The 2023 Detroit Lions training camp is underway, and as we do every fall, we will have plenty of observations for fans to consume. Let’s take a closer look at what happened during the first day of camp as the players acclimated back to football.
Just three players opened camp on an injury list with Hendon Hooker and Marvin Jones on the NFI list, along with Emmanuel Moseley on the PUP. Derrick Deese Jr. and DL Zach Morton, who were placed on the NFI ahead of today’s practice, were removed from the list and participating. Also of note, several injured players who were dealing with injuries last season were practice participants as well, including Tracy Walker, Frank Ragnow, and Levi Onwuzurike.
Lions edge roles expanding
While the Lions are in the first wave of the acclimation phase (90-minute practices without pads) and taking this slowly, there were a few notable changes from what we observed in the spring. The most notable was how the Lions were using their edge rushers, specifically Charles Harris.
The Lions opened practices in their base defense with Aidan Hutchinson and John Cominsky in their returning starting roles but there were shifts in how and who they used. At times, Hutchinson would shift to closed end and Charles Harris would jump in with the starters on the open side. Other shifts of the front saw the Lions bring Cominsky or Josh Paschal back at the 5-technique and Harris shifted out to the SAM.
Working at the SAM is a new wrinkle for Harris but it’s not far off from the role he had during his breakout 2021 season when he was a standup edge rusher. That being said, the SAM role comes with some responsibilities regarding coverage, which led to Harris working with the linebackers during some portions of individual drills. Make no mistake, Harris is still very much an edge rusher, but this expansion of duties could make him a significantly more important player in 2023 than most expected, and could give the Lions the ability to utilize more 5-man fronts than originally anticipated.
When the Lions deployed the SAM with the second-team defense, James Houston and Julian Okwara split reps. Okwara started practice repping ahead of Houston, but it wasn’t long before they swapped spots in the hierarchy. Maybe that switch was by design, but it’s also worth recognizing that Houston made several solid plays dropping into coverage (something he clearly needed to improve on), while Okwara was on the wrong side of a coach correction immediately before the switch happened. This will continue to be a battle to watch.
Interior defensive line can roll three lines
The Lions' interior defensive line has consistently been a spot most have pointed to with some concern, but with Onwuzurike back in the mix, it gives them notable depth. Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs were starting (as expected), with Christian Covington and Brodric Martin on the second line. Onwuzurike got involved with the threes, alongside Benito Jones, but it was clear they were taking it slow with him.
Hybrid nickel is the new normal
Based on the Lions’ offseason moves to sign C.J. Gardner-Johnson and draft Brian Branch, it was projected that Detroit would lean on the pair to hold down the nickel spot and that came to fruition on Day 1. Gardner-Johnson was with the first team and showed the positional range we expected from him, lining up over a receiver, attacking the line, and dropping to safety.
Branch also saw some positional movement, but again, as expected, he spent time in the slot and in the box at the linebacker level. And in an effort to prove you can never have enough of a good thing, the Lions even deployed both of them on the field at the same time. I need more of this.
Hybrid’s range impact safeties
With the hybrid defensive backs showing range, the Lions typically rotated just three safeties through their first two teams, with Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph starting, then both rotated opposite Ifeatu Melifonwu on the second team. These three are the clear top three options at this time.
With Moseley unable to participate, that opened the door for Jerry Jacobs to snag a starting role opposite Cam Sutton without much competition. Will Harris, who spent most of last season in the slot, was outside the majority of practice, backing up Sutton’s role with the second team. Opposite Harris on the second team was UDFA rookie Starling Thomas V who is looking more and more like he is running away from the rest of the competition.
After the first two teams, Chase Lucas often paired up with Thomas (pulling double duty), leaving Jarren Williams and UDFA Steven Gilmore with the final group.
Open battle for starting RG?
While the Lions took things slow with a few of their offensive linemen who were recovering from injury in the spring, most were a full go on Day 1. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been nursing a back injury since last training camp, but most indicators suggested he would retain his starting role at right guard. But on Sunday, It was Graham Glasgow who opened as the first-team right guard and Vaitai took his snaps with the second team.
Another minor change on the second team saw Matt Nelson repping at left tackle and allowing Germaine Ifedi to stick at right tackle. Ross Pierschbacher was at center, and Darrin Paulo surprisingly got the nod at second-team left guard over Kayode Awosika.
One curious inconsistency was Logan Stenberg’s usage. After repping with the “starters” during walk-throughs—when they use eight linemen—Stenberg was dropped all the way down to a rotational role on the third string. This is a pretty drastic shift and will be something to keep an eye on moving forward.
No Denzel Mims... just yet
While Mims was working during individual drills with the wide receivers, he is still acclimating to the Lions' playbook and was kept out of team drills. He made a nice first impression on his teammates, but it’s going to take a bit of time to get him up to speed.
“Yeah, yeah big, tall, and fast,” Jared Goff said of Mims after practice. “And we’ll see. He’s a guy who obviously had different things happen throughout his career, but lands here, we’re excited about him and I’m certainly excited about him. I can’t wait to work with him, I’ve told him that, and know he brings an element to our team that we can use and as soon as he gets caught up to speed, it’ll be exciting to see him work with us.”
As for the rest of the pass catchers, the Lions used a combination of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds, and Kalif Raymond with the starters, and all seemed to be working well with Goff during team drills. Amongst the reserves, no surprise that Tom Kennedy stood out during team drills, while Maurice Alexander looked smooth during punt return drills.
More skill players
The running back rotation also played out as expected with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs splitting starter reps, with Craig Reynolds taking RB3 reps. Justin Jackson stood out most on special teams where he was the top option as Jack Fox’s personal protector (PP) during punt drills.
At tight end, the Lions rotated Brock Wright, rookie Sam LaPorta, and Shane Zylstra through the top unit, but it was LaPorta who caught my attention the most. He continues to flash on offense, picking up where he left off in the spring. James Mitchell was repping as TE4, which is a bit surprising, but he still has plenty of time to rise up the depth chart.
The Lions rotate their special teams units every practice and on Sunday the focus was on the punt return unit.
With Raymond coming off second-team All-Pro honors, the Lions went light at the punt returner spot. Raymond was first up, followed by St. Brown—who is used in emergency situations—and Alexander working to find a role on the roster. Gibbs also fielded some punt returns but was a clear fourth option they may have just been experimenting with.
The Lions ran a lot of players through gunners drills, but when it came time to run them in drills, it was Thomas and Branch in the starting roles. You can throw Branch’s 40-yard-dash time out the window because he was absolutely flying down the field. Thomas looks like a natural at gunner, but if Branch can lock down the other role, it could be a huge advantage when it comes to roster construction. The second-team gunners were Melifonwu and rookie wide receiver Antoine Green—another two players expected to have an inside edge for the roster.