Niyo: Lions’ Penei Sewell getting comfortable in Year 2: ‘I know what to expect’

Detroit News

Allen Park — It was hardly a fair fight.

But that’s how you win on a football field: By creating mismatches … and then exploiting them.

So there was poor Jeff Okudah — the Lions’ hard-luck cornerback in the midst of an early-career comeback this summer — in a team drill Monday at training camp, trying his best to blow up a bubble screen from Jared Goff to Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Problem was, Penei Sewell was there, too. All 330 pounds of him, give or take a plate of pupu chicken wings. And the resulting collision, well, it was audible. The grandstands packed with fans in Allen Park offered a collective “Oooh!” and the Lions’ entire offensive unit — coaches and players alike — roared its own approval.

In the immediate aftermath, receiver DJ Chark shared a celebratory chest bump with Sewell, while Okudah, to his immense credit (and everyone’s relief), popped up off the ground immediately to get ready for the next play.

Sewell, for his part, shrugged it off after practice, saying, “That’s just football. I don’t know what happened. I got to go watch the film.”

But what we saw Monday at training camp only confirms what most of us felt coming in, both about the strength of this Lions team and, not coincidentally, one of the young cornerstones falling into place.

The Lions’ offensive line looked dominant, at times, on the practice field — particularly in a series of one-on-one pass-rush drills. And Sewell, the first draft pick of the Brad Holmes-Dan Campbell era, looked every bit like a player poised to make a Pro Bowl leap in his second NFL season.

‘Be the best I can’

Monday was the first padded practice of camp — “Finally out of the pajamas,” defensive tackle Alim McNeill smiled — and “now the evaluation can begin,” Campbell said, delivering a message that all his players surely understand: This is real football now.

But this also is the first real chance we’ve had to see what the Lions really are banking on in Year 2 under Campbell.

The offensive line that features three first-round picks — and two big free-agent investments made by the previous regime — didn’t play a single regular-season snap together last season, thanks to key injuries to left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow. They’re all healthy now, though, and talking confidently about what that might mean.

“I think we can be the best in the league,” left guard Jonah Jackson said earlier this spring. “I know we can be the best in the league.”

Knowing and doing are two very different things, of course. But knowing what he knows now, Sewell does seem primed for big things this fall. Just how big his own goals for 2022 are — he knows the Chargers’ Rashawn Slater made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year — he’ll keep to himself, however.

“I have that in my own notebook — I don’t like to share it,” said Sewell, who went seventh overall to Detroit while Slater went No. 13. “But, obviously, I just want to be the best I can. That’s technically, physically, mentally.”

And that seems far more plausible now that he’s had some time to adjust to the NFL following a whirlwind rookie season.

Remember, Sewell hadn’t played a game in over a year after opting out of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at Oregon. He hadn’t played right tackle — the position he was drafted to play for now in Detroit — since high school, an adjustment he later explained this way: “I’ve been right-handed my whole life, and then one day, you’re just asked to write your full name left-handed at full speed.”

A different feeling

So, yes, maybe the penmanship wasn’t what you’d like to see initially. Lions critics reflexively pounced as soon as Sewell made his preseason debut last August, and then circumstances double-teamed him soon after, as Decker’s hand injury forced the rookie to flip right back to left tackle to begin the regular season. Sewell became the youngest player in NFL history to start a game at left tackle (20 years, 202 days) and he ended up staying there for half the season before moving back to the right side when Decker finally returned to the lineup in November.

By then, he’d settled in just fine, though, even amid the team’s winless struggles. And over the last two months of the season, according to Pro Football Focus, Sewell actually graded out as the fifth-best tackle in the league. (He allowed just one sack over the Lions’ final eight games.)

Still, Sewell graded his rookie year a bit harshly — “Not good enough at all,” he said in January — and then set out to prove he meant it with his offseason workouts. He returned this spring feeling better about his physique, having added lean muscle mass while getting “significantly stronger,” by Decker’s weight-room estimation. (Witness those two reps he had against No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson in the one-on-one period Monday, winning both decisively.)

And now that camp is underway, he’s feeling far more confident about taking those physical tools and applying them in practice, not to mention games.

“Oh, it feels a lot different,” Sewell said, nodding. “I feel a lot more comfortable out there. I know the system. … I know what to expect. Everything isn’t coming at me 1,000 mph.”

Along with the chemistry that’s building in a close-knit group of linemen — Halapoulivaati Vaitai immediately took Sewell under his wing last year, but they’re all tight now — that’s allowing him to play faster. That, in turn, should help new coordinator Ben Johnson unleash more of that creativity Lions fans have been promised, (“Man, I love that guy,” Sewell said of Johnson. “I like his swag.”)

You can see it in team periods as the tackles and guards work in tandem to hand off pass-protection responsibilities. But you can see it, too, in the way Sewell’s getting off the ball and into the second level, at times, in the run game.

“The way Penei moves, like, it’s just crazy,” said McNeill, the other Day 1 starter from that 2021 rookie class. “He’s able to get out there and reach anybody — corner, whoever it is — so it’s exciting to see.”

Laughing, McNeill added, “But for us, for the D-line, it’s not so fun.”

Not until September, anyway.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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