Detroit — No one could have reasonably expected a packed house for a training camp practice, but there were enough signs both inside and outside Ford Field on Saturday to confirm the growing excitement for the upcoming Detroit Lions season.
Traffic jams outside the stadium, and approximately 18,000 fans coming through the gates — the most since the 2015 version of the annual event — came to watch the Saturday practice.
Coach Dan Campbell, wearing a hat emblazoned with the word “Grit,” grabbed a microphone and briefly addressed the crowd before the practice got underway.
“What makes Detroit special is the fact that, man, you guys will roll your sleeves up and put in a hard day’s work,” Campbell said. “And I think we want to model ourselves after that. I’ll tell you what, you’d give your coat to somebody in winter that needed it. That’s what this community is about.
“However, however, nobody will take advantage of our hospitality,” Campbell said. “Nobody. That’s what we’re about. This team is working its rear off to give you something to be proud of. They’re grinding it out right now, and I know this, we are freaking starving. We are starving, so the hyenas better get out of the way.”
On the field, the Lions were able to showcase their revamped, and what they hope is improved, roster following last year’s 3-13-1 record.
Safety DeShon Elliott, signed from Baltimore, intercepted a pass early in the session, while receiver DJ Chark was unquestionably the star of the day, hauling in four impressive throws from quarterback Jared Goff.
Chark got the crowd excited early, adjusting late to a ball down the right sideline to make a diving grab for a 26-yard gain.
He followed that up with a touchdown reception in the back of the end zone on a throw quarterback Jared Goff threaded between three defenders, before showing impressive concentration in the middle of the field to haul in a ball that was nearly intercepted by safety JuJu Hughes, who had jumped the route.
And Chark appropriately punctuated the afternoon with a 33-yard touchdown catch (although he probably should have been marked down at the 1-yard line).
The former Pro Bowler, who signed a one-year deal with the Lions this offseason, accelerated across the field to reach a deep ball from Goff just in front of the goal line, sending the fans home happy, with dreams of better days ahead.
“Today was good to come out and play the way we did as an offense,” Chark said. “But it’s time to go correct it, and I really have big expectations for this team, definitely for this offense, and I want to do my best to live up to those.”
Here are some additional observations from the day’s practice:
► It wasn’t explained why, but cornerback Jeff Okudah didn’t participate in the practice. Also absent were wide receiver Quintez Cephus, defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike, linebacker Julian Okwara and offensive lineman Ryan McCollum and Zein Obeid.
► The team worked extensively on kickoff and punt return with Godwin Igwebuike, Trinity Benson, Kalil Pimpleton and Maurice Alexander handling kickoffs and Kalif Raymond, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Pimpleton and Alexander fielding punts.
The team also cycled through a number of options for gunner on punt coverage, led by cornerbacks Bobby Price, Mark Gilbert, Mike Hughes, as well as Benson.
Hughes looked particularly sharp, easily beating the blocks of cornerback Amani Oruwariye and rookie safety Kerby Joseph. Then, as a blocker, Hughes did a nice job keeping Benson away from the returner.
► The two men battling it out for the kicker job got extensive opportunities to showcase their abilities, both on kickoffs and field goals. Riley Patterson missed two of his kicks, sending a 54-yarder wide right and coming up well short on a 60-yard attempt in the closing minutes of practice. Austin Seibert, on the other hand, was perfect, banking in his shot from 60 off the crossbar.
► Austin Bryant continued his strong camp with a sack, a run stuff and multiple QB pressures. The edge defender also nearly batted down a pass, but Goff somehow managed to feather it around the defender’s outstretched arms for a completion to running back D’Andre Swift across the middle.
► A.J. Parker, who continues to remain the frontrunner for Detroit’s starting nickel corner job, jumped a route and got his hands on a pass that he nearly intercepted early in practice, showcasing the instincts that earned him a starting job as an undrafted rookie last year. Parker also flashed the impact of the bulk he’s added to his frame this offseason, coming up with a run stop for a short gain in the box and also rushing a pass with a disruptive blitz rep.
► Wide receiver Tom Kennedy hauled in two touchdowns, including a deep throw from backup quarterback David Blough, who heaved it off his back foot as a blitz collapsed his pocket.
Kennedy’s second score happened when he got behind the defense while dragging across the middle on a crossing route in the red zone.
► Defensive end Eric Banks was surprisingly disruptive while working against Penei Sewell, registering a sack and drawing a hold against the team’s starting right tackle.
► St. Brown continues to be a reliable target for his quarterback, catching a number of short and intermediate passes throughout the practice.
His biggest play came running a post pattern on a second-and-17 snap in the red zone following the aforementioned holding penalty against Sewell. St. Brown cleanly released on his route, splitting the coverage of rookies Chase Lucas and Joseph for an 18-yard score.