Observations from Lions 2021 rookie mini-camp

Pride of Detroit

Like the air after a thunderstorm, the atmosphere surrounding Allen Park felt clean and fresh following a change in regime for the Detroit Lions. Yes, it’s only the first day the media has been let in to observe football activities in 2021, but the changes were noticeable and plenty.

The first notable change was that the media was allowed on the premises to observe. This opportunity was phased out during the Bob Quinn/Matt Patricia era. Coach Dan Campbell not only welcomed the media in, but he laid out the format for the day: Walkthroughs, individual drills, special teams drills, and wrapping up the day with 7 on 7’s.

There was also a heavy contingent of Lions’ staff well beyond the 21 coaches. GM Brad Holmes was present, as was team president Rod Wood, special assistant Chris Spielman, assistant GM Ray Agnew, senior personnel executive John Dorsey, and director of player personnel Lance Newmark, to name a few. There were so many staff members present that they clearly outnumbered the 32 players participating.

Filling in the gaps

With new NFL rules in place, teams are limited to the number of players they can have in attendance for mini-camp—for example, they can only have five try-out players—and that means they were going to be short at some positions.

The most obvious was that there was no quarterback present. Campbell mentioned at his morning press conference that with limited spots, he didn’t want to waste a spot on a player who wasn’t going to get a shot at the roster, as the team was very happy with the three they currently have on the roster: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, and David Blough.

Fortunately, the Lions have some coaches who were former quarterbacks at the college and/or pro-level they leaned them in certain situations. Quarterback coach Mark Brunell and wide receivers coach Antwaan Randle El were called on a few times, but it was offensive quality control coach Tanner Engstrand, a former quarterback at San Diego State, who was the primary thrower—and he can still sling it.

The Lions also only had three offensive linemen (no tackles) and the two defensive linemen they drafted—Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill—present, making trench work very light. At times they needed to pull in staff for simulated drills, asking WCF Minority coaching assistant Deon’Tae Pannell to play left tackle and offensive quality control coach Steve Oliver at right tackle.

As linemen aren’t used much on special teams, the linemen spent the majority of their time getting one-on-one coaching from their position coaches. Onwuzurike and McNeill got a lot of attention from defensive line coach Todd Wash, while offensive line coach Hank Fraley put Drake Jackson, Tommy Kraemer, and Evan Heim through position drills, getting them reps at all three interior positions. Kraemer and Heim got looks at center, but Jackson’s experience and quick hands made him a standout during these drills.

Drills were competitive and technical, but also fun

With no pads and a limited roster, the coaching staff was limited in what it could accomplish, but they found a nice balance between learning what they have in a player while also keeping players safe and motivated.

During drills, coaches were very meticulous and intense, consistently pushing technique and form, but they weren’t over-the-top or negative, and were often seen praising players for good execution or showing improvement.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn walked with a purpose between position groups and seemed to be studying each player and their performance. He took his time watching each player intently, while not stepping on the position coach’s toes. When Glenn did inject himself, it was to offer praise and encouragement.

At one point during linebacker drills, Derrick Barnes, Anthony Pittman, and Tavante Beckett were taking direction from linebackers coach Mark Deleone, while being flanked by Glenn on one side and Spielman on the other. That’s some serious pressure on those young men, but at the same time, all the yelling was positive and encouraging—a far cry from what we have seen on the Lions practice field over the last few years.

After drills, but before 7-on-7’s would close the day, coaches threw in another wrinkle into the schedule, asking players to compete in some unique games. The purpose here was to amp up the intensity, while also staying loose before the final culminating session.

Essentially the team split up into two groups. The skill players faced off in a speed and agility drill, while the big men played a game that focused on power.

In the WR vs DB drill, it appeared the coaches asked for someone to step up and challenge a player on the other side of the ball and UDFA CB Jerry Jacobs stepped right up and challenged WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. The bravado was impressive, but St. Brown got the best of him, which drew a huge celebration from the offensive players. It didn’t get any better for the defense as the competition went on, as the offense won every drill I saw.

The offensive and defensive linemen took turns pairing up in twos in a volleyball-style competition. The variation being that they were throwing a medicine ball back and forth over 55-gallon waste receptacles, and once bounce was allowed. Another fun competitive game that had smiles all around.

Player observations

While practices allowed coaches to ascertain valuable information in a player’s abilities, this style of format doesn’t offer as much information for an observer on the sidelines. Because of this, there’s not a lot that we learned about players today.

Let’s go rapid fire on some quick observations:

  • RB Jermar Jefferson looked quicker than expected
  • RB Rakeem Boyd was not practicing
  • WR St. Brown was as technical in his routes as was advertised
  • WR Tom Kennedy’s quickness is going to keep him in the mix
  • WR Johnathan Adams caught a touchdown and looked sharp in special teams drills
  • WR Javon McKinley ended the day with a touchdown of his own
  • With no pads, it’s difficult to glean anything from the linemen
  • LB Barnes was fluid in his movements and saw action at all four linebacker spots
  • LB Anthony Pittman, like Barnes, found himself a lot of opportunities in this scheme and could be in a better spot to stick than previously thought
  • You don’t see many corners the size of Ifeatu Melifonwu that can move like him
  • Despite being on a try-out, S Alijah Holder was running with the starters
  • Try-out player S Nick Pickett had an interception that would have gone for six

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