A dozen story lines to watch as Detroit Lions open training camp

Detroit News

Allen Park — Football is back. The Detroit Lions’ rookies are already in town and the veterans report to training camp Tuesday, with the team’s first preseason game under three weeks away.

As the Lions open camp Wednesday morning, here are a dozen story lines worth watching:

New offense, similar questions

During the downtime between the end of OTAs in mid-June and the start of minicamp, you may have seen a note that the Lions currently have the league’s most expense offense. That’s largely tied to quarterback Jared Goff’s $31.2 million cap figure, which ranks fourth in the NFL behind only Ryan Tannehill, Patrick Mahomes and Kirk Cousins.

Beyond Goff, offensive linemen make up four of Detroit’s five biggest cap hits on that side of the ball. Not surprising given the contract extensions awarded to Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow in recent years, in addition to the big free-agent deal Halapoulivaati Vaitai scored in 2020 and the salary Penei Sewell is drawing as an early first-round draft pick.

The remainder of the top-10 cap hits are rounded out by Goff’s weapons — tight end T.J. Hockenson, wide receiver DJ Chark, running back D’Andre Swift and one of the team’s two first-rounders from this offseason, wide receiver Jameson Williams.

Last season, Detroit’s offense lacked potency, averaging fewer than 20 points per game. And if you were paying attention during training camp, those struggles were predictable. But things were noticeably better down the stretch last year, after the team made a change at offensive coordinator and Goff found reliable targets in emerging rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown and waiver claim Josh Reynolds.

Beyond the unit’s price tag, expectations are higher this year. Chark, a former Pro Bowler, was signed to provide Goff with more field-stretching speed on the outside, and that resource-rich offensive line is healthy a year after the starting five failed to share the field once during the regular season due to a revolving door of injuries.

Goff will be under the microscope once again as those inside and outside the organization continue to debate whether he’s the right man to maximize the talent around him. With new, but respected coordinator Ben Johnson tasked with building on the momentum from the end of last season, incorporating the new pieces and solving the offense’s red zone woes, we’ll likely have an idea if things are on track before the start of the season.

Lofty expectations

With the No. 2 pick in the most recent draft, the Lions snagged former Dearborn Divine Child and Michigan standout Aidan Hutchinson. The homegrown star perfectly fills Detroit’s need for edge-rushing help after the defense has ranked near the bottom of the league in quarterback pressure rate the past several seasons.

Hutchinson is coming off a monster year for the Wolverines, setting the school’s single-season sack mark with 14 as a senior. And he’s drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff and teammates during the early portions of his first offseason, although he’s primarily been working with the second-team defense.

With Romeo Okwara still recovering from last season’s torn Achilles, there’s a clear opportunity for Hutchinson to start working more with the top defensive grouping. And while it would be unfair to expect a first-year player to solve all of Detroit’s pass-rush woes out the gate, it would be nice to see some early productivity against Decker, Sewell and the team’s preseason opponents after Hutchinson showed flashes of dominance working against backup offensive linemen earlier this summer.

Getting on track

Speaking of first-round picks, cornerback Jeff Okudah avoided the physically unable to perform list to open training camp, indicating he’s nearly all the way back from last year’s Achilles injury.

To date, Okudah’s career has been a disappointment, although that’s hardly all his fault. Thrust into starting role on a bad defense as a rookie, he struggled mightily in coverage, allowing 76% of passes his direction to be completed before a core muscle injury prematurely ended his debut campaign. And last year, after a promising training camp hinted at significant second-season improvement, the Achilles put him on the shelf in Week 1.

Nearly a year removed from that devastating injury, Okudah is looking to show the world why he was the first cornerback in three decades taken in the first three picks of a draft. Expect the Lions to proceed with caution, carefully managing the young corner’s workload throughout the next few weeks, but all signs point to Okudah being the Week 1 starter.

Hard Knock life

HBO’s cameras will be rolling this week with the Lions set to be featured on this year’s season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which premiers Tuesday, Aug. 9, on the network. The program will provide fans with an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes access to their team during camp and should highlight some of the roster’s unique personalities.

Running back Jamaal Williams feels almost too obvious, while several players on the team, including Goff and fullback Jason Cabinda have been featured on program in previous years. So it will be interesting to see which under-the-radar talent ends up becoming a focal point this season.

Last offseason, undrafted cornerback Jerry Jacobs, affectionally known as “Crazy Jerry” by his teammates, would have been an easy choice. The gregarious underdog came out of nowhere to snag a roster spot after taking the long road to the league. Who will it be this year?

One player we’d like to see more on camera is rookie linebacker James Houston. After starting his collegiate career at Florida, he transferred to Jackson State, switched positions and became a standout with 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles. Nicknamed “The Problem,” he showed signs of a marketable personality on draft night after the Lions grabbed him in the sixth round.

Unlocking the defensive interior

After inheriting one of the least productive defenses in the league, rookie defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn had his unit trending in the right direction by the end of last season.

Early in the offseason, Glenn embarked on a thorough review of the film and decided one of the best ways to maximize his returning talent was to make an adjustment to the way the team was playing up front, most notably ditching the emphasis on gap control in favor on attacking upfield.

As noted earlier, the Lions have struggled to generate quarterback pressure in recent years, which has been most notable along the interior of the defensive line. The Lions are hopeful the schematic shift will unlock the disruptive prowess of veteran leader Michael Brockers, who had six quarterback pressures after averaging 33 the previous two seasons, as well as second-year talents Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike.

There also will be an opportunity for players like Jashon Cornell, Bruce Hector and rookies Josh Paschal and Demetrius Taylor to step up and snatch roles.

Finding the right kicker

After letting Matt Prater walk in free agency, the Lions struggled to find a replacement, cycling through multiple options prior to claiming Austin Seibert off waivers days before the start of the season.

Seibert proved to be solid, making 10 straight after missing his first attempt in a Lions uniform. But he lasted just six games before a hip injury ended his season. That led to rookie Riley Patterson taking the reins for the rest of the year. He also proved to be highly accurate, making 13 of his 14 attempts, although none were from 50 yards and beyond.

Both Seibert and Patterson are back this offseason and are set to compete for the job. It’s too early to suggest anyone has an edge, but Seibert clearly has the edge on leg strength, which factors in on kickoffs as well as field goals.

Role player position battles

Assuming good health, It’s relatively easy to identify Detroit’s starting offensive lineup, but there figures to be some intriguing role-player battles.

One that interests us is who will emerge as the No. 2 tight end to pair with Hockenson? The Lions have multiple options, including Brock Wright, the undrafted rookie from a year ago who played more than 300 snaps after getting promoted off the practice squad. Other contenders including veteran Garrett Griffin, who spent time with coach Dan Campbell in New Orleans, and Shane Zylstra, who was popping as a red-zone receiving threat during the early stages of the offseason program.

Devin Funchess, the former UM star and second-round pick who signed with Detroit in June, also merits some attention as he tries to make a hurried conversion from wide receiver.

Beyond tight end, it will be intriguing to see if a third running back can crack the rotation that figures to be dominated by the Swift/Williams tandem. Godwin Igwebuike, a converted safety, and Craig Reynolds flashed in limited opportunities last year. And the Lions remain intrigued with 2021 seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson’s impressive game speed. Undrafted rookie Greg Bell, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards at San Diego State last season, is the dark horse.

Cracking the rotation

Playing nearly every snap until his season was ended by injury, captain Alex Anzalone returns on a one-year deal and figures to remain a fixture in middle of the defense. How the remaining linebacker snaps are divvied up remains to be seen.

Free-agent addition Chris Board and second-year option Derrick Barnes had seen the most opportunities early in the offseason, while the returning Jarrad Davis, Josh Woods, Shaun Dion Hamilton and rookie Malcolm Rodriguez all will have opportunities to break into the rotation.

More: Breaking down LB Malcolm Rodriguez, Lions’ sixth-round draft pick: A film review

Expect a healthy amount of mixing and matching throughout camp and the preseason, and it wouldn’t be surprisingly to see the team continue deploying a number of options into the season based on game plan and matchups.

Who backs up Goff?

The Lions are telling us what they told us last offseason, that the backup quarterback job is an open battle, although Tim Boyle’s contract points to which way the team is leaning. That said, David Blough was often the better performer during OTAs and minicamp, so it’s not inconceivable last year’s third-stringer leapfrogs his competition for the job.

Boyle, the longtime Packer, missed the first half of last season with a thumb injury, but ended up making three starts down the stretch. A quick processer with an equally quick trigger, he completed nearly 65% of his throws. The downside is he’s been mistake prone, which resulted in six of his 94 attempts being intercepted. And that tendency carried over to those early offseason practices.

Blough, who is entering his fourth season with the Lions, hasn’t done much better with his playing time opportunities during his career, completing 54.3% of his passes, with four touchdowns to seven interceptions. It is fair to note nearly all of those numbers came during his rookie season.

Emerging piece

One of Detroit’s most interesting players entering camp is second-year defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu. Drafted a year earlier as a high-upside cornerback with elite size and measurables, the team has been experimenting with him at safety this offseason as they explore his potential as a matchup piece moving forward.

The easy comparison is P.J. Williams, the versatile defensive back Glenn coached in New Orleans. A cover corner at Florida State, the Saints drafted Williams in the third round in 2015, developing him into a versatile option who could line up outside, in the slot or at safety.

After missing his rookie season and playing sparingly his second year, Williams has averaged nearly 700 defensive snaps for the Saints the past five seasons. Unless there are injuries in Detroit’s secondary, that kind of workload is probably not in the cards for Melifonwu this season, but look for the Lions to try to find him some regular playing time in different defensive packages.

More special teams 

In his first season handling kickoffs for the Lions, Igwebuike did a nice job, averaging 24.9 yards per attempt. Among qualifiers, that was good for fourth in the league. The difference is the other three each had a 100-plus-yard touchdown return, while Igwebuike’s long was 47 yards.

That’s good enough to continue in the role, but there’s not a guaranteed job there. As noted there’s competition for the third and potentially fourth running back jobs, so Igwebuike has to demonstrate value at both spots to maintain his roster spot.

Arguably the biggest threat, Williams, the rookie receiver out of Alabama, is still recovering from an ACL tear. Healthy, he’ll be one of the fastest players in the NFL, and he averaged 35.2 yards and scored twice in the role for the Tide in 2021.

► Looking for another shot

After a series of offseason moves at receiver, there seemed to be no room for Trinity Benson, the disappointing trade acquisition from a year ago. But with Williams likely a couple of months away from contributing, there’s a small window for the team to keep Benson in the fold, and given how he’s performed during the early offseason practices, he’s put himself in that conversation.

More: ‘He’s always put in the work’: Benson getting settled in second year with Lions

After a strong 2021 preseason, the Lions shipped a fifth- and seventh-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for Benson and a future sixth-round choice. Pushed into action almost immediately due to injuries, he struggled in his first regular season playing time and spent much of the second half of the year as a healthy scratch.

Lions coaches, particularly position coach Antwaan Randle El, continued to praise both Benson’s effort and skill set, and that’s finally started to shine through. If he can continue to produce once the pads come on, he’ll have a chance at redemption.


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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