Head coach Dan Campbell breaks down Lions’ NFL Draft class

Detroit News

In his first public comments since the Detroit Lions added seven players via the NFL Draft, coach Dan Campbell joined NFL Radio on Sirius XM to break down the team’s rookie class, starting with first-rounder Penei Sewell.

Many people have seen Detroit’s jubilant war room after general manager Brad Holmes phoned Sewell to inform him he would be the selection, but Campbell said there was an earlier celebration when the team realized the Oregon offensive tackle made it to them at pick No. 7.

“Yeah, it’s funny because we knew the first obstacle was going to be Cincinnati, as to what they were going to do (at pick No. 5),” Campbell said. “There was speculation on both sides as to what are they really going to come out with, and is it going to be him or is it going to be (Ja’Marr) Chase? We were prepared for either way, but we knew if he could get by Cincinnati, we had a good shot. Because then the only thing you’re worrying about is someone wanting to trade up for him.

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“Once he cleared Cincinnati, it looked like we may have a legitimate shot at this. You know, we weren’t too worried about Miami. We didn’t think they would take him. Once they took (Jaylen) Waddle, once Miami took Waddle … we were through the roof. I think what’s funny is the footage everybody saw, that was kind of after we had known what transpired. If you would have seen the clip when Waddle, when we saw it come across the ticker, you would have thought the opponent just whiffed a field goal, missed it and you win the game. It was great. It was outstanding.”

The Lions started Day 2 with a pair of defensive tackles, Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill. Campbell, who grew up in the Dallas area and began his playing career with the Cowboys, noted how much the relationships he built in the area helped him do background work on Onwuzurike, who also grew up in a Dallas suburb.

“I know a ton of people in the Metroplex that know this kid that had nothing to do with football, but they know all about his family and his own character,” Campbell said. “That, to me, is what you had to trust and what’s important to really, really find out what these kids are made of. And we really did that with all these guys.”

On the field, Campbell said the Lions really like Onwuzurike’s versatility and project him as a player who can play both a two-gap and attacking styles, depending on what the game plan calls for.

“He plays much bigger and stouter than his 290 pounds would show or indicate,” Campbell said. “And No. 2, when he gets an edge, he’s got a ton of upside to rush the quarterback, because he’s so explosive off the ball. That’s what really intrigues us about this guy, the potential that he’s got. And right, he’s got this demeanor about him like it really means something to him to want to disrupt the play, to wreck a play, to ruin an offensive lineman’s day. That means something to him.”

Campbell noted similar pass-rush upside with the 320-pound McNeill, who projects as more of a nose tackle in Detroit’s defensive scheme.

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“To us, this is not just a two-down nose, that’s going to sit in there and stop the run,” Campbell said. “We feel like there’s upside with this kid to become a rusher. … When you look at what he was doing in high school, being a running back and playing linebacker, and then you see the baseball clips of him swinging away, this is a good athlete, man, who can turn his hips and flip. He can anchor. I love the fact that he’s built like a tree trunk with long arms, but yet, man, he can explode off the line and he can get an edge on a guy and he’s by you in a hurry. Those dudes are hard to block.”

Detroit closed out the second day of the draft by grabbing cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu at the end of the third round, using a selection they picked up from the Rams in the Matthew Stafford trade.

Campbell echoed many of the comments previously made by Holmes, specifically the surprise Melifonwu lasted that deep into the draft.

“He’s just sticking out like a sore thumb and you can’t avoid him,” Campbell said. “To know what kind of athlete and football player he is — and by the way, this kid has a background now, too. Everything about him, he does extra work. He knows how to work, he’s smart, he’s competitive, he’s got some dog in him and he loves football. Then you put that with the athletic ability, knowing this is a 41-inch vert guy and 11(-foot) broad, on top of that, he can run at over 200 pounds. Man, he’s got some speed and length and ball skills, it was a no-brainer for us. We were thrilled to get him. We were actually shocked that we were able to get him where we got him.”

The Lions wasted little time addressing a pair of glaring needs on Day 3, snagging wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown with the seventh pick of the fourth round before trading for the subsequent selection to add Purdue linebacker Derrick Barnes.

St. Brown’s no-nonsense attitude resonated with Campbell, and the coach mentioned multiple times that the receiver embodied the football character the team is seeking as it reshapes the roster.

“He’s a competitor, he’s tough, he’s crafty, he’s smart, he’s versatile,” Campbell said. “He checks all these boxes. Is he a guy that’s going to run a 4.3? No, he’s not a 4.3 guy, but he plays fast, man. We just felt like he was an excellent addition. We think he can go in there and compete at slot receiver, but I think this kid has some outside flex to him, too. Just, again, we loved his approach. Everything you alluded to, he’s all about ball, he’s all about business. He’s not going to cower to anybody. He’s coming in here to win a job. And once he does that, he’s going to beat anybody that wants to cover him one-on-one.”

With Barnes, Campbell loved the leadership and accountability the linebacker showed by not opting out of the 2020 season. Barnes will play off-the-ball in Detroit, just like he did his last season with the Boilermakers.

“He’s dependable, he’s tough, and really, he’s only been a stack backer for a year,” Campbell said. “He’s got so much room to grow. He’s got an old-school mentality about him. He’s already reached out to me. He wants to be 55. How throwback is 55 for an inside linebacker? It’s so beautiful.

“But yet he’s a damn good athlete,” Campbell continued. “This kid can run. You know? He’s got an old-school mentality, but he’s a new-age athlete. He can run, he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s got 34-inch arms, so he comes downhill and he can shed blocks. Look, he’ll have a little bit of growing pains, but we all think he can develop into something special. There again, his character just reeks of success.”

The Lions closed out the draft with Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson, snagging him No. 257 overall. Like Melifonwu, Campbell said the Lions had the back graded much higher and were surprised he was available at the end of the seventh round.

“He paid a little bit for his pro day,” Campbell said. “Some would say his pro day wasn’t as exciting as some would have liked. But one of the last things we talked to our area scout about, Cary Conklin, he said, ‘Trust the tape on this kid. Don’t look at the pro day, trust the tape.’

“I’ll tell you what, when you just turn on the tape, this kid’s a football player,” Campbell said. “He had some of the fastest play speed of any halfback in this draft. I think he may have been second behind Najee Harris. I’m not talking about 40s, I’m talking about play speed during the game. You see it. There’s enough plays out there where he busts into the wide open and nobody is catching him. What I love is, even for me, halfbacks, I don’t necessarily care about speed. I care about vision and toughness and smarts and this kid, he hits every one of those.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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