Detroit Lions observations: Dan Campbell’s Holmes T-shirt shows franchise’s good vibes

Detroit Free Press

Aaron Glenn looked around at the three dozen or so reporters gathered in the media room before the Detroit Lions’ third organized team activity practice of the spring Thursday.

“We’ve never had this many people here,” Glenn said.

The buzz about the Lions is palpable and growing, a little more than three months from the start of the regular season.

The Lions will enter this fall as the favorite to win their first division title in 30 years, and they’re going about their business with a welcome chest-out approach that tells everyone just how good they think they are.

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Lions coach Dan Campbell has embraced expectations in his third season, and while he touted his team’s workmanlike approach Thursday — “That, to me, is the main focus,” he said — he has not abandoned the fun-loving approach that has become part of the Lions identity.

On Thursday, Campbell wore a T-shirt with a picture of Brad Holmes wearing a Campbell-emblazoned sweatshirt on the front.

“It’s pretty good,” a smiling Campbell said, showing it off for the crowd. “My wife found this. I don’t know where she got it, but she ordered it. She goes, ‘Ah, this is the best.’ I said, ‘All right, I’m going to wear this.’”

Campbell’s attire, of course, was a play on the sweatshirt Holmes wore on the final day of the NFL draft, one that depicted Campbell raising his arms in celebration, signifying the bond the two have built while shaping the Lions into contenders.

“I told you all, this is my brother, this is my guy, and I said, ‘Man, this would be pretty cool (to wear) on Day 3 to wrap it up, man,’” Holmes said of his sweatshirt last month. “But, yeah, I love this sweatshirt. It’s awesome.”

Asked if there was a shirt with his image on it, Holmes said, “I don’t think that they put me on that kind of pedestal to make a merch line, but it’s all good.”

Holmes’ drafts have been good enough that he might one day get his own merchandise line. Campbell already has one, from SMPLFYD, and if he keeps winning, he might earn a key to the city, too.

To outsiders, the two have the type of relationship that seems uncommon between coaches and GMs in any sport, let alone past incarnations of the Lions. But their bond has a trickle-down effect on their team, and it’s a big reason the team is in the spot it is with all the expectations it has today.

“I’ve had a chance to be with a number of different organizations and I will tell you this, I’ve learned not only what to do, but what not to do,” Glenn said. “And I think that’s probably more important. But you see the relationship between our head coach and our GM, and that’s how it should be. They’re tied to the hip and they know that and they speak on that. It’s not a surprise to anyone.”

Some observations from Thursday’s practice:

‘A lot of babies’

The Lions have had good turnout for their offseason program under Dan Campbell, and Thursday’s voluntary practice was no exception. Just about every regular was in attendance, though Campbell indicated a couple players were absent because of the pending birth of their children.

“We got a lot of babies right now, so some of that has to do with that,” Campbell said.

Offensive linemen Jonah Jackson and Frank Ragnow, and defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones were among the players unaccounted for, while several others — Trinity Benson, Steven Gilmore, Hendon Hooker and Craig Reynolds — sat out or worked on the side with trainers because of injuries.

Ragnow said last week he still is managing the foot pain he played through last season, so I wouldn’t expect much from him this spring.

Montgomery ailing

Two players left Thursday’s practice with apparent injuries. Running back David Montgomery walked off the field during individual drills with what appeared to be a lower left leg injury, and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez limped off the field with trainers during team period. I did not see either injury happen, but both left under their own power.

Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley was on the field with the first-team defense at cornerback during walk-through. Moseley, who is returning from a torn ACL suffered early last season with the San Francisco 49ers, wore a big brace on his left knee and went through the half-speed install with no helmet, but the fact he was on the field, getting work in, is a positive sign he’ll be ready early in training camp.

Safety Tracy Walker also took first-team reps in pre-practice installation. Walker met with reporters after practice and said he expects to be ready for the start of training camp. He moved fluidly during drills and appears to be on a Jeff Okudah-like timeline for recovery, with little doubt he’ll be ready for Week 1.

“We’re excited to have him back when he comes back,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “Being able to work with Kerby (Joseph) in our back end, that’s huge. Especially in the meetings, you see those guys talking and make sure they get on the same page. The thing is, he’s moving around, but as far as just totally being back, our training staff will make sure they handle that.”

Rookie watch

The Lions are not in the business of gifting their rookies starting jobs, and all four of their top picks worked down the rotation Thursday. First-round pick Jahmy Gibbs did get first-team work after missing some of rookie minicamp with a low ankle sprain, but his spot on the depth chart changed after Montgomery’s injury.

Jack Campbell, the Lions’ second first-round pick, played behind Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes at off-ball linebacker, second-round tight end Sam LaPorta worked on the second-team field during installation, and second-round defensive back Brian Branch has veterans in front of him at both safety (Walker, Joseph, C.J. Gardner-Johnson) and slot cornerback (Gardner-Johnson and Will Harris).

Glenn said he plans to use Gardner-Johnson the “same way that he played in New Orleans,” as a nickel cornerback and safety, and it was Gardner-Johnson and Joseph on the field with the first-team defense at safety once Walker stopped his work for the day.

Campbell did handle green-dot duties, relaying play calls for the second-team defense. Anzalone, presumably, will keep that role this fall, but the Lions clearly have big plans for Campbell.

No-pads quick hits

I never put too much stock into what happens in non-padded practice. They are pajama parties, as Dan Campbell likes to say, with no threat of a big hit coming from a player’s blind spot and minimal physical contact allowed. But a few things stood out:

∙ The Lions offense is equipped to play at a fast pace this fall, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson had his unit getting quickly in and out of the huddle Thursday. The Lions are versatile enough that they should be able to weaponize their pace against defenses on long drives, especially defenses that employ specific role players. Gibbs and LaPorta are essentially extra receivers who can help the Lions outflank opponents who like to stay in base defense.

∙ Gibbs and Jameson Williams give the Lions two speed merchants who will threaten defenses vertically. On Thursday, Campbell gave his offense one situational period: a first-and-10 from the 25-yard line, down 21-20 with 29 seconds left.

The offense went four-and-out, but the series opened with Goff throwing deep down the right sideline and just out of the reach of Gibbs, who was matched one-on-one with Anzalone. Goff threw low to Shane Zylstra on a crossing route on the next play, then heaved another pass deep to Williams on third-and-10 that he just missed completing. Williams collided with a defensive back (Ifeatu Melifonwu, I think) on the play, sending both to the ground. Goff completed a short crossing route to Amon-Ra St. Brown on fourth down, but St. Brown appeared to be stopped short of the sticks.

∙ The second-team offense, with Nate Sudfeld at quarterback, fared little better. Sudfeld completed a pass to Tom Kennedy for a 19-yard gain on the first play, then threw incomplete to Kennedy on the next play from around midfield. On second down, Brady Breeze intercepted a pass to end the period.

A shot of Jamo

Williams has rare speed, even for the NFL, but he’s still a work in progress as a deep ball receiver. As a rookie, Williams caught one pass and had three drops in limited action as he rehabbed from the torn ACL he suffered in January 2022. On Thursday, Williams beat two defensive backs deep during a team period but dropped a perfectly-placed pass (from Sudfeld, I believe) down the middle of the field.

Johnson insisted last year he was not worried about Williams’ hands, and we’ve seen drop problems be quickly resolved with other young receivers such as Ja’Marr Chase (who spent all of 2021’s training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals struggling to catch the ball, then hauled in 81 passes for 1,455 yards as a rookie). But the deep pass Williams dropped Thursday was one he should have had — and will be expected to catch in the future.

On the line

One final note on personnel: With Jackson and Ragnow out Thursday, Graham Glasgow played center with the first-team offensive line, Kayode Awosika got reps at both guard spots and Matt Nelson saw time at left guard. Halapoulivaati Vaitai was limited at right guard in his return from back surgery.

The Lions have three more days of OTAs next week after a long Memorial Day weekend, but we won’t get access again till Thursday so expect another batch of observations then.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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