The Detroit Lions start their first of three weeks of padded practices Monday before they turn their attention to their Week 1 opponent, the Chicago Bears.
While fans are not allowed in Allen Park this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, a limited number of reporters will be in attendance and the Lions will livestream practice throughout training camp.
Here are five players I’ll be keeping tabs on this week as football returns:
[ The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive sports content. ]
QB Matthew Stafford
It has been 288 days since Stafford last threw a meaningful pass, in a loss to the then-Oakland Raiders last Nov. 3 when he suffered fractured bones in his back. Stafford is healthy now, by all accounts, and that’s good news for the Lions, who need their quarterback to stay upright and on the field for 16 games if they’re going to challenge for a playoff spot. Stafford’s health is bound to be a storyline all season. There’s no telling how he’ll hold up once Khalil Mack and Danielle Hunter get their hits in. But he seems poised for a big season with his three best receivers and top two tight ends returning, and a fellow Georgia Bulldog (D’Andre Swift) in the backfield. If nothing else, it will be reassuring to him sling the ball around this week.
For subscribers: If Lions don’t win, Matthew Stafford could go elsewhere in 2021
Kelly Stafford: I was wrong to criticize Colin Kaepernick for kneeling for national anthem
TE T.J. Hockenson
Hockenson is one of the aforementioned weapons the Lions are counting on to make their offense complete. He had a magnificent NFL debut, catching six passes for 131 yards in a tie against the Arizona Cardinals, then was a nonfactor most of the rest of the season. Health is a concern. Hockenson hurt his ankle late in the year, finished the season on injured reserve and still was working his way back in mid-June. But if he looks right early in camp, expect to hear a lot of Hockenson buzz as someone ready to take off in his second season.
[ Listen to our exclusive one-on-one with Lions legend Calvin Johnson ]
CB Jeff Okudah
What would this list be without the No. 3 pick of the draft? The Lions made Okudah the highest-drafted cornerback since 1997 because they saw him as a unique talent and ideal scheme fit would have an immediate impact on their defense. There will be bumps in the road, but Okudah is a Day 1 starter with the potential to eventually transform the defense. The Lions are counting on that happening sooner rather than later, but for now, we’ll settle for watching him compete with the likes of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones in one-on-ones.
[ Dave Birkett predicts the Detroit Lions’ 53-man roster ]
DT Da’Shawn Hand
Here’s someone maybe you didn’t have pegged for this list. Hand had a solid if unspectacular rookie season in 2018, when he had three sacks, started eight games and showed flashes of being more than the role player many pegged him as coming out of Alabama. That didn’t materialize last year, when he injured his elbow in the first week of training camp and returned in October, only to suffer an ankle injury that ended his season. The Lions are thin up front, and Hand has a chance to play significant snaps alongside Trey Flowers and Danny Shelton. It’s imperative he plays well in August and heads into the season healthy.
[ 2020 Detroit Lions schedule: Dave Birkett’s game-by-game predictions ]
OG Jonah Jackson
The biggest position battle to sort out the next three weeks is at right guard, where rookies Jackson and Logan Stenberg and veterans Kenny Wiggins and Oday Aboushi could see time. The Lions traded up to get Jackson in the third round in part because they believed he could start as a rookie. That won’t be easy given the constraints of the offseason and with no preseason games to evaluate, but if Jackson proves to be a quick study on the field he absolutely could start Sept. 13 against the Bears. As mentioned, the Lions’ hopes of returning to the playoffs rest on Stafford’s shoulders, and Jackson could be a big part of keeping him healthy on a revamped right side of the offensive line.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content.