With no preseason games to evaluate, the Detroit Lions closed training camp Saturday with the next best thing — a controlled scrimmage that featured some live tackling.
It wasn’t the same quality of work players would normally get going against another team, either in joint practices or exhibition games, but Lions coach Matt Patricia manufactured enough situations to give his starters (and some backups) a dry run for the regular season.
“Certainly, obviously, the competition is the most important thing right now and getting everybody kind of a chance to go compete, get better, improve and get ready to play,” Patricia said. “Even the guys that have been proven players for us, they haven’t played football in a really long time so there’s a lot of parts of a real game that we need to try to get in.”
The Lions have another situational-type scrimmage planned next week that will simulate the fourth preseason game, when coaches usually take a long look at backups and players fighting for roster spots.
Media access is limited going forward, however, so this last set of observations for the summer is heavy on what happened Saturday’s scrimmage, which featured a fair amount of work for the starting offense and defense.
Three players in particular stood out:
Kenny Golladay led the NFL in touchdown receptions last season, should sign a hefty new contract here in the next week or two, and looks poised to live up to the money he is about to make. He caught two touchdown passes Saturday, one on a one-handed grab that looked like he had suction cups on his glove and the other despite some really nice coverage by Amani Oruwariye. The one-handed catch came in the far corner of the field, and defensive players on the sideline blocked my view of who was in coverage, but it looked like a play not many receivers in the NFL can make.
[ D’Andre Swift’s lingering leg injury could cost him snaps to start season ]
The other offensive player who flashed in a big way Saturday was rookie running back Jason Huntley. With D’Andre Swift and Bo Scarbrough still out with injuries, Huntley got a long look with the second-team offense. I’ve written about his pass-catching prowess in previous editions of the observations, but he had a couple nice runs where he showed good vision Saturday. At one point, he carried on back-to-back plays, gaining a few yards before Jalen Reeves-Maybin hit him on his first carry and stutter-stepping past a defender for a sizable gain on his second. (The Lions didn’t use the scoreboard often to mark down and distance so most yardages mentioned here are only estimates.)
The final star of Saturday was linebacker Jarrad Davis. Davis had a couple big-time hits; you could tell he was anxious to get some live tackling in. He celebrated with a deserving flex after one big hit on Ty Johnson, then a few plays later stopped Jonathan Williams on a third-and-what-looked-like-1 to force a field goal.
I don’t know how high you want to get your hopes up for Davis in this contract year, but he looked good on Saturday.
• Cornerback Tony McRae had a nice camp overall, but not the best day Saturday. Marvin Hall beat McRae for an easy touchdown on the second-team offense’s opening drive, and McRae’s day ended early when he suffered what appeared to be a left knee injury on a two-minute series to end practice.
Jalen Elliott had a would-be sack on Chase Daniel on the play, so I didn’t see how McRae got tangled up, but he limped off the field under his own power and went to the locker with a trainer while Patricia was addressing the rest of the team.
• Hall, who averaged 37.3 yards per catch in limited work last season, has made a strong case for a roster spot this summer in what I would make a six-man receiving corps if I was setting the 53-man roster.
Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola are the Lions’ top receivers, and Hall, rookie Quintez Cephus and Jamal Agnew, who caught a touchdown Saturday (though it looked just short of the goal line) have all earned roster spots in my estimation.
“The first thing I learned when I walked in this building is just the depth of that receiver room,” Daniel said. “You have the big three that everyone talks about, but those guys that you were just talking about and some other guys, too, there’s not a lot of drop off. … It’s super impressive from a standpoint, like, when I’m going with the twos, I’m throwing to some guys.”
• If the Lions go heavy at receiver, that of course means they have to go light somewhere else. I’ll do my full 53-man roster prediction next week, but off the top of my head, I’d guess that would be at either the running back position or offensive line.
More: Lions’ 53-man roster prediction: Is a change at long snapper in the cards?
At running back, there’s a pretty clear hierarchy of Kerryon Johnson, Swift and Huntley, though Swift’s injury — he hasn’t practiced in going on two weeks — might make keeping just three running backs tough. Scarbrough played well last season, but hasn’t seen the field much this year, either, and has a long injury history to account for. Ty Johnson also could be in the mix, but I’m guessing both of those players would make it through to practice squad if the Lions choose.
As for the offensive line, depth remains an issue there (with only Kenny Wiggins, Tyrell Crosby and Logan Stenberg comfortable in backup spots), but the Lions could stash a few blockers on the expanded practice squad.
• Kerryon Johnson, by the way, might have made the catch of the day, laying out to haul in a pass from Matthew Stafford that gave the offense first-and-goal at the 4. It’s easy to forget how effective Johnson was as a dual-threat back as a rookie in 2018 because of his knee injuries.
• Defensively, Jeff Okudah’s head still seems to be spinning a bit at the cornerback position. Okudah appeared to misplay a run fit on one touchdown drive by the first-team offense, allowing Ty Johnson to bounce a nice gain to the outside corner. He played exclusively with the first-team defense Saturday, but was the fourth cornerback in, with Desmond Trufant and Oruwariye starting and Justin Coleman playing in the slot. I’m sticking to my prediction that he’s going to be a really good player in time, but will have some hiccups (remember Darius Slay’s rookie season) this fall.
• Another secondary player who caught my eye Saturday was C.J. Moore, who contributed primarily on special teams last season. Moore’s value remains in the kicking game, but he lined up in some one-on-one coverage with receivers Saturday. He broke up a jump ball to Chris Lacy in the end zone to force a field goal on one possession and forced an overthrow to Cephus in the end zone on another.
• Jesse James had a bad drop Saturday. He’s been getting a lot of work with the first-team offense — remember, T.J. Hockenson is returning from an ankle injury — but I don’t expect much of a jump in numbers from last year’s 16-catch season.
— Fullback Jason Cabinda made a nice catch in the flat on a series with the second-team offense. Patricia blew the play dead, so we’ll never know, but I think Cabinda would have broke a Reeves-Maybin tackle had the play continued. Nick Bawden did not play Saturday, and sits firmly on the roster bubble entering the final week of camp.
• Finally, the punter and long snapper jobs are going down to the last week. I’d give Jack Fox, who had one 65-yard-or-so punt Saturday, the edge at punter, and I think undrafted rookie Steven Wirtel has been the most consistent long snapper. I think both jobs are still up for grabs, but that’s how I see them a week before cuts. In the return game, it interesting that the Lions had Agnew handle the first couple kick returns Saturday while Hall handled punts. Hall let Fox’s long punt hit the turf, but seemed like he had an opportunity to field it on the catch.
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