It wasn’t a typical rookie minicamp. Roster limitations, spurred by the ongoing pandemic, changed the way the Detroit Lions normally would have conducted business this weekend.
But first-year coach Dan Campbell found a silver lining with the smaller number of invitees — a forced slowdown that allowed the coaching staff to narrow the focus of their teaching as the new crop of players familiarize themselves with their responsibilities and expectations as professionals.
“Quite frankly, just being over these last two days and seeing how it worked, it’s been a blessing in disguise because I think these guys aren’t ready for football,” Campbell said. “They’re ready for walkthrough football, which is what we’ve done, but they just need fundamental work and we needed to get our eyes on them as a coaching staff and (general manager) Brad (Holmes) and his department to be able to see their movement skills, particularly some of these tryout players.”
In a normal year, NFL teams would be permitted to invite dozens of tryout players to camp, which in addition to their rookie class and crop of undrafted free agents, gives you enough bodies to conduct more traditional practices.
But current NFL rules permit just five tryout players. That left the Lions with a total of 32 participants for the weekend, leaving them shorthanded at several positions. That was most notable at quarterback, where the Lions were without one for the three days of practice.
Instead, when the team needed passes thrown, they turned to the former players on the coaching staff, from 17-year veteran Mark Brunell to Antwaan Randle-El, a college QB who converted to receiver as a pro. But most of the work under center was handled by quality control coach Tanner Engstrand, who played quarterback at San Diego State from 2003-04.
“It worked out fine,” running back Jermar Jefferson said. “I feel like he’s a good quarterback. He knew everything, knew the plays, knew how to adjust and everything and he has a good arm. He has a really good arm, it’s crazy.”
The majority of the three practices focused on individual drills, half-speed team periods that hammered home formations and alignments, with just 10 reps of full-speed seven-on-seven work to end Sunday’s session.
But even though the Lions were light on full-speed football work, there were clear signs of the culture Campbell and his staff are attempting to foster, centered around competition and enjoying it.
There were segments that pitted receivers and defensive backs against each other in a serpentining race around tackling dummies. And for the big men, they played a game that looked something like volleyball, but using a medicine ball.
Mixed with the drive to outdo the man in front of them, there was smiles and laughter. It was a reflection of something general manager Brad Holmes said ahead of the draft, that the Lions will be about working hard and having fun this season.
The weekend was also a reminder that it wasn’t just rookie camp for the players, but for a coaching staff working together for the first time, with several members, including Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn debuting in their roles.
Campbell was highly complimentary of his staff, specifically praising them for their attention to detail. He said multiple times when he’s noticed something that needs fixing, his assistant coaches will beat him to the punch when it comes to addressing the issues with the players.
“I mean it’s better than good, it’s great,” Campbell said. “…It’s like, ‘Whoa, all right.’ That’s how you know you’ve got the right guys because even little details, the position coaches, the same thing. I know we’re only two days into this, but when you start seeing, and you’re looking for the fine details of things and you’re getting ready to say something and you have a coach who jumps in and he’s already ahead of you on it, that’s where you know you have the right guys because they see it like you do. The chemistry’s been outstanding.”
Campbell also has been amused with his staff’s competitiveness, which he expects will make for an interesting and entertaining training camp in a couple of months.
“Listen, it’s a walk-through, but I can tell you this: I’ve got a feeling you guys are going to get a show in training camp some days because I already know this from (Glenn), he’s competitive as hell,” Campbell said. “He’s pretty mild-mannered and he knows how to teach, great guy. But man, when you put him in an environment to where it’s competitive, he’s a little pitbull now and he explodes.
“And guess what? (Offensive coordinator Anthony) Lynn is not backing down to anything either,” Campbell continued. “There’s already been a lot of trash talking between both sides, and I’m talking about Aubrey (Pleasant) and (Antwaan Randle-) El. That’s a good thing. It’s going to start with the coaches and it’ll bleed to the players. These guys are going to compete and scratch and claw for everything. I’m telling you, the coaches are going to do it. To answer your question, it’s poetry in motion.”