Detroit Lions camp observations: ‘Dialed in’ Matthew Stafford seems poised for big season

Detroit Free Press

There was a video clip that made the rounds on social media Thursday of a pass Matthew Stafford threw during seven-on-seven drills that was flawless.

Stafford launched a perfect spiral over two staff members holding paddles in the air (to simulate a pass rusher’s arms) that seemed to hang in the air forever. The ball, made prettier by slow-motion replay and some great camerawork, dropped perfectly in his receiver’s arms as cornerback Justin Coleman gave chase.

It was a truly beautiful throw. But the thing is, Stafford has made a bunch of those during training camp.

On Friday, the 12th-year Detroit Lions quarterback lasered a pass to Kenny Golladay in one team period that Golladay snagged with one hand. The throw was a rope, the kind that’s on the receiver before the defender — or in this case, two of them — can turn his head.

At the end of practice, he whipped another throw to the corner of the end zone, a line drive that whistled through rookie cornerback Jeff Okudah’s arms for a touchdown to Marvin Hall.

That throw came on third-and-10 from the 32-yard line as the Lions mimicked an end-of-game situation, down four points and needing a touchdown to win. Like the throw to Golladay, its beauty was in the speed in which it went from Stafford’s fingertips to Hall’s hands.

“He’s been awesome,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said before practice. “He’s dialed in, locked into the coaching, the teaching, practice, meetings. His leadership has been outstanding. I think he’s fired up every day out there. He’s competing really hard and wants everything to be perfect, and you love the drive of everything that he does right now.”

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Stafford, of course, was playing some of the best football of his career when he fractured bones in his back midway through last season.

He was on pace for 4,998 yards and 38 touchdowns, both of which would have been the second-highest totals of his career, and seems determined to improve on that impressive half-season this fall.

I don’t know if Stafford will do that statistically. Five-thousand-yard passing seasons are pretty rare, and defenses tend to catch up to Year 2 of an offensive coordinator’s tendencies.

But after watching the past two weeks of practice, I absolutely think Stafford could be in for a banner season.

Stafford has not lost any zip off his fastball from the back injuries he has dealt with each of the past two years, and has great command of the offense. He hasn’t turned the ball over much this training camp (though he did have a deflected interception Friday; more on that later), and the Lions seem deeper at receiver (with Hall, Jamal Agnew and Quintez Cephus backing up Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola) than they have been at almost anytime during his tenure in Detroit.

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The Lions did have some issues on offense Friday. They struggled in red zone work throughout practice, with Stafford holding the ball far too long on several plays as his receivers couldn’t get open.

But people close to him think he’s in for a big year, and all signs point to that being the case.

“He looks great, healthy,” Amendola said. “The ball is live. He’s hungry, he’s ready to go. Can’t wait to watch him in games. So he’s the leader of our team, we love playing for him, we love playing hard for him. He is a great teammate, so we’re all excited to watch him get out there and play.”

The Lions have one more open practice of training camp, on Saturday, so observations soon will be coming to an end. 

More news and notes on Friday’s practice:

• Friday marked the Lions’ first indoor practice since pads came on, which gave me and my colleagues a little more intimate look at players — we watch from a balcony above the field during indoor practice, as opposed to a bleacher behind one end zone when we’re outside — as well as the inside of the Lions’ Allen Park facility.

Because of new COVID-19 protocols, the Lions converted their indoor practice field to a new team meeting space, and they had to tear down that setup before practice. Most of the chairs, dividers and audio-visual equipment they use for their new team room setup were wheeled into the hallway just before practice, while a handful of elliptical machines and treadmills and even a couple heavy bags were still in place on the balcony.

The Lions moved that equipment out of the weight room earlier this summer to help players work out in a socially distant fashion, and it likely will remain there the rest of the year.

• Plenty of limited or non-participants in practice Friday. Running backs D’Andre Swift and Bo Scarbrough worked out with trainers on the side, Kerryon Johnson and Nick Bawden were given maintenance days off, Hunter Bryant remains out with a hamstring injury, and Taylor Decker and Trey Flowers sat out team drills, and Joe Dahl took only a smattering of reps.

For the second straight day, Tyrell Crosby worked first-team left tackle and Oday Aboushi worked first-team left guard.

The Lions did suffer one injury during Friday’s practice. Cornerback Mike Ford got tangled up with cornerback Victor Bolden in pass coverage and went to the ground grabbing his lower right leg. The Lions moved practice to another part of the field while trainers tended to Ford, who eventually had to be helped off the field. He was able to put some weight on his foot before he disappeared out of sight.

• Never got an answer on why, but Lions running backs worked with footballs that appeared to be covered by some sort of soft fabric sleeve, like the book cover my daughter has on her sixth-grade math book.

I suspect this was to make the ball tougher to grip, with no surface to feel, but one person suggested it might have been sanitary purposes given COVID-19. There were no coaches or defenders actively trying to knock the ball loose in the drill, but I found it peculiar all the same. 

• Romeo Okwara has had a relatively quiet camp, but made the play of the day Friday. Okwara, who has taken first-team reps at defensive end in Flowers’ absence, made a diving interception on a goal-line pass from Stafford to Isaac Nauta that Tracy Walker deflected with his right hand.

Okwara had a quiet 2019 season after logging 7½ sacks in in 2018. He won’t play a lot this year if Flowers is healthy, but Friday’s play is a reminder of his freakish athleticism.

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• The Lions go into regular season mode next week, which means the media viewing window shortens to about 20 minutes. Patricia said the Lions will be back in pads Saturday for what should be an intense workout after working in shells Friday.

Roster cuts are a week from Saturday, and the Lions still have decisions to make at punter, long snapper, fullback and for several backup jobs. One intriguing decision I think they have to make is whether to keep six receivers (both Hall and Agnew are worth of roster spots) and go short-handed at another position (tight end, maybe, where they can keep two on practice squad).

For what it’s worth, I’d go heavy at receiver right now.

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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