Detroit Lions’ rookie minicamp opened up on Friday, but on Saturday, the team made way for the media to observe about a 90-minute session of unpadded practice. While most of the practice involved players working with their positional coaches, there were a few team drills that allowed a more in-depth look at their game.
Here’s our breakdown of what happened during Saturday morning’s practice.
As expected, Lions’ first-round pick Jameson Williams and sixth-round pick James Mitchell did not participate as the pair continue to work back from their respective ACL tears. Mitchell is certainly more close to coming back, but couldn’t provide insight into when he may be back on the field. Mitchell does believe he’ll be back in time for training camp.
“As far as I know. I don’t have a direct date for you yet,” Mitchell said. “They’re just feeling me out and setting up a plan.”
While Williams wasn’t practicing, he was certainly in the mix a lot. He was actively cheering on teammates, engaged with the action that was happening, and even caught passes for a few minutes from head coach Dan Campbell. Notably, he walked around with a football in his hand the entire time, and a sheet with the offense’s script on it while going through mental reps.
Additionally, UDFA tight end Derrick Deese Jr. was also sidelined for the day. No word yet on why.
Going into minicamp, there were a few questions about where some drafted rookies would play in this defensive scheme, and while we shouldn’t jump to conclusions in May, I think we may have gotten some answers.
Sixth-round pick James Houston—who played linebacker all of his life until he moved to EDGE last year at Jackson State and had a career season—is clearly viewed as a linebacker, not an edge defender, by the Lions at this point. While he had a fair amount reps near the line of scrimmage, he was basically off-ball the entire day and practiced with the linebacker group during positional drills. More on him in a bit.
Seventh-round Chase Lucas nearly played exclusively as the nickel corner during practice. He had been getting acclimated to playing inside over his past two seasons at Arizona State, and he sounds comfortable there.
“I was mainly at slot (at minicamp),” Lucas said after practice. “I think (DBs coach Aubrey Pleasant) and (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) are just kinda just making me know all the positions, the whole defense so I can communicate with the linebackers and DBs and all that. I feel like I’m in the right spot, the right defense.”
Second-round pick Josh Paschal repped at edge, opposite Aidan Hutchinson, which leads us into our first position of focus…
Hutchinson’s bend and motor just completely jump off the page. During an agility drill, Hutchinson was getting extremely low to the ground around the tackling dummies, and he showed nice change-of-direction speed.
Paschal’s game is entirely different. He doesn’t have the bend to get around the edge, and, instead, will win with his size and explosiveness inside. He gave a little insight as to what his role will be after practice.
“I think I fit as that guy, a big guy, a big defensive end. That’s what we’re calling it,” Paschal said. “I feel like I can play across that front, but particularly on the edge, or even if I need to kick inside for the run game.”
It’s going to be hard to see Paschal as much of a pass-rushing threat on the edge, but it’s worth noting that he and Hutchinson switched sides regularly during the opening 11-on-11 drills.
Overall, this was a tough unit to judge during practice because they almost exclusively did individual drills.
I spent the majority of practice watching the linebackers, both because they ran drills right in front of the media and because Detroit has two draft picks at the position in Malcolm Rodriguez and Houston.
They spent much of the first half of practice working through coverage looks. Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard would present an offensive front, and the linebackers would have to match with their pre-snap alignment and their subsequent coverage responsibilities. Sheppard spent almost no time with Rodriguez, who appeared to answer all of his questions correctly and quickly gain Sheppard’s trust.
On the other hand, Sheppard was in Houston’s ear for the entire drill. Obviously, Houston has three years of experience at linebacker from his University of Florida days, but it may take some time to readjust.
In fact, the coaching appeared to pay off almost immediately. They moved to seven-on-seven drills shortly thereafter, and quarterback Connor Sampson had to tuck the first rep and run because the coverage was so good. The entire linebacking corps—and coaching staff—erupted in cheers. Later in practice, Houston dropped into coverage, slipped, but recovered in time to get into position and get both hands on the ball before the interception slipped through his hands.
“Kinda get my feet back into seven-on-seven stuff,” Houston said after practice. “Haven’t done that in probably about a year. Everything is just kinda coming back naturally.”
The undrafted standouts
QB Connor Sampson
Let’s start with the one and only quarterback of the group: Connor Sampson, a tryout player from Western Illinois who grew up in Belleville, Michigan. Sampson displayed a very strong arm and a tight spiral during practice. The accuracy was hit and miss, but it’s hard to blame a quarterback who is playing with an entirely new set of receivers. I had no expectations coming in from Sampson and I left intrigued.
RB Greg Bell
Oddly, the only running back in attendance, Bell appeared to be one of the Lions’ priority rookie free agent signings, as he reportedly got $100,000 guaranteed in his contract. During a special teams drill, where he and a defender basically ran at each other and Bell had to try to get by them, he absolutely undressed James Houston. Then, a few reps later, he did the exact same thing to Rodriguez. Not great news for the Lions’ rookie linebacker tandem, but definitely a head-turning moment for Bell, who has an uphill battle to make the roster in a crowded running back room.
WR Kalil Pimpleton
Pimpleton immediately stands out for his size—or lack thereof. At just 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds, he barely looks like a football player, but when he’s actually moving and playing, he’s a problem. His speed was on display, as was his ability to stop on a dime at the top of his routes:
Pimpleton finished practice with a cross route that earned him a few yards of separation and a 25ish-yard strike from Sampson.