line of scrimmage.
On the interior Christian Covington was starting at nose tackle while Isaiah Buggs was repping with the second team. It’s worth noting that Buggs was not practicing last week, so he may be reacclimating, but the fact that Covington was the choice to replace him was worth paying attention to.
When the Lions adjusted to a 5-man front, they brought in a SAM linebacker, with Julian Okwara getting first crack, followed by James Houston, and Anthony Pittman even got in on the fray with the reserve teams. Don’t get too caught up on the order here as the Lions like to reward seniority and Okwara was the starter in this role before going on injured reserve last season.
Alex Anzalone (MIKE) and Derrick Barnes (WILL) continue to rep with the first team while Malcolm Rodrigues sits out, leaving Jack Campbell (MIKE) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (WILL) to run with the second team, as well as Trevor Nowaske and Pittman with the threes.
While Campbell is expected to continue to play with the second team in the spring, his speed and anticipation allow him to flow to the ball with impressive pace. It sure seems like a matter of time before he pushes for reps with the starters.
Man, are they talkative.
The Lions have been slowly adding players that like to trash talk and now they have a starting five that will chirp and back it up on the field. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is a lot of fun. Not only is he flying all over the field during plays, but he is dancing and engaging with his teammates in between plays, hyping them up and encouraging them.
And it’s infectious.
Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph have really come out of their shell and been very vocal as well, while Jerry Jacobs is one of the louder players on the field and has a different celebration with each of his teammates.
“They have a lot of confidence, and that’s not a bad thing as long as it’s directed in the right place and they’re focused on their job, but having a good time with it,” Campbell said in his morning presser. “I think that stuff can be contagious if again, it’s not overboard and not taking away from their job.”
Cam Sutton may be the quietest of the bunch, but he makes a lot of noise on the playing field. The Lions closed out the day with red zone drills and the offensive lining up at the 8-yard line. In these final drills, Sutton was basically perfect in coverage, forcing an incompletion against St. Brown (pushing him out of bounds before he could complete a catch) and locking down LaPorta on a quick throw in the slot.
While Sutton and Jacobs were the starters, it may not be long before we see Emmanuel Moseley on the field. Moseley went through walkthroughs with the first team (rotating with the other two) and seemed to be itching to get on the field, practically jumping around on the sideline.
Player Spotlight: Brian Branch
“I would say that he’s a good player now,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said about Brian Branch at OTAs. “He’s a very instinctive player. He’s a very aware player. I’m glad we got him. 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.”
It didn’t take long for Branch to show the media exactly what Glenn was talking about.
On Tuesday, Branch lined up at several different spots including safety, in the slot, and at the linebacker level. He made a terrific pass breakup in the corner of the end zone on Maurice Alexander during 11-on-11s, then got Alexander's number again in 7-on-7s.
In the later play, Branch passed off his coverage of Tom Kennedy, then dropped into a zone. As Alexander pulled away from his coverage he crossed into Branch’s zone and the defensive back patiently stalked the receiver, then attacked the ball as it was thrown, violently breaking up the pass and deflecting the ball away. Branch’s intelligence and awareness, were on full display as he executed his assignment with flawless precision.
He may not start but he will play.
Overall, the Lions had very nice weather for this practice, but almost on cue, as soon as it was time for the special teams to take the field, the wind picked up and it impacted some of the kicks. Even Jack Fox, who was working on directional punting, had a punt of two get away from him.
The placekickers had a harder time though. At last week’s OTAs, Parker Romo looked to have an early edge. But on Tuesday, he missed short and wide from 54 yards, then again from 45. He did successfully make kicks from 43 (twice) and 38 yards, but he looked like he was forcing things. Meanwhile, Riley Patterson hit the upright from 48 yards (bounced back into the field) but was successful from 45, 43 (twice), and 38 yards.
This kicker battle may not be close to over yet either, as Campbell is happy with the competition they currently have:
“I mean it’s open,” Campbell said. “We’ve told all those guys it’s a competition. That’s why we have three guys right now. All three of those guys are very much live. We wanted to make – we’ve been trying to make an emphasis of competition at every position and kicker is no different and those guys know that.”
We also got to see a few other specific special teams roles, including the personal protector (PP) and gunner competition.
With C.J. Moore no longer on the roster, the PP competition is between three safeties: Brady Breeze, Saivion Smith, and Brian Branch. Special teams may be Breeze’s and Smith’s best paths to a roster spot, so these will be important reps for them, while Branch may end up winning the job because he is a lock for the roster.
At gunner, the pairing and rotations looked like this:
- First team: Will Harris and Jerry Jacobs
- Second team: Tom Kennedy and Starling Thomas V (rookie)
- Third team: Dylan Drummond (rookie) and Khalil Dorsey
Like at PP, the second and third-team players need these reps to help them make the roster, while Harris and Jacobs are likely headed for the roster and could end up being the starters.