One of the great things about organized team activities (OTAs) is that things are constantly evolving and there is always something new to learn about the Detroit Lions. On Thursday, the Lions held their fifth practice of the spring—only the second open to the media—and Jeremy Reisman and I were in attendance, representing Pride of Detroit.
This week, I get the honors of breaking down what we observed during Thursday’s practice, so let’s get into it.
Here’s a list of players that were not in attendance:
- TE TJ Hockenson
- T.E. Garrett Griffin
- LT Taylor Decker
- EDGE Romeo Okwara (Achilles)
- EDGEJosh Paschal
- NT John Penisini
Okwara missing isn’t a surprise, as he is still recovering from his injury, nor was Decker’s absence as he is also nursing an injury, but the other four missed for unknown reasons. Hockenson missed last Thursday’s OTA with an illness, but he was expected to be back, so him not being on the field was disappointing. Second-round pick, Paschal missing was also disappointing as he was on our target watchlist this week.
It’s important to remember that these practices are voluntary, but at this time, Penisini is the only player that does not have a known injury to have missed all of OTAs.
Here are the players that were in attendance but not participating:
- WR Jameson Williams (ACL)
- TE James Mitchell (ACL)
- TE Derek Deese
- DL Eric Banks
- CB Jerry Jacobs (ACL)
- DB Ifatu Melifonwu
With rookies Deese and Mitchell sitting out—in addition to Hockenson and Griffin—that makes four tight ends unable to practice today, leaving only Shayne Zylstra, Brock Wright, and rookie Nolan Given able to practice at the position.
Melifonwu was another player on our watchlist this week, so we will have to wait and see if he is ready to get back on the field next week for minicamp.
The following players had minimal participation and worked mainly with trainers:
- RB Godwin Igwebuike
- EDGE Austin Bryant
- LB Natrez Patrick
All three players were forced to watch others take reps at their spots, which has to be frustrating for individuals not guaranteed a roster spot. They’ll surely want to get back out there as soon as possible.
The first-team offense was as anticipated this practice. The starting offensive line was the same as last week, with Penei Sewell shifting to left tackle in place of Decker and Matt Nelson jumping into a starting role at right tackle.
Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson revealed that he and quarterback Jared Goff sat down together and worked to build the offensive scheme surrounding his best skills and the early results were positive.
Goff made several tight-window throws, most notably to DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds, and he looked confident at all practice—which is a far cry from where he was this time last year. The Lions are going to give Goff every opportunity to succeed in Detroit and the early results should leave fans hopeful.
At receiver, Chark, Reynolds, and Amon-Ra St. Brown started, with the outside receivers standing out the most. Chark made multiple catches over the middle, including fighting through a tough catch with Tracy Walker blanketing him in coverage. Reynolds was consistent, snatching in quick passes and talking them for yards after the catch (YAC), a definite theme of the first-team offense today.
When they went into one-minute drills, Chark, Reynolds, and St. Brown started, but Kalif Raymond and Quintez Cephus also got in first-team work. Add in injured rookie Williams and that is going to be a tough top-six to crack.
Second and third-team offenses
While Goff looked solid, primary backup Tim Boyle looked like Tim Boyle of a year ago, opting for a lot of check downs, taking sacks, and missing his targets. He also threw an interception during 11-on-11s, when rookie safety Kerby Joseph dropped into the box, read his eyes, and jumped the route for the pick. During the second-string’s one-minute drill, Boyle was sacked twice courtesy of Bruce Hector and Jarrad Davis.
While Kalil Pimpleton is a great story and he is indeed quick as a hiccup, it’s going to be a mighty task to unseat Kalif Raymond who had a really solid day. Raymond is just as dynamic and brings experience and coaching staff trust with him to the competition.
In addition to a few snaps with the first team, Cephus saw some time on the outside and in the slot with the second team, although he was overthrown on more than one occasion by multiple quarterbacks.
In what appears to be a trick into getting noticed, Trinity Benson celebrated after every catch, although the diving one was probably justified.
With the lack of depth at tight end on Thursday, Wright and Zylstra split starting duties, but it was Zylstra who was the primary beneficiary of the extra time, making several solid catches.
This was my first time getting to see Aidan Hutchinson taking live practice reps and he very much looks the part. His movements are easy and he has underrated bend, which helps him get very long as a pass rusher. After playing with the reserves last week, Hutchinson was in with the first team this week, rotating or playing opposite Charles Harris, who is adapting to the new scheme very well.
In team drills, Hutchinson and Harris flipped sides often, with the rookie also kicking inside into the 3-technique in one-minute drills. In this situation, Hutchinson lined up next to defensive tackle Jashon Cornell, with Harris and Julian Okwara flanking them on the edges.
Speaking of Julian Okwara, he was lining up all over the field on Thursday, playing multiple roles on multiple lines. Okwara saw reps at down defensive end, stand up edge rusher, lining up over the A-gap, off-the-ball linebacker, and dropped into coverage. In individual drills, he typically traveled with the edge rushers but is not limited to just that role.
It’s not entirely clear if the SAM linebacker/hybrid edge rusher position will be a technical starting role in the Lions’ base defense, but it sure looks like a role the Lions plan on leaning on, and Okwara is the clear top option for the job .
Okwara’s backup at the spot should be no surprise: rookie James Houston. He also found himself on the field in obvious pass-rushing situations high in the rotation, including against the second-team offense in one-minute drills.
New addition, John Cominsky, is as athletic as advertised but the Lions are acclimating him onto the field slowly, so it’s hard to get a feel for him just yet.
Interior defensive line
Michael Brockers returned to the team this week and was immediately dropped into the starting lineup. In base formations, he slotted next to Alim McNeill and was backed up by Levi Onwuzurike. McNeill and Onwuzurike both look further along than they did last season, especially McNeill whose power and balance have been on display both in team and individual drills.
Beyond those three—who all seem like locks for the roster—Jashon Cornell is the next best interior linemen so far through OTAs. Cornell has seen starter reps in 11-on-11s as well as in subpackages and has produced, including registering a series-ending sack on Goff and the first-team offense during one-minute drills.
With Penisini not in Allen Park, it has opened up other opportunities for the reserves. Bruce Hector also registered a sack on Thursday and his hands looked faster than last season. While UDFA rookie Demetrius Taylor—who has quick feet but needs to marry them to his hands—is getting back up nose tackle reps in place of Penisini.
Chris Board was the storyline for this position group on Thursday, as he saw a noticeable uptick in snaps, mostly over Derrick Barnes, but also in place of Alex Anzalone. These three saw the majority of first-team snaps and could be starting to separate themselves early on.
Most of the time, the Lions deployed two linebackers, as expected, but they did use four in a subpackage concept, with Houston and Jarrad Davis on the edge, and this is the situation where Davis recorded his sack on Boyle.
Jeff Okudah’s recovery from an Achilles injury has been an emotional journey, but it has left him hungry to get back on the field. After only participating in walkthroughs during last week’s OTAs, this week he expanded his activities to walkthroughs and individual drills, only sitting out full team drills.
“I feel like I’ve been hungry like I haven’t ate in years,” Okudah told the media following practice. “That hunger has just been inside of me since the injury. Really, even before the injury. I’ve had that feeling, man, for like two years, just that hunger. I’m ready to go out there and play to the best of my ability, honestly.”
Okudah is not only keeping busy when on the field, but during the portions of practice he is being held out of, he has a play card in hand and is mentoring rookies and second-year corners on their assignments. The Lions closed the day with 7-on-7s, and when players like Cedric Boswell, Jermaine Waller, of even AJ Parker came to the sidelines, Okudah was waiting for them and sharing his thoughts.
We saw this leadership last year with Okudah and Jerry Jacobs, and the results benefited both players: Jacobs on the field, and Okudah during his recovery.
“There were times it almost felt like I was playing through Jerry, you know?” Okudah said. “Me and Jerry had all these conversations, took him under my wing during training camp. Just to see his growth was so cool for me because it showed me the things we talked about were translatable to the game. It just gave me so much confidence in myself that when I get back, I can do it because we’ve had these conversations and spoke in detail about how we’re going to attack these receivers.”
When Okudah is on the bench during team drills, it’s Will Harris who continues to see starter reps in his stay. Harris really seems to be settling in at corner and was in good positions all day, including getting a pass breakup when covering St. Brown. Harris’ range to play all over the secondary is a nice benefit for coaches, and it’ll be interesting to see if another year under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and DBs coach Aubrey pleasant helps further his game.
Mike Hughes spent most of his time last week on the outside, but this week he got a lot of work in the slot, backing up AJ Parker. Hughes’ versatility makes him an attractive option for the roster.
Rookie Chase Lucas returned to the field this week and also saw time in the slot with the third team. Late in the day, he jumped a Pimpleton route and got to the ball for the PBU, almost securing the interception.
Speaking of interceptions, after rookie safety Joseph dropped to the robber role and picked Boyle during team drills, it’s worth noting that the very next play he lined up at single-high, illustrating his range. It’s early, and there are things to clean up, but he is looking very much like a Day 2 pick.
While Melifonwu was not on the field to be cross-trained at safety, corner Saivion Smith got some looks at safety. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Smith’s special teams skills have kept him around in Detroit, and if the former Alabama corner can show some position range, it will sure help his chance of sticking around further.
Safety Brady Breeze—another solid special teamer—was also rewarded with time among the higher groups. He saw work with the second team at both safety spots during team drills.
The Lions did some kick return drills on Thursday, giving us a chance to see the potential pool of returner possibilities. Igwebuike, the returning starter, was not participating and that opened the door for others to get reps.
First up was DeAndre Swift, followed by Kalif Raymond and Trinity Benson. Later they were joined by Kalil Pimpleton and Craig Reynolds. With no pads, there’s not a lot to ascertain, but these are the names to keep in mind.