Detroit Lions training camp observations: A sleeper to watch in the offensive backfield

Detroit Free Press

The more I think about it, the more important versatility is going to be when the Detroit Lions begin debating their final few roster spots.

Jamal Agnew is a dynamite return man trying his hand at receiver this summer and can play cornerback in a pinch.

Agnew seems comfortable at his new position, which he made a guest appearance at last season, and if I was re-doing my start-of-camp roster projection, I think I’d find a spot for him on the 53-man roster.

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The same goes for linebacker Jason Cabinda, who donned a white jersey for the first time in practice Thursday and took reps at fullback.

The Lions return starting fullback Nick Bawden who has been limited in camp as he returns from a season-ending knee injury, and waived undrafted rookie fullback Luke Sellers on Thursday to make room for another reinforcements on offense, so maybe I’m living too much in the moment.

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But considering fullbacks play about five snaps a game, there’s value in having someone like Cabinda man the position. He played well on special teams in his late-season cameo last year, when he saw time at fullback, and like Agnew, is an insurance policy in case something goes wrong in this COVID world on game day.

On Thursday, Cabinda was out front blocking on two live short-yardage snaps when running backs Jonathan Williams and Ty Johnson picked up first downs. He also caught a pass on linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, one of the Lions’ best coverage linebackers, in a one-on-one receiving drill, though I did not see that play.

The Lions have two weeks to sort out their roster, but don’t be surprised if one or both of Cabinda and Agnew survive the cut Sept. 5.

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More observations from Thursday

• Matt Patricia claimed it was a rotation, but Jonah Jackson still is taking first-team reps at right guard three padded practices into training camp, and I’ve already seen improvement this week.

After struggling to block Nick Williams one-on-one pass rush drills Monday, Jackson had two solid reps against the veteran pass rusher Thursday. Patricia wouldn’t rule out using an in-game rotation again this year — remember, Kenny Wiggins spelled Graham Glasgow for a few series every game last year — but the rookie third-round pick certainly looks like the starter at this point.

“It’s something that we did earlier,” Patricia said of the rotation. “I think it’s something that we liked and really kind of in the long run helped us with our situation that we had because of some injuries and gave some guys some good reps going forward. I would say it’s not really a set-in stone plan that, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it this way, or that way.’ We just want to really get some competition right now and see what it looks like from that standpoint.”

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• I mentioned Quintez Cephus in Tuesday’s observations as a rookie who impressed in the first two practices. He had a few ball security issues in practice Thursday that I’m sure coaches will get on him about during film review.

In one drill, where the receiver catches a pass and turns up field trying to split two defenders while a staff member swats at the ball with a padded stick, Cephus lost a fumble on his first rep (courtesy of the padded stick) and bobbled the catch on the second.

A fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin, Cephus’ roster spot isn’t in jeopardy, but it was a reminder of how far he has to go.

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• Getting away from rookies, Tracy Walker could be poised for a big season.

Walker is long and fluid in the secondary, and good in coverage. I envision him being a tight end stopper in Patricia’s defense, and some of his coverage skills were on display Thursday. Walker had a nice pass breakup in one-on-ones when he gave Danny Amendola an inside release and was able to stay in his pocket on an out route, and he dominated an earlier one-on-one period that pitted defensive backs against tight ends. Walker knocked down a pass to Hunter Bryant in that period, and it took a perfect pass from Matthew Stafford to complete a ball to Jesse James when Walker was like James’ shadow on his route.

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• Here’s an interesting note at cornerback: Rookie Jeff Okudah has primarily played with the second-team defense (he did play briefly with the starters Thursday when the Lions gave Desmond Trufant a period off), and to the best of my recollection, exclusively at left cornerback.

Amani Oruwariye, who most assume is the placeholder for Okudah, has played right corner, while Trufant has manned the left side for the Lions. Ultimately, I think Trufant has the versatility to play on either side, and he’ll stay in the starting lineup with Justin Coleman once Okudah is ready to take over.

But the fact the Lions are practicing Okudah at left cornerback (the spot that typically squares off against opposing No. 1 receivers) gives you an idea where they think he’ll have an impact this year.

• New special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs brings energy to the unit, as you’d expect from a 33-year old. The Lions spent a period working on kickoff coverage, and he was sprinting down the field with his coverage unit almost as if he was covering the kick.

We haven’t seen this much in years past, but Matt Prater was handling some kickoffs along with punters Jack Fox and Arryn Siposs. Prater kicked off some last year when Sam Martin was dealing with an injury, and it’s probably best for everyone involved if the Lions have whoever wins the punting job also kick off this fall.

• One more special teams note: The kicking and long-snapping battles are ongoing, though it’s hard to tell from our angle when a bad snap or hold happen (outside of complete botcheries). Prater had one bad miss in six field goal attempts, and as was the case earlier this week, rookie Steven Wirtel was the long snapper and Siposs was the holder.

• No standout play of the day, but rookie safety Jalen Elliott almost made a diving interception on an overthrown pass to Tom Kennedy. Elliott laid out for the ball only to see it pop out of his hands when he hit the ground.

• We had an Austin Bryant sighting as he spent part of practice working on the side with trainers. A fourth-round pick out of Clemson last season, Bryant has some pass rush skills, and the Lions don’t have enough of that on the roster, but opening camp on the physically unable to perform list makes me wonder how much he’ll contribute this fall.

• Lastly, a little role call: Tight end Matt Sokol returned to practice , but in a red no-contact jersey. Offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel and defensive tackle Kevin Strong also made their public training camp debuts.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. 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. 

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