The Detroit Lions open the final phase of their offseason program with their first three organized team activity workouts this week. The workouts are voluntary, but usually heavily attended. Here are five things I’ll be watching when the Lions open OTAs to the media Thursday.
Tracy Walker ruptured his Achilles tendon in the Lions’ Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings last fall and his absence was a big reason the secondary struggled most of the year. Walker appears, from social media posts, to be doing well in his rehab, and could take that work more public this week.
The Lions will not rush Walker’s return. He’s not quite eight months removed from surgery, and they don’t need him on the field until September. But Jeff Okudah was a limited participant in OTAs coming off his Achilles injury last year and was back on the field full-time by training camp. Walker’s participation this spring could hint at the Lions’ plans for him come fall.
Walker isn’t the only player whose health will be in the spotlight the next few weeks. The Lions have two more starters coming off season-ending surgeries and a handful of other injury situations that bear watching.
Right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed all of last season with back surgery and took a pay cut to stay with the Lions this spring. Vaitai told fans at Frank Ragnow’s charity event last week he was feeling good, and he has drawn rave reviews from teammates for his offseason work so far. If he can make it to the season healthy, he’ll answer the only true question about the Lions’ offensive line. Similarly, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is returning from a torn ACL that cost him most of last season with the San Francisco 49ers. Moseley is expected to start once healthy, but has been reluctant to provide a timetable on his return.
Beyond Walker, Vaitai and Moseley, Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow said last week he still is dealing with the toe injury he played through last season, and rookies Jahmyr Gibbs and Brian Branch suffered minor injuries in rookie minicamp. Coach Dan Campbell has always taken the cautious approach with spring rehabs, but there is anticipation to get those players back on the field.
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Gibbs and Branch are two of at least four draft picks expected to play key roles for the Lions this fall, so it could be telling to see how and where the Lions use them once they return to the field. Gibbs, who sprained his ankle in the Lions’ first rookie minicamp practice, is an electric dual-threat running back whose biggest value may come in the passing game. The Lions list Branch as a cornerback on their roster, though he said he’s focusing primarily on the slot corner and safety spots for now.
Gibbs, Branch and fellow top-45 picks Jack Campbell and Sam LaPorta will have to earn their playing time, but Gibbs, Campbell and LaPorta have direct lines to starting roles. Last spring, Aidan Hutchinson was so impressive in OTAs that the Lions quickly put him with the starting group, and if any of that trio shines in the coming weeks they could enter training camp atop the depth chart at their position.
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NFL teams can’t put on pads until late July, and Campbell has never put too much stock in practicing in “pajamas.” But these workouts are important for the development of young players, and perhaps none more so than second-year receiver Jameson Williams.
Williams played sparingly as a rookie in his return from a torn ACL last year. He appeared in six games, had more drops (three) than catches (one), and was suspended six games this offseason for gambling on non-NFL games from an NFL facility. The Lions are counting on Williams to be a big part of their offense once he returns in late October, but for that to happen, he’ll have to find a rhythm with Jared Goff and prove he’s more than a deep-ball threat.
Williams will be asked to address his gambling suspension this week for the first time since it was handed down in April. Beyond how he looks and what unit he’s running with in practice, what he says (or doesn’t say) to the media will be under scrutiny.
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The Lions invested heavily in their defensive backfield this offseason, signing Moseley, Cam Sutton and C.J. Gardner-Johnson to free-agent deals, and trading up to draft Branch early in the second round. With Walker expected back for Week 1, the Lions could open the season with four new starters in their secondary.
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That’s good news for a defense that gave up the most yards and tied for the third-most points in the NFL last season, but there’s a lot of growth that needs to take place between now and the Sept. 7 opener against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Lions won’t have their projected starting secondary on the field this week, and might not all spring. But OTAs and June’s mandatory minicamp should offer at least a glimpse of the new-look unit and what it might mean for the defense.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.