Sutton’s mentorship paying dividends for Lions’ undrafted rookie CB Thomas

Detroit News

Allen Park — When Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes joined the Detroit Lions in 2021, they did what many new NFL regimes do and brought in veteran leaders to help establish the culture for a team that would be undergoing a roster overhaul.

On defense, it was tackle Michael Brockers and linebacker Alex Anzalone who were added to help set that tone. Brockers has since moved on, but Campbell said the veteran’s impact is lasting.

“The value of Brockers, aside from the player that he was, his impact has taken hold,” Campbell said. “…To me, (Alim McNeill) Mac’s a leader for us now because he understands. He knows what it’s supposed to look like. He was around a guy like Brockers, who was in that room, and that’s the value of it.”

Similarly, Anzalone has helped bring along draft picks Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez, and is certain to be a central figure in first-rounder Jack Campbell’s acclimation to the NFL.

But on Thursday, Campbell bemoaned the fact the Lions held off on adding a similar voice in the secondary, which has been one of the youngest, inexperienced position groups during the coach’s tenure. Safety Tracy Walker has admittedly grown to fill some of that void, being selected as a captain last year, but Holmes made sure to bolster the veteran presence in the room this offseason with several additions, headlined by Cam Sutton, who spent the past five years with one of the NFL’s gold-standard operations in Pittsburgh.

“We never quite got that in the secondary and I wish we would’ve done that, because I just think it just helps the whole room,” Campbell said. “It kind of teaches you, and that’s really what we’ve got now.”

Sutton’s natural, low-key leadership is already taking hold in his first months with the Lions and can be felt with some of the roster’s youngest players, including undrafted rookie Starling Thomas V, who has been turning some heads with his playmaking ability in the early stages of the offseason program.

“(Thomas) is a guy that’s hungry,” Sutton said. “It’s not about where you came in as — first round, undrafted, whatever it is — you have to carve out a niche for yourself and have a want-to. I see that in him, each and every day. I see how he works. And yeah, I’m pulling him to the side and taking him under my wing, talking to him about the game, talking to him about life. I’m building a personal relationship with him. He’s gravitated to me, the same way I have with him and some of the other guys.

“And he’s been receptive, just taking the coaching. He’s a craftsman who doesn’t say much. He just wants to do, do, do and work. He’s very hungry. Obviously, we’ll see so much more when the pads come on, but you can already see his style of play: physical, finishing on the ball.”

Making plays

With some established defensive backs being held out of Wednesday’s OTA practice, Thomas got a bump up the depth chart, running with the second-team defense, where he drew some challenging coverage assignments, against the likes of savvy veteran Marvin Jones and blazing-fast, former first-rounder Jameson Williams. And while those receivers made some plays against the rookie, Thomas continued to impress with some plays of his own.

Early in practice, he physically separated a pass intended for Williams near the goal line, then contested another ball for Jones in the back of the end zone, before capping practice with a leaping interception of an errant throw in seven-on-seven work.

“The confidence comes from my teammates, the older guys in the room,” Thomas said. “They just keep pouring energy into me, guys like Cam, Jerry (Jacobs), Kerb (Kerby Joseph), Trace (Walker). All those guys in there, Will (Harris), all those guys, they’re just pouring into me and I’m just feeling what they’re saying and going out here and executing whatever they tell me, because they’ve been here.

“They’re like big brothers to me, knowing I’m in a new system,” Thomas continued. “They’re just doing everything they can to help me, even if it’s just the little things like watching film with me or staying after practice with me. They’re embracing me, so I’m just going to continue to embrace everything they give me.”

Knowing at least one undrafted free agent has made Detroit’s 53-man roster over the past 13 years, Thomas is shaping up to be one to watch heading into training camp. He’s had a difficult road to get to this point, tearing an ACL twice, but he’s managed to maintain elite speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash) and he showcased premium ball skills as a senior at UAB last season, breaking up 15 throws.

Sutton says he can’t help but see signs of himself in Thomas, particularly his “want-to” attitude, both on and off the field.

“I’d like to say I’m one of the first guys in the building, last guys out, and I see him there just as early in the mornings and one of the last guys taking care of his body before going out the door at the end of the day,” Sutton said. “I really love what I see from him.”

In those quieter moments of the day, Sutton engages Thomas not just about football, but life. He understands these personal bonds with teammates ultimately translate to the field, where trust is a key to success, particularly in the secondary. But investing in teammates on a personal level is simply important to Sutton.

“It’s not just about ball,” Sutton said. “This is supposed to be the easy part, the fun part. Being able to teach these guys and hit them on how to conduct themselves, how to carry themselves each and every day, having the right mindsets and mentality. It’s about being personal with these guys, not just making this about business. You have to be able to check on them, on their family. That builds your trust in each other. So, when you’re on the field, in those critical moments where you have to make the play, that’s the biggest thing you can rely on, is trust and accountability.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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