After holding an intense practice on Thursday, and with the Family Fest scrimmage on the docket for Saturday, the Detroit Lions went back to shells on Friday for their ninth practice of training camp. For the most part, they kept things a bit toned down and gave more meaningful reps to a few reserve players, looking to see if any would seize the opportunity.
Several veterans got the day off, while others saw light work. Amongst those not participating included Taylor Decker, D’Andre Swift, Jeff Okudah, and Julian Okwara. Okudah had his helmet during practice and may have participated in individual drills, but those were on the opposite side of the field from me and I may have missed them. Okwara was not in uniform, nor on the field at the beginning of practice, so it’s possible he may be dealing with a new injury we are not aware of. Other players like Frank Ragnow, T.J. Hockenson, and Jashon Cornell got in limited work during practice and took certain team series off.
Amongst the active players who are confirmed dealing with an injury, Quintez Cephus, Levi Onwuzurike, and Ryan McCollum, all remained out of practice. Cephus and McCollum were on the sidelines but not in uniform.
C.J. Moore passed his physical on Thursday, was removed from the NFI list on Friday, and returned to the practice field. As Moore re-acclimates, he will be participating in just individual drills and will be held out of team drills for the time being. There was no other movement among the remaining players on the PUP and NFI lists.
Coach Dan Campbell also gave an update on second-round pick Josh Paschal’s recovery, saying, “Where we thought he would be at this point, he’s ahead of schedule. He’s doing well, he’s a grinder man, like, we’re having to pull him back.”
In case you missed an of our previous observations:
Malcolm Rodriguez’s repping with the 1st and 2nd units
Well, it seemed like it was just a matter of time. Less than 10 practices into camp and sixth-round rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez was repping with the first and second teams on Friday.
If you’ve never been to an open practice at Allen Park, the Lions tend to start the day with a walkthrough, followed by team stretching, then individual drills, and finally they spend the majority of practice alternating between team drills and special teams work.
When the team opened the walkthrough portion of Friday, Rodriguez opened the day with first team at the MIKE linebacker spot. That’s quite a promotion for the rookie linebacker, who has mainly been repping with the third string, but one that was defiantly deserved.
“We’ve got a rookie linebacker in Rodriguez who—man—with the pads on, he showed up,” Campbell said on Wednesday. “His key and diagnose, and coming downhill, and hitting the way that (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) AG and (linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard) Shep want those guys to hit it and playing an aggressive style. But yet, he can play in coverage as well.”
Rodriguez seemed to turn a corner this week, making countless splash plays once the pads came on. While the promotion is certainly warranted, he is still in the developmental process, and as Campbell mentioned on Tuesday, at his size Rodriguez needs to be mistake-free in order to keep himself in plays.
“So, I think the big thing is he can do it, and the size is not an issue as long as everything is perfect every play,” Campbell said. “I mean, that’s the reality of it. As long as you do that and you’re consistent and you’re on top of your – I mean, there’s a number of guys in this league that have played that position and been able to do it that were undersized. So, he’s explosive and he’s fast, and he can key and diagnose, I know that. And we’re early in camp, so we’ll see what happens.”
Consistency is key, and so far, Rodriguez has been incredibly consistent. But asking a rookie to be perfect on every play is a daunting, and honestly, maybe unrealistic task. And because that is such a tall order, needing to be consistently perfect, Rodriguez will probably remain out of the starting lineup for the time being, as he stacks day and gains experience.
But don’t expect him to drop too far down the depth chart. When the Lions moved into team drills, the Lions opted to go back to a starting combination of Alex Anzalone and Chris Board, but Rodriguez still stuck around with the second team, this time switching to the WILL, lining up opposite Derrick Barnes.
It’s still early in camp, but Rodriguez is flirting with the lofty expectations many thought he might reach by the end of training camp. With uncertainty at the position, there will be days Rodriguez drops back to the third team, but if he continues to stack perfect days, it’s going to be hard to not keep him at the top of the group.
Jared Goff is steady, focused
Jared Goff’s connection with his top receivers continues to gain momentum. Right out of the gate in 11-on-11s, DJ Chark made arguably the catch of the day, for the second day in a row. Chark ran his route up the left sidelines and Goff threw the ball to his back-shoulder at the sidelines, Chark tracked the ball over his head and made a sensational grab as he was sliding to the grass to get in the proper position to make the catch. Oruwariye was also flagged for pass interference on the play, as he had a big handful of Chark’s jersey.
It wasn’t always perfect for Goff. A bit later into the period, he locked onto Josh Reynolds and didn’t see Alex Anzalone drop into zone, jumping the route for the interception. On an encouraging note, on the very next rep, Goff got redemption, going back to Reynolds for another beautiful back-shoulder throw. On the play, Reyolds flipped his entire body, adjusted to the ball that snuck past the extended arms of AJ Parker, and made the difficult catch.
We are starting to see Goff gain confidence with his top unit, and he is showing he is not afraid to attempt the tight window throws. The deep shots are also happening more, as the offense continues to absorb offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s playbook.
“I think (Goff) is kind of is the example for that for the rest of the group because he has done a really nice job just staying steady, and he is focused,” Johnson said on Friday. “I’m really proud of where he’s at after a week and a half.”
Johnson also revealed on Friday that one of the goals presented to Amon-Ra St. Brown is to improve his YAC (yards after catch), which has been an easily visible improvement in his game in camp.
“He’s special, man,” Johnson said. “He really is. He’s on a mission right now. We talked in the spring about each coach giving each player areas of improvement. He has taken that to heart and you can really see that on the field right now. I talked to him middle of the summer during the off time, just seeing how he’s doing. He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m telling you right now, this run after the catch, I’m all over it. I’m all over it.’ And I think you see that every single day on the field. At least I do. Ball gets in his hands and he’s consciously thinking, ‘knife up the field and get what I can and break tackles along the way.’ And that aggression that he has, he’s got that controlled aggression, for a receiver is rare. It shows up in the run game. It shows up in his route running, breaks and it carries over for the rest of the group.”
On Friday, St. Brown showed off his YAC skills on a quick screen, crosser, and comeback route.
Also at receiver, with Cephus out, Tom Kennedy was taking reps at WR-X on the second team, allowing the Lions to keep Kalif Raymond in the slot. While Raymond has “X” experience, he has constantly been a problem from the slot in camp. Today, he caught a screen pass and jitterbugged his way through the defense for what would have been a huge gain. At the same time, Kennedy is making the most of his extra reps, making a few easy catches in 11-on-11s, as well as starting off the final competition period with an 11-yard gain.
With T.J. Hockenson taking a few series off on Friday, Brock Wright was the first man up, followed by Garrett Griffen in the rotation. Rookie James Mitchell is also getting more team reps, and while he is just getting his feet wet, he could move up the depth chart quickly.
“There is definitely a sense of urgency in my mind with the late start, obviously, and camp and OTAs,” Mitchell told the media after practice. “I know when I’m out there that I’ve got to make the most of my reps. I need to be efficient when I’m out there to show that I can play.”
With now Decker, McCollum, and Ragnow taking some series off, the offensive line combinations got a few new looks. On the first team, Penei Sewell was at left tackle, with Matt Nelson at right, and Evan Brown got some reps at center when Ragnow was resting. On the second team, when Brown was with the first team, second-year Tommy Kraemer was taking reps at center. Kraemer has seen some reps at center this offseason, and if can prove capable of taking reps at the pivot, he can stake claim as the most versatile lineman on the team, as he has also had reps at left and right guard, as well as right tackle.
Final series of practice
The Lions run a scripted schedule on each practice day, with all coaches understanding what the goals of the day are. But, at the end of each day, Campbell presents a situation to the coordinators and asks them independently design how to handle it.
In Friday’s final competitive series, the second team offense took on the second team defense. The offense had the ball at their own 27-yard line, with 1 minute, 15 seconds, and a timeout, down six points in the fourth quarter.
Tim Boyle started out with a nice first-down pickup to Kennedy, but the wheels quickly fell off after that. The next set of downs started with an incompletion and two sacks, one by rookie James Houston (repping in place of Julian Okwara) and one by corner Saivion Smith. It was ugly.
To keep things rolling, coaches reset the ball a bit further downfield and gave the offense another chance. An incompletion on first down—could’ve been called a sack from Smith (again)—then another sack by Houston, a deep shot incompletion, and despite having five seconds remaining, coaches just packed it in and ended the day.
It was a disastrous series for Boyle and the second team offense, but credit to Houston and Smith who stepped up big when called upon—something bubble players need on their resume.
With Cornell having a lighter day, Bruce Hector was taking reps with the second team. Recently, with Onwuzurike injured, Hector has shown up in these situations.
With Okudah not practicing, we saw Amani Oruwariye and Will Harris as the starters at corner, with Bobby Price and Mark Gilbert on the second team. Price and Gilbert appear to have separated themselves for the CB4 spot behind the above trio.
Mike Hughes still is getting work on the outside for the occasional CB4 rep, but he was back on the inside today, splitting reps with Chase Lucas behind AJ Parker. Despite being the starting nickel for every practice, Parker said he doesn’t take the starting role for granted.
“The biggest difference is I got the year under my belt, I got the experience, so I kinda know what it’s going to be like, but the mindset is still the same,” Parker told the media after practice. “I’ve still got to earn every day. I’ve got to earn every play, every rep. So every time I’m out here, I have to put my best foot forward.”
Lucas continues to stand out for his loud vocal leadership and willingness to stick his nose into plays. He is still working his way through the first-year learning curve, but his hard work is getting him noticed.
“Chase, oh man, he’s got it,” Parker continued. “He’s a dog. He’s going to do everything. Smart plays, he’s where he’s supposed to be. He’s just been picking up the system quick, so I’m proud of him.”
On a final defensive note, we saw a handful of very solid pass breakups today. Linebacker Jarrad Davis got one at the line of scrimmage, and safety Ifeatu Melifonwu had one when covering wide receiver Maurice Alexander—who is quicker and faster than originally thought.
The Lions were back to working on punt return drills on Friday, and the return group included Kalif Raymond, Kalil Pimpleton, Maurice Alexander, and the occasional rep from St. Brown.
On a somewhat comical note, Raymond was a tick late to the drill—as he was just involved in the 11-on-11 drill prior—and Pimpleton, who is always looking for work, tried to jump in as the first player to field a return. Raymond was having none of that and sent the rookie back in line. Pimpleton is in a tough spot to crack the roster, but you have to love his work ethic and willingness to always try and take every rep available.
At gunner, it was a typical rotation of Melifonwu, Price, Parker, and Trinity Benson, but we also saw Kerby Joseph getting into the mix. This is a good sign for depth at the position, and Joseph’s development, if they are willing to expand his role here. At Illinois, he was a solid gunner and could be a contributor here during the season.
One final note. With C.J. Moore’s returning to the roster, it was a bit unclear where he would contribute on special teams. On Friday, he opened up his camp as the first-team personal protector (PP) on punts, pushing Tracy Walker to the second team. It was previously reported that special teams coordinator Dave Fipp liked Walker for this role, but Moore is the incumbent—and very good at it—so it’s not surprising to see Moore step back into the top spot.