Lions minicamp observations: Bolden, Cephus create buzz; Goff-Hockenson connection clicking

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions capped their three-day mandatory minicamp on Thursday. Here are some notes and observations from those practices.

► These early offseason practices offer an opportunity for pass-catchers to stand out for multiple reasons. There’s no jamming at the line of scrimmage, no pass rush to disrupt the quarterback in the pocket, and players are strongly encouraged to stay off the ground to avoid injury, making defensive players reluctant to attempt aggressive plays on the ball. That allows receivers to operate more freely in this environment than they would in a padded practice or game setting.

So there’s a reason, seemingly every year, a receiver that wasn’t on the radar coming into the sessions works his way into the conversation. Remember Teo Redding? Patrick Edwards? Demario Ballard?

That’s simply a reminder we can’t put too much stock into a good week in these settings, but having a string of strong practices is better than the alternative. If nothing else, it puts a player in line for a longer look during training camp and the preseason, where they’ll have a shot to win a job.

The receiver earning that wave of praise this go-around is Victor Bolden, who has been bouncing around the league since going undrafted out of Oregon State in 2017. He’s been with Detroit since late in the 2019 season and obviously has shown enough on the practice field to stick around on the practice squad, but his route running seemed to be at another level this past weekend.

Bolden figures to be in the mix for one of the last couple receiver spots, and what adds to his chances is his ability to play special teams and handle return duties. His consistency throughout the early portion of the offseason program has caught the eye of the coaching staff and he’ll be one to watch through August to see if he can maintain the momentum.

► The other receiver who stood out during minicamp was Quintez Cephus. If we’re being honest about it, he’s been something of an afterthought during this offseason of change, particularly after his position group was overhauled. Even ahead of the draft, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn told The Athletic, “I like the young man, just don’t know a lot about him.”

A fifth-round draft pick a year ago, Cephus caught 20 passes for 349 yards and two scores as a rookie. He showed flashes, but, as you might expect with a first-year player, he lacked consistency.

Consistency was what stood out this week. Cephus is running good routes at all levels of the field, and despite his noted lack of straight-line speed, he plays fast.

You don’t win a job at this time of the year, but he certainly didn’t look like a player who will be on the bubble when it comes time to make roster decisions.

► At the top of the receiver depth chart, Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman had quieter weeks. If anything, T.J. Hockenson looked to be forming fast chemistry with quarterback Jared Goff, showing real potential to be Detroit’s top option in the pass game this season.

You could go as far as to say the offensive scheme, in these early stages of installation, seems to be tight end friendly. Several of the young tight ends were frequently targeted, with Alize Mack standing out as the early front-runner for the third job behind Hockenson and Darren Fells.

But back to the Goff and Hockenson connection. The incoming quarterback worked the ball to the Pro Bowl tight end across the middle and near the sidelines at a high volume. Plus, Hockenson appeared to be a quarterback’s favorite choice in the red zone.

On the downside, Hockenson uncharacteristically put a few balls on the ground, and his propensity for going to the ground while making the catch, negating an opportunity to extend his gains, remains present.

► While it’s tough to get a full grasp for the scheme in these settings, it does appear Lynn is going to incorporate a significant amount of pre-snap motions and shifts to keep opposing defenses off balance. I asked Tyrell Williams about the value of those looks after Thursday’s practice.

“Definitely makes the defense have to think a lot more, especially if you’re going against a young defense or a new system that they just put in,” Williams said. “Hopefully get them off of communication and hopefully it’ll open something up. And it just keeps that going all the way down the field if we can continue to do that, translates into the red zone. If you can get people moving in the red zone, you’re going to be able to find those open pockets a lot easier.”

► It’s going to be fun to watch what kind of competitive drills coach Dan Campbell and his staff utilize during training camp. Even during these handful of early practices open to the media, we were given a glimpse of things to come.

My favorite competition from the week was the defensive linemen playing a variation of tag. Two would line up, one behind the other, with the trailing lineman trying to tag the one in front of him while running a figure eight around two large hoops on the ground.

If a tag was applied, the linemen reversed direction and changed who was “it.” The competition was fierce, but also had the guys laughing and having fun, a hallmark of a Campbell practice.

► Dipping back to Goff for a minute, the first thing you notice watching him is how fluid his throwing mechanics are through the release of the ball. He showed good accuracy and anticipation when throwing into windows.

Of course, the book on Goff is he doesn’t deal particularly well with pressure, and he doesn’t always do a great job sensing the rush. Absent a defensive line, he was able to showcase what he does best, and we won’t get a better feel for how he’ll look this season until he’s dealing with Michael Brockers collapsing his pocket and flushing him into the edge rush of Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers.

► The Lions worked on plenty of situational football during the three-day camp. The first-team defense dominated the fourth-and-goal segment, which they should since they can play back and protect the end zone.

Safety Will Harris had an interception in that segment, which could be a much-needed confidence booster for the third-year player who has struggled to find his footing at this level.

The team also worked on the two-minute drill, giving the offense 1:48 to drive 75 yards and needing a touchdown. Goff successfully led the first-team offense against a defense that was missing some top pieces (Tracy Walker, Jamie Collins and Jeff Okudah).

Goff completed six of his nine passes on the scoring drive, hooking up with Hockenson three times, including a drive-capping touchdown.

Backup Tim Boyle, who got better as the week went on after a sluggish start, wasn’t nearly as sharp during his series. After getting the offense across midfield, he gave away his intentions with his eyes, telegraphing a throw to receiver Damion Ratley that cornerback AJ Parker jumped and intercepted.

► Yes, linebacker Jahlani Tavai looks different after his weight loss. He’s moving much better in space and showing some promise in coverage. I’m not sure what kind of role he’ll be able to carve out following the additions of Alex Anzalone in free agency and Derrick Barnes via the draft, but I’m less inclined to write off Tavai than I would have been at the end of last season.

► Running back D’Andre Swift looks like he’s going to be more prominently featured in the passing attack. The best play of the three-day camp came when he hauled in a one-handed catch for a touchdown in the back corner of the end zone, despite extremely tight coverage by Tavai.

On the flip side, rookie running back Jermar Jefferson struggled as a receiver, putting a couple balls on the ground.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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