5 things to watch at Detroit Lions minicamp: Hockenson’s return, improvements in red zone

Detroit Free Press

With their first six practices of organized team activities in the books, the Detroit Lions are closing in on the end of their formal offseason program.

The Lions host veteran minicamp Tuesday-Thursday this week, then one more week of OTAs before breaking for the summer.

Minicamp is the only mandatory part of the offseason, and if last year is any indication, the Lions won’t have many veterans around next week. Lions coach Dan Campbell said he’s pleased with the growth his team has shown so far, and a focus this week will be situational football.

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That’s where we start our look at five things to watch in minicamp.

Red zone focus

Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said last week the Lions had installed about 60% of their playbook, and they spent the first two weeks of OTAs working on their base offense and third down play calling. This week, Campbell said, the focus will shift to red zone work (but not goal line) and two-minute offense and defense.

The Lions ranked 31st in third down and red zone offense last season, and Johnson has said improving those categories will be crucial to their success this fall. Specifically, their run efficiency — which he has defined as getting 4 yards on first down, half the distance necessary for a first down on second down, and converting a run for a first down on third or fourth down — needs to improve.

There is only so much work teams can do on the running game in the spring, when players aren’t in pads. But the NFL has long been a pass-first league, even in the red zone, and the work the Lions do this week will be crucial to their offensive success come fall.

Young M.C.

Along with getting in a good baseline for play calling in “the criticals,” as Campbell calls situational football, the Lions coach said a focus of minicamp (and really, the spring) is individual improvement across the Lions’ young roster.

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“(The object is to) kind of get the vets to where they knock some of the rust off, they know what we’re trying to do, and then see if we can start building to develop the young guys,” Campbell said. “Get that crew from last year a little bit better, get these rookies a little bit better so that when we put pads on in training camp, we’re not starting over from scratch.”

The Lions have one player over 30 on the roster, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, and should have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL this fall. For young veterans like Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Ifeatu Melifonwu who will play key roles in 2022, it is important to finish spring on a strong note.

Pay pal

The Lions shared pictures on social media of tight end T.J. Hockenson at voluntary workouts earlier this spring, but the fourth-year tight end has not been at either of the team’s two practices open to the media.

Hockenson started the season strong last year, but had only 13 catches in his final four games then missed the last month after opting to undergo thumb surgery. Hockenson should be a key part of an improved Lions offense this fall, one with more weapons to lean on in the passing game. He also is in line for a contract extension that should make him one of the highest-paid tight ends in football.

Many around the NFL expect that deal to get done this summer, and it’s something Hockenson will be asked about this week.

Pressure wash

We won’t know till training camp at the earliest how real it is, but one glimmer of hope to come from OTAs was the Lions’ seemingly improved pass rush.

Aidan Hutchinson went from dominating the third-team offensive line to getting first-team reps at defensive end in a week, and backup defensive linemen Jashon Cornell and Bruce Hector delivered would-be game-ending sacks in the Lions’ situational period in last Thursday’s OTA practice.

The Lions defense has looked ahead of the offense so far this spring, and that’s with the all-important caveat that it’s June and no one’s in pads and Hockenson, Taylor Decker and Jameson Williams are among those sitting out. Still, the Lions seem to have improved depth on their defensive front, and their new scheme allows them to be more aggressive. In situational periods this week, it will be interesting to see where the offense improves and whether the pass rush can continue making plays.

Last looks

Final roster cuts are still three months away, and what happens in spring is a tiny part of the evaluation. But early opinions are formed and players who finish the spring on a strong note can give coaches plenty to think about when they return for training camp.

The Lions have a deeper roster than last year, which will make roster cuts more difficult. Among the positions where tough decisions await: Kicker, running back and defensive back.

It’s tough to stand out as a running back before pads come on, and several backup spots in the secondary will be decided by special teams. But kickers Riley Patterson and Austin Seibert have a more straightforward competition with data special teams coordinator Dave Fipp can evaluate now. For Patterson, Seibert and everyone else on the roster bubble, it’s important to leave a good impression heading into summer.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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