Prior to the Detroit Lions’ final minicamp practice, coach Dan Campbell was asked which players he thought arrived to Allen Park most improved from where they were the previous year. Immediately, Campbell was hesitant to even answer the question given the heavy limitations they have on practice thus far.
“That’s a tricky one because, there again, with where we’re at and what we’re doing, not having pads, the style of practice,” Campbell said.
He’s got a point. Offensive and defensive line play is incredibly hard to evaluate without pads. Running backs—especially ones who win with physicality and contact balance—cannot show off their best traits if the defense isn’t even tackling. And the truth is, well over half of practice is run at walkthrough speed.
Ultimately, though, Campbell acquiesced and gave out five names. Here’s what he said about each.
LB Derrick Barnes
Campbell pointed to Barnes again after talking about him at length on Wednesday.
“Barnes is having a good spring, and I just bring this up again, nobody is counting Barnes out,” Campbell said. “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.”
Barnes has consistently been getting first-team reps at the WILL linebacker position next to Alex Anzalone. While the expectation is first-round draft pick Jack Campbell will eventually unseat him, Barnes has looked comfortable in his place, and Anzalone has previously talked about how big of strides he’s made, coming in from Purdue with little experience as an off-ball linebacker.
“I feel like mentally, I’ve never seen—I’m going into my seventh year—that big of a mental transition from a college to a pro level,” Anzalone said. “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.”
QB Nate Sudfeld
In several of my observations over the past month, I’ve noted how Sudfeld looks in command of the second-team offense and has a decent amount of arm talent to make most throws. Campbell didn’t expand much on Sudfeld, but simply said the backup quarterback has “had a good spring.”
Earlier in OTAs, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson expressed his confidence in their quarterback depth.
“I love the room right now,” Johnson said. “There is a great camaraderie in there and I think that is really important when you need to find that backup quarterback position. It’s not only a guy that can go in there and win games, but for the majority of the season, if all things go right, he is there to support that starter and we have that right now.”
S Ifeatu Melifonwu
Campbell was asked specifically about Melifonwu early in Thursday’s press conference, then brought him up again, saying he’s “shown up a little bit.”
Both Campbell and Melifonwu himself talked about how much injuries over his first two seasons (he’s missed 17 games thus far) have stunted this opportunity to develop.
“The injuries hurt him, not being able to get the reps, the repetitions, added time on task,” Campbell said. “So, this is one of the few times that we’ve had him for a significant amount of time, consistently, consecutively, and so that in itself is paying dividends right now. So we see growth, he is. He’s coming along.”
Melifonwu admitted the last two seasons of changing positions from corner to safety and the recurring injuries have been “a little frustrating,” but he says he feels more comfortable as a safety than he ever has.
“Last year, everything was new. It was just, I had never played safety before, so it was just a big transition,” Melifonwu said. “The rotations and fitting in the gaps. I feel like, now, I’m thinking less because I have it down. I’m more comfortable this year.”
CB Starling Thomas V
Thomas is an undrafted rookie, so it’s tough to say he’s improved from last season. However, when Campbell gives him an unprompted shoutout, it’s notable.
“I’ll tell you what, for a rookie, Starling (is) showing up a little bit,” Campbell said. “He made a play yesterday, but he’s made a few plays now. He’s showing some things.”
Thomas was one of my standouts during Wednesday’s practice, and the play Campbell is referencing is the interception seen below:
Thomas could make a run at a roster spot due to his incredible athleticism and strong instincts. It’s a crowded room these days, but if he can show he has special teams value as well, don’t be surprised if you continue to hear his name.
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
I’m not sure if St. Brown can continue to be “most improved” given that he’s been already been one of the most consistent and best players on the team. But Campbell had to shout him out one more time on Thursday.
“Saint is as steady as they come, you’d be shocked if he had a bad day type-stuff.