The Detroit Lions took the field in their first mini-camp practice of the year. As Head Coach Dan Campbell pointed out prior to the training, there is no fundamental difference between OTA practices and small camp practices – other than that they are mandatory.
On Tuesday, the focus was clearly on red zone training, as this was something the Lions really struggled with last season.
“Defensively, we have to put pressure up front. A number of things that go into that are coverage and lunge. Offensive, man, we shot ourselves in the foot,” Campbell said before training.
So in an effort to clean things up before the games start, nearly all of the Lions’ full squad practice on Tuesday was in the red. Here’s how it all shook.
Prior to training, head coach Dan Campbell indicated that the only player not to report to the mandatory small camp was John Benicini, but seemed to suggest it was an excused absence and that he would meet him later on Tuesday night.
Other than Penisini, these are the players who were not spotted during Tuesday’s training:
- De Josh Paschal
- CB Jermaine Waller
Paschal has now missed the two previous operations open to the media. At this point, it’s unclear why he missed practices. It is worth noting that he is the only rookie who has not signed the rookie deal, but it is unlikely that this would have put him off the field.
The following players were training but not training:
- TE James Mitchell
- TE Derek Dis
- WR Jameson Williams
- Edge Romeo Okwara
- CB/S Ifeatu Melifonwu
- CB Jerry Jacobs
- S Deshaun Elliott
Okwara was first spotted throughout the off-season, although unlike most of these other players, he wasn’t quite fit at all. Elliott is the only new addition to this list, but whatever he’s experiencing doesn’t seem to be too serious, as he’s been running pretty fast on the sidelines during training. Milifuno remains sidelined with a visible wrap around his upper thigh. Deese also seems to be heading in the right direction, with the unresolved freshman being more active on the sidelines than I’ve seen before.
The following players were restricted to participating:
- OT Taylor Decker
- TJ Hawkinson
- CB Jeff Okuda
- Edge Eric Banks
Decker and Hockenson are back after missing most practice before the minicamp, but both have been watered down in the lineup. Decker performed walkthroughs and positional exercises and sat down with most of the team reps. Hockenson seems to have been on the same game plan. Okudah and Banks mostly worked on the side during positional exercises, but both stayed mentally occupied during teams.
Change in quarterback backup?
After struggling Tim Boyle through the first two weeks of the OTAs, David Blow was the second quarterback to start the team’s training session during the junior camp.
Blow took advantage of his early opportunities. In four plays in the red, he threw three touchdowns: to Trinity Benson, Quintez Cephus, and D’Andre Swift. His fourth play was a well-read scramble in the middle for about 10 yards. His second set of reps consisted of just two games: a running back touch pass for Greg Bell and a well-covered touchdown run where Blough rigged a defender with a fake pump to get him.
And that wasn’t even the most impressive thing that Blow has done through training. But more on that later…
As for Tim Boyle, he struggled hard in the red zone drills. He didn’t complete a single pass in five attempts and likely would have taken two bags if there had been full contact.
However, the two players switched roles during the red 7-on-7s, with Boyle taking charge of the second team and Blow relegating to the third. When that happened, Boyle looked much better, throwing touches on five of seven plays and likely making a defensive pass or an overlap pass in one of the other plays. Meanwhile, Blow converted in just two of five attempts.
This probably indicates that the Lions’ group of second-team recipients are far ahead of the second-team defensive back, which makes sense considering the number of DB players currently deceased due to injury (Okudah, Jacobs, Melifonwu, Elliott).
The Lions put together an interesting script that I don’t think I’ve seen a team work on before. The offense caught the ball at the 19-yard line with just 29 seconds left on the clock and I had to score a touchdown on defense. It’s a near-impossible position for attacking, but some of the league’s best offenses have scored under longer odds (see: 2022 AFC Championship).
Anyway, the Lions’ first-team offensive didn’t come close to turning around. Here were the plays:
- Dedicated deep pass to Josh Reynolds, nearly intercepted by Tracy Walker
- A deep pass was nearly intercepted by Amani Auwar – likely an article by Jason Cornell.
- Pass was ousted to Josh Reynolds
Once again, the Lions had the NASCAR pack up front, including Aidan Hutchinson, and once again, the passing dash proved sweaty enough to easily win the pass for defense.
Having said that, David Blow tore through the defense completely in these drills. Here is the operating distribution:
- 37-yard strike for Trinity Benson
- 21 yards to Cephus between Mark Gilbert and Kerby Joseph (turkeyhole’d)
- 23 yard touchdown across seam to Cephus for one-handed grab (Joseph on coverage again)
The black Blough drove 81 yards in 20 seconds, throwing his entire body behind that last throw. Cool stuff from him on Tuesday.
Wide reception depth
It’s very possible that there was a single roster spot available between Cephus, Benson and Kalil Pimpleton, but they were all in turns delivering great plays on Tuesday. The Benson continues to look like an entirely different receiver capable of running in an established spot. His best play came in a seven-on-seven red-zone drill, when a gentle stuttering move cleared a few yards of the interval between him and Mark Gilbert on a way out for an easy touchdown.
Not to be outdone, Cephus had landed one hand in the desperation exercise and had a good toe score later in practice.
It was a quieter day for Pimpleton, but it’s worth noting that he was the second betting returnee behind incumbent Kalif Raymond. After them, non-designer rookie Josh Johnson was third.
- With all the injuries in high school, this was the “start” in the first team defense:
CB: Amani Aurora
CB: Will Harris
NCB: A.J. Parker
S: Tracy Walker
S: CJ More
- For the second straight practice, Chris Board had the majority of first-team player reps along with Alex Anzalone.
- Hutchinson continues to get more look with his first team defense, expanding beyond just NASCAR packages.
Find TE 2
With Hockenson still limited and James Mitchell and Derrick Deese sidelined, chances abound for the four healthy narrow sides to make a name for themselves: Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra, Garrett Griffin and Nolan Given. But without full platforms, the chances of brilliance are really limited to the scrolling game only, which means only Wright and Zylstra have made a real impact so far.
Zylstra was playing a diving field today through seven on seven with the first team attack. Although earlier in training he had a chance to touch the red area again with the ball in his hands hard before Tracy Walker hit it.
Wright had two touchdowns on the day, one of which he beat linebacker Josh Woods. The other, Jared Davis was only half a step away, and a fine throw from Boyle made it easy for Wright to play.
- The final play of the practice was a great demonstration of how rookie seventh-round cornerback Chase Lucas is smarter than the average rookie. The offense, running from within the 5-yard line, moved Pimpleton. Lucas followed the fast receiver on a tough man-to-man mission, but quickly called Cedric Boswell to swap assignments with him so he wouldn’t be left behind. The call was made and the switch was done well — even if Pimpleton made a nice inside move to beat Boswell anyway.
- Only two ‘in-game’ field shooting attempts: one miss and a defeat by Riley Patterson from 45 yards.
- Another day, another sack for Jashon Cornell. It’s my biggest surprise so far in my three weeks of off-season training.
Here are the topical combos I would say “won” today:
- First team defense line
- 1st sub-team
- Second team receptors