Allen Park — If the season started today, Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott are the clear-cut favorites to start at safety for the Detroit Lions.
Walker has emerged as a leader on the defense after last season’s bounce-back campaign, and Elliott, a free-agent addition from Baltimore, has the makings of a reliable complement if he can shake the durability issues that have plagued him during the first few years of his career.
“I like the fact those two have a really good chemistry between themselves,” Lions safeties coach Brian Duker said. “They push themselves, they push each other, in addition to their skill sets being very complementary. Both of them have good range, both of them are good, physical players. I think they allow us to be interchangeable and kind of hide what we’re doing a little bit.”
Beyond those two, the Lions have an impressive amount of depth at the position, and the team is trending toward having to make some difficult roster decisions at the end of the preseason.
Most of the second-team reps at safety have belonged to JuJu Hughes and Ifeatu Melifonwu, who is making the conversion from cornerback this offseason.
Duker praised Hughes’ instincts and Melifonwu’s physicality, which combined with his length and speed make him an appealing matchup piece for the defense.
Behind them is rookie Kerby Joseph, a rangy playmaker who the team snatched in the third round knowing he’d need some development before he’s ready for a significant role, as well as special teams standout C.J. Moore and Brady Breeze, a feisty competitor who saw playing time on Detroit’s defense late last season.
That’s seven guys for what will likely be five jobs.
“I feel confident in every single one of those guys getting in a game, and really, that’s a tribute to all of them and the stuff they do mentally and work outside (the field),” Duker said. “The flip side of that is it’s really competitive at this point, right? Making the roster, they’re probably not all getting to the 53 (-man roster). One of these guys is going to have to distinguish themselves here. As much as they do a great job in practice, the game production is going to really be a huge, deciding factor for us. Just got to wait to see who pops.”
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Back still an issue for young DT
It’s been a week since Levi Onwuzurike has participated in practice and coach Dan Campbell confirmed it’s a back injury sidelining the second-year defensive lineman.
“Kind of back/hip area,” Campbell said. “I mean we just got to get it calmed down. The kid’s in good place and he’s getting back, but he’s put in a lot of good work, and so we’ll get him calmed down and get him right, get him realigned and I think he’ll be fine.”
That’s an optimistic outlook from the coach, but back issues can be more concerning than many other injuries and this is the second consecutive year the 2021 second-round pick has battled with one, missing a couple weeks of camp practice last offseason.
Drafted because of his ability to disrupt the pocket, Onwuzurike was ineffective as pass-rusher during his rookie season. Asked if missing another lengthy stretch of practice during one of the most important times of development for a young player was worrying, Campbell downplayed the team’s concerns.
“Yeah, certainly all the reps he can get are good for him,” Campbell said. “He needs them, he needs all of them just like all these young players do. But at the same token, he’s doing all he can do and we’re doing all we can do to help him get back out there. He’s getting better every day, he’s progressing. So, we’ll just take it as it comes.”
While Campbell couldn’t offer a timetable for Onwuzurike’s return to practice, the coach did say he doesn’t expect the injury to prevent the defender from being ready for the team’s season opener, Sept. 11, against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Getting right going deep
Lions quarterback Jared Goff didn’t like the questions about his lack of downfield passing during last year’s training camp, but those concerns proved to be well-founded. He ended up finishing last in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks in air yards per attempt, the average distance a pass travels beyond the line of scrimmage. And not surprisingly, Goff’s 13 deep completions — passes traveling 20 or more yards through the air — was also last among the league’s starters.
But if signs were on the wall last year that production was upcoming, it’s equally worth noting Detroit’s downfield passing game has been far more productive during training camp this year.
Not that Goff is ready to let last year’s criticism go.
“No, we don’t do that here,” Goff said when the downfield improvements were mentioned. “We don’t throw it down the field at all.”
Sarcasm aside, Goff has two factors working far more in his favor this offseason. First, his arsenal has been upgraded. Second, his blocking has been better with all five starters healthy heading into the season.
And while Goff has had success throwing deep to a number of options, none more than free-agent addition DJ Chark. That connection has come alive in the past week, with the two seemingly hooking up for at least one long completion per day.
“It’s just reps over and over again, knowing what his speed is and knowing his ability and his range,” Goff said about the budding chemistry with Chark. “I mean it’s trust and it’s confidence. And I think he’s coming into his own right now and has a lot of confidence and is playing well and is playing fast.”
On road to recovery
While there’s been plenty of focus on Jeff Okudah‘s return from last season’s torn Achilles, as well as Romeo Okwara, who is trying to work his way back from the same injury, cornerback Jerry Jacobs has been flying under the radar as he rehabs from the torn ACL in December.
Jacobs has been a permanent fixture on the sidelines during camp, a good sign he’s making positive progress toward his return, and Campbell confirmed as much on Tuesday.
“I would say this, we all feel like he’s a little ahead of schedule, which is good,” Campbell said. “He’s doing very well.”
An undrafted rookie a year ago, Jacobs was one of the brightest spots on the roster in 2021, earning a starting job a few weeks into the season and rarely appearing overmatched despite his relative lack of experience.
Once healthy, he’ll have to compete with Okudah and Will Harris for playing time at corner opposite Amani Oruwariye. But presently, the team is still weighing the right time to start ramping up Jacobs’ activity, which might not be until the start of the season.
“You talk about pulling the reins back,” Campbell said. “We’re constantly having to just keep him, ‘Easy Jerry.’ He is (always) going.”