Allen Park — Asked earlier this offseason about a noticeable lack of size along its defensive front, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell agreed and said the team was keeping its eyes open for options to address it.
“I do think that we may need a little bit more girth up front,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re not looking for that or won’t be.”
A month after those comments, the Lions are bringing in 320-pound defensive tackle Malcom Brown for a visit, according to an ESPN report.
A first-round pick by the New England Patriots in 2015, Brown spent his first four seasons with the franchise prior to signing with the New Orleans Saints, where he overlapped with Campbell — then serving as the Saints’ tight ends coach and assistant head coach — as well as Detroit’s defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
Most recently, Brown was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, appearing in 17 games and playing a career-high 678 defensive snaps last season prior to his release earlier this month.
Detroit’s defensive interior is headlined by last year’s third-round pick, Alim McNeill, but there’s little stability beyond him. 2021 second-round choice Levi Onwuzurike has missed extensive time in training camp with a back injury for a second consecutive year, while veteran Isaiah Buggs, Jashon Cornell and undrafted rookie Demetrius Taylor have all been battling for a roster spot this camp.
The Lions’ need for size up front was amplified when nose tackle John Penisini opted for retirement in June after just two NFL seasons.
“If you’re not careful and you don’t have enough (size) in there — look, that’s what Penisini was,” Campbell said last month. “He could anchor in there now and he could swallow up the blocks and he could run the line of scrimmage a little bit. Between he and Alim, it was hard to run in the middle. So yeah, (adding size) will always be in the back of our mind. It’s something that we’ve got to be aware of.”
On Tuesday, the Lions conducted a lengthy, physical and intentionally grueling evening practice at the team’s facility.
During the session, it felt like the brunt of the work was falling on the shoulders of the projected starters. On Thursday, Campbell confirmed, noting it that was by design as the team enters the homestretch of training camp.
“I think, first and foremost, we put a load on our guys that they desperately needed, particularly, the ones, that first group,” Campbell explained. “…A majority of our guys, particularly the ones, have not had that kind of consistent load yet. And to be able to get almost 60 plays in a two-hour period was crucial.”
Campbell said it was the last, best chance to push his starters to the limit, with the top units scheduled to only play the first half of the preseason finale this weekend.
“They needed to feel the fatigue and they needed to be able to push through it and still stay detail-orientated,” Campbell said. “That’s where we’re a little deficient, as most teams would be, honestly. But the good news is, it’s been identified and they know it as players. They understand that as well, and because we got that load, they’ll be better for it now.”
Past experience matters
After finishing fourth in kickoff-return average last season, running back Godwin Igwebuike has received surprisingly little opportunity at the role this offseason, ceding every preseason rep, as well as most of them in practice, to alternative options.
Still, the Lions are calling Igwebuike the team’s projected kick returner, as roster cuts loom. Campbell said the primary purpose of giving others opportunities, including wide receiver Maurice Alexander, is to see if there’s a better option on the roster.
“Honestly, that’s hard to find in one or two preseason games,” Campbell said. “But you just want to see if there’s something there.”
Alexander did his best to make a case, returning kickoffs 61 and 45 yards in last Saturday’s preseason victory over the Indianapolis Colts. And while that impressed the coaches, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said regular-season accomplishments will always carry more weight.
“The one thing I would say is I value all that regular-season work,” Fipp said. “If you see a guy do it in the National Football League, against real players in the National Football League, in the regular-season games, then you got a pretty good idea of what he’s going to do.”
Handling the duties for the first time in his career last season, Igwebuike fought through some early ball-security issues and finished the year averaging 24.9 yards on his 28 kickoff returns.
The more you can do
The ability to contribute on special teams will likely be a deciding factor for some of Detroit’s final roster spots. Two receivers who offered little in those areas last season have impressed Fipp with the way they’ve responded to being asked to do more this offseason.
That starts with Tom Kennedy, who is pacing the team with 13 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns as a pass catcher.
“After that (first preseason) game, Dan and I were talking, and it was like, all this guy ever does is succeed in whatever we give him, whatever role,” Fipp said. “So, the conversation for us was like, ‘Hey, we need to throw him out there (on special teams) and find out,’ you know? Then we threw him out there at Indy in the practice and a little bit in the game.
“I mean, he was great in practice, he did a good job,” Fipp continued. “… I think he’s done well for himself. In terms of what that does for him on the roster and all that, obviously, I can’t answer that, but I got a lot of respect for him as a player, as a person. All he ever does is give you everything he’s got. And at the end of the day, he wins (his assignments) a lot, too, which there’s something to be said for that.”
Fipp admitted it can be difficult finding roles for Kennedy where his 5-foot-10 frame isn’t an issue.
“I would say that’s the challenge, but we played him outside as a gunner and he won against Indy. Out of those guys (competing), his gunner rep was one of our better ones. We played him outside as a corner and he won that rep on the outside there against Indy, and then we matched him up against a personal protector and he locked that guy up in practice and in the game, so, there’s a handful of spots for him.”
Hypothetically fighting for a job against Kennedy is Trinity Benson, who logged just two special-teams snaps with the Lions in 2021. But this year, the team has tested him in a number of spots, including kick returner and gunner, as they’ve explored his ability to contribute beyond what he offers the offense.
“He does have an impressive skill set,” Fipp said. “I mean, he can run. And we put him in the middle of our kickoff coverage, we call it the five position, but he’s lined up right on the hash, and he ran down there with a lot of speed and showed up well, made a nice tackle against Atlanta in the opener down there, the one (Malcolm) Rodriguez kinda cleaned up. He got a lot of attention for it, but Trinity was really at the bottom of that. And he’s got speed at the gunner spot, so that’s encouraging.”