Hard to believe but two weeks of Detroit Lions training camp have already flown by. The Lions have held 10 practice sessions over that timeframe, as well as press conferences and meeting time with the media for several coaches and players.
Here are 10 takeaways I’ve witnessed in my days in Allen Park as well as some more overarching observations drawing on what others have seen, too.
Jared Goff looks so much better than he did a year ago
The quarterback is now in his second year in Detroit, and the familiarity with the coaching staff, the offense and the fan expectations are all readily evident.
Goff hasn’t been perfect, but he’s looked a lot more like the guy who made Pro Bowls and led the Los Angeles Rams on multiple playoff runs than the underwhelming and timid Goff we saw for the first half of his first year in Detroit. Goff has been more willing to trust his receivers and take more chances down the field. Those are very needed steps for Goff if these Lions are to contend for anything more than last place in the NFC North.
Speed on offense
One of the reasons Goff looks better is because his weaponry is vastly upgraded. It’s most noticeable with the speed on the outside of the formation.
New wide receiver DJ Chark can fly, and he’s a bigger target too. Josh Reynolds was a late addition last year and while he’s not a blazer, he’s definitely faster than the guys in his spot a year ago. The Lions are faster at tight end too, with converted WR Shane Zylstra and veteran Devin Funchess both above-average for the position. Undrafted rookie Kalil Pimpleton has instant speed and incredible shiftiness out of the slot and as a return specialist option, as well.
Even better–the fastest Lion, rookie WR Jameson Williams, still hasn’t played. When the first-rounder from Alabama finally gets cleared to go full speed, look out!
Big problems if Taylor Decker or Penei Sewell miss time
The starting offensive line is one of the best in the league, despite what some outlets try to sell you. And Detroit has some capable and promising depth inside with Evan Brown, Tommy Kraemer and Ryan McCollum.
It’s a different story at tackle. The early returns on the depth behind LT Taylor Decker and RT Penei Sewell are not favorable. Matt Nelson just hasn’t developed as hoped as the swing tackle since converting from defensive end. He’s too tall in his stance too often. The same is true of undrafted rookie OT Obinna Eze, who doesn’t move as well as Nelson does either. Dan Skipper is the tallest guy (he’s a legit 6-10) on the team and he too really struggles when forced to reach down to engage.
Bringing back Darrin Paulo and futile efforts to try Logan Stenberg outside have done little to assuage the fears of Decker or Sewell going down. Sewell moved to left tackle for a day while Decker rested and he was exploited pretty handily on the left side in his own right. Stay healthy, No. 68!
No fullback? No problem
Fullback Jason Cabinda has been sidelined on the PUP list for the first 10 days of training camp. The offense has adapted nicely in his absence — perhaps too nicely for Cabinda.
Detroit doesn’t have a backup fullback behind Cabinda, so the offense has worked on using tight ends or even a sprinkling of two-RB sets to pick up the slack. And it works, most notably when D’Andre Swift gets a handoff. Swift seems to see the field and react quicker when he doesn’t have Cabinda running lead for him, for whatever reasons.
This is not to suggest that Cabinda is in any sort of roster peril. He’s a versatile cog who can do a lot more than just lead block on run plays. Ben Johnson’s offense might not need the fullback as more than a smaller role player than has been the case lately in Detroit, however.
Return specialist remains wide open
Even though the incumbent return men from the end of 2021 returned, there is a camp battle for both the punt and kick return gigs.
Godwin Igwebuike (KR) and Kalif Raymond (PR) could win their jobs back, but they’re being pushed. Dynamic undrafted rookie WR Kalil Pimpleton has looked the most electrifying throughout camp on punt duties and he’s got sure hands too. Tom Kennedy, likely fighting for his Lions livelihood, has been at least as good as Igwebuike on kick return opportunities.
There are some other options (Amon-Ra St. Brown, Maurice Alexander) too. Expect the preseason games and the joint practices in Indianapolis with the Colts to be critical in this unresolved camp battle.
On the bubble
Some holdover players might not make the team in 2022. Based on the first couple of weeks, I don’t see spots on the final 53 for these 2021 Lions:
- RB Jermar Jefferson, for his struggles in the passing game
- WR Trinity Benson, indubitably passed by a healthy Quintez Cephus in the battle for the final WR spot
- OL Logan Stenberg
- LB Anthony Pittman
- CB Bobby Price, numbers game victim at a very crowded position
- OT Dan Skipper
- S C.J. Moore, the most likely on this list to prove me wrong and make the team
Alim McNeill has Pro Bowl potential in the new defense
The defensive line in general looks better than a year ago, but it’s one player in particular who stands out as a legit breakout candidate.
Tackle Alim McNeill looks fantastic in the more aggressive, attacking-the-gap scheme installed by DC Aaron Glenn. Campbell called McNeill “Twinkletoes” last year jokingly, but there’s truth behind the moniker; McNeill is ridiculously quick and agile for a 320-pound nose tackle. He’s been lethal when lined up in the A-gap between Pro Bowl C Frank Ragnow and Pro Bowl LG Jonah Jackson, pretty formidable competition–and that’s not a diss of the offensive linemen. McNeill has been that good.
The youth on defense shows at times
The Lions figure to be the NFL’s youngest team in 2022. Defensive lineman Michael Brockers is the only player over 29 entering the season.
The youthful mix of varying degrees of inexperience shows in team drills. It’s part of the process of integrating so many young players into key positions, as well as adding in newcomers like DeShon Elliott and Mike Hughes into the secondary. There are miscommunications, blown assignments and a lot of animated coaching from Aaron Glenn and his defensive assistants on correcting those errors.
One prime example came in the third practice with the second-team defense. Ifeatu Melifonwu and rookie Kerby Joseph were the split safeties behind LBs Derrick Barnes and Shaun Dion Hamilton, with rookie Chase Lucas in the slot CB spot inside Jeff Okudah and Mike Hughes on the outside, against a 3-WR package that also saw the RB motion into the slot. QB Tim Boyle had his choice of three different options that were completely uncovered as a result of the confusion and inexperience working together on defense.
In that set, only Barnes was playing where he played in Detroit in 2021 outside of half of one game from Okudah. Hamilton is the only player in that set over 25 years old.
The only solution is more reps and solidifying who plays with who over the remainder of the summer.
Leadership emerging organically
With a new coaching staff and massive roster turnover a year ago, leadership amongst the players themselves was often forced and occasionally lacking. That’s not the case in 2022.
A great example is EDGE Charles Harris leading the defensive linemen to run the hill, smartly christened “Mt. Patricia” by Nick Baumgardner of The Athletic. A year ago, Harris was a former first-round disappointment trying to salvage his career at one of the few places willing to give him a chance. Now he’s a strong, positive leadership presence.
Safety Tracy Walker, RB Jamaal Williams and LB Alex Anzalone have all stepped up as stronger leadership presences this summer. Like Harris, all were new to Detroit in 2021. Tight end T.J. Hockenson and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown are more leaders-by-example but it’s clear their position-mates are getting the message too.
The Day 3 rookies just might be really solid
Quick first impressions on the Day 3 rookies, those chosen in rounds 4-7 of the 2022 NFL draft:
TE James Mitchell – the Lions are bringing the fifth-round TE from Virginia Tech along slowly as he recovers from a season-ending leg injury last year. He’s shown strong, soft hands but something of a leggy route-runner.
LB Malcolm Rodriguez – we knew from the draft process that Rodriguez was blessed with an exceptional football IQ and nose for the ball. Those qualities have been evident. His quick reactions and closing burst have him now earning first-team reps, and it wouldn’t surprise many if he played a major role as a rookie.
EDGE James Houston – Houston is undersized for a pass rusher but he understands how to use his lack of height well, savvily ducking under blocks and cornering nicely. Any thoughts of him as an off-ball LB are misguided, but Houston has some legit juice in getting into the backfield. He’s blown up a couple of screen plays from the third-team offense, too.
CB Chase Lucas – Lucas has bounced between the second and third team defense in the slot. He’s got length and instincts, though quickness off the line has given Lucas some trouble. Looks comfortable and capable on special teams already.