Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell’s message as minicamp ends: ‘Come back ready to go’

Detroit Free Press

For most of the Detroit Lions key players, the offseason program is over and it’s time to get some rest.

The Lions still have one week of organized team activities on their schedule, but coach Dan Campbell has once again excused veterans from the last batch of voluntary workouts and will spend next week focused on the development of young players.

Campbell said Thursday he planned to leave his team with a simple parting message for summer.

“Just take care of themselves, be smart, continue to train. Be in shape, which they will, and that’s really it,” he said. “And come back ready to go.”

The Lions report for training camp in mid-July this year, slightly earlier than normal because they play in the NFL’s Thursday’s night season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.

They are one of the buzziest teams in the NFL — national reporters Dan Pompei of The Athletic, Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports and Tyler Dunn of the Go Long substack were at practice Thursday — and as big a draw as they are right now, the eyeballs will only multiply come camp.

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Quarterback Jared Goff spoke to players briefly at midfield after Thursday’s practice, and while some vets were rushing to catch flights home, left tackle Taylor Decker said he likes where the team is heading into summer.

“I mean, we’ve got a ton of install in. Obviously, we don’t have the entire playbook in and like things are always subject to change. There’ll be sometimes we’ll put in a new run the week of the game just for this particular defense or maybe this particular player,” Decker said. “But just getting guys out here, throwing the playbook at them, seeing if they can digest it, seeing if they can go out there under pressure and, OK, I have this check, am I going to be able to make it on fly as opposed to just being able to do it board work cause there’s no pressure. And I think we have a lot of healthy competition at a lot of position groups. I mean, just us as an offensive line, this is the most linemen we’ve ever had. We have enough for three lines. I just think we have the right people here.”

Decker’s hypothesis will be tested in the months ahead, but the Lions finished minicamp healthy and will hit the summer as the team to beat in the NFC North.

It’s a good spot to be in, and one Campbell seems ready for.

“For what we’re allowed to do, I think we’ve gotten everything that I wanted to get checked off, we’ve done,” he said. “You can get some first, second down work. You can get third down, red zone, but the other stuff, the four-minute, the backed-up, you can talk about them, but you can’t really — short-yardage, goal line, you can’t (work on that till pads come on).

“So that portion won’t come until training camp, but as far as the — most of what you need to focus on, we’ve hit. And so everything that I wanted, situational work today will be the end of that. And I feel pretty good.”

More observations from Thursday

Depends on the situation

The Lions spent the entire team period Thursday working on an end-of-game situation in which the offense trailed, 30-21, with 1:59 on clock. In need of two scores for a win, both the first- and second-team offense (kind of) delivered.

Goff picked up a couple quick first downs for the No. 1 offense, connecting on a 10-yard pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, then finding Josh Reynolds for a 13-yard gain after a spike to kill the clock and a deep incompletion to Kalif Raymond.

St. Brown picked up another first down on a nice throw from Goff on a sideline route, and the offense should have got in the end zone two plays later but Jameson Williams dropped a would-be touchdown that glanced off his shoulder pads.

Goff kept the drive alive with a fourth-and-3 conversion to Brock Wright, and Williams caught a 9-yard touchdown pass one play later and celebrated with an emphatic spike and spin of the ball. Williams had what I thought was his best day of open practice Wednesday, but he’s battled drops at times this spring and had another pass glance of his hands (the pass was high, to be fair) later in the period while working with the second-team offense.

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Trailing 30-28 after a simulated extra point and onside kick recovery, Goff hit Reynolds for a 15-yard gain to get on the fringes of field goal range then threw a long touchdown pass to St. Brown down the left sideline on a busted coverage three plays later. The Lions played that series without potential starting defensive backs Tracy Walker, Jerry Jacobs and Emmanuel Moseley, and secondary coach Brian Duker offered some instruction to slot corner C.J. Gardner-Johnson after the play.

Slotting into position

Gardner-Johnson has played primarily out of the slot in the Lions’ sub packages, and he did so Thursday with Will Harris and Cam Sutton playing outside cornerback. Harris has played his best football in the slot after moving from safety to corner, but the Lions have multiple slot options this year in Gardner-Johnson, Harris and rookie Brian Branch.

When the regular season rolls around, I’d guess Harris is the Lions’ backup slot and fourth outside cornerback, but he’ll play on special teams — he could be Jack Fox’s personal protector on the punt team — and be active for games.

And for seconds

Operating from the same situation, the second-team offense drove for a what would have been a short field goal on its first series, though Campbell moved the ball back to the 35-yard line after Nate Sudfeld’s third-and-3 pass to Williams fell incomplete in the vicinity of three defenders. Parker Romo missed the 53-yard kick wide right, but the offense kept possession at its own 26, down 30-24 with 26 seconds to play, after a simulated field goal and onside recovery.

Sudfeld completed a pass to Jahmyr Gibbs on first down for a short gain, then threw incomplete to Williams over the middle. After two more short passes left the offense in second-and-5 from the 29 with 2 seconds left, Sudfeld completed a pass over the middle to Tom Kennedy, who lateralled the ball to Jermar Jefferson, who pitched it to offensive lineman Matt Nelson around the 5-yard line.

Nelson was tagged down short of the end zone by whatever Lions defensive back was in the area, but at 6 feet 7, 318 pounds and with a full head of steam, I’m guessing he would have barreled into the end zone on the play and his fellow offensive linemen sure celebrated like it was a touchdown.

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Just for kicks

The Lions closed camp with another kicking competition between Riley Patterson and Parker Romo, and I left this week thinking neither will be able to unseat Michael Badgley for the job.

Patterson and Romo alternated on field goal tries of anywhere from 43 to 53 or so yards, and Romo won, making 7 of 11 (against Patterson’s 6 of 11). But those aren’t great percentages and there were some bad misses on a mildly windy day.

Patterson missed a 45-ish-yarder wide left on his second attempt, and Campbell appeared ready to end the competition after four tries only to have Romo miss a 48-yarder wide right after Campbell iced him with a timeout.

From there, both kickers kicked in unison, missing from 53 or so yards, making from 50 and 48, missing again from 53 — Patterson’s miss appeared to be complicated by a low snap by Jake McQuaid — and making from 53 before Romo banked in a 53-yarder off the right upright after Patterson missed wide left from the same distance.

Romo has the strongest leg in camp, but neither he nor Patterson have been very accurate the past few days. If I had to guess, I’d say the Lions would bring Romo to camp to compete with Badgley, who has not kicked at open practices this spring, but that field goals could be an adventure for the Lions again this year.

Get your hands on it!

I’ve mentioned this in past observations, but one of the most promising developments of spring was how active the Lions seem to be getting their hands on balls. Ifeatu Melifonwu broke up Goff’s first incompletion of team period to Raymond — Raymond simply was not big enough to shield Melifonwu from the ball on a deep route — and Gardner-Johnson had a deflection on a quick out to St. Brown.

Playing safety with the second-team defense, Savion Smith showed good recovery speed to bat away a bomb to Williams and rookie Steven Gilmore had a PBU on a Sudfeld pass to rookie Antoine Green.

“It’s a lot more difficult offensively to find some of those windows then it was even this time last year and that’s a credit to A.G. (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) and the staff and then the additions that we do have,” Campbell said this week. “Look, it’s early, we’re in spring, but there’s a reason why we went and got Cam Sutton. There’s a reason why we got Moseley. There’s a reason why we got C.J., because we believe they certainly upgrade us production wise, but also, they’re football guys and they fit everything that we’re about.”

The good Sheppard

Campbell had good things to say Thursday about linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard, who has taken on a bigger role on defense this year. Sheppard will oversee the Lions’ pass rush this fall, with Todd Wash gone and new defensive line coach John Scott in a teaching role.

I’ve written about Sheppard before and the relationship he has with Campbell, and it’s clear Sheppard is on the fast track to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL.

“He’s earned that,” Campbell said Thursday of Sheppard’s expanded role on defense. “I feel like, Shep, the more we put on Shep, the more he answers the call. And he’s developing as a coach. We see growth. No different than the players, you want to see growth from your coaches and so A.G. and I talked and we felt it was time to put more on him, especially this year. I think Shep is a young, promising coach. I think he can be a coordinator one day and I think he can be a head coach one day, I think he’s got that type of potential. So the time is right.”

Take it easy

The usual suspects — Moseley, David Montgomery, Malcolm Rodriguez, Levi Onwuzurike, Hendon Hooker, James Mitchell — did not practice Thursday, though Moseley continues to take walkthrough reps and appears to be on track for a training camp return from his knee injury and Montgomery ran on a side field with trainers with no issue.

Frank Ragnow did work with the first-team offense during team period, which I believe is the only first-team work he took during camp and the Lions continue to take things easy with his inoperable toe injury.

Megatron returns

Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson stopped by practice Thursday and even spent a few minutes talking politely with team president Rod Wood. Johnson and the Lions have mostly patched up their relationship, though he holds Wood responsible for the bonus money he was forced to repay.

Johnson was in Allen Park to prepare for his annual football camp, which he will hold Sunday at the Lions’ practice facility for the first time. He hugged Hooker and assistant quarterbacks coach J.T. Barrett when he got on the field, and spent a few minutes talking with Lions owner Sheila Hamp.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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