Detroit Lions’ Jack Campbell no lock to start: ‘We are going to play the best players’

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Lions took Jack Campbell with the 18th pick of April’s NFL draft, the assumption was Campbell would start at linebacker alongside Alex Anzalone in the middle of the Lions defense.

Campbell has shown his range and playmaking ability in open practices this spring, but Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said Monday it’s wrong to assume the rookie will be in the lineup Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs.

For proof, he pointed to last year’s linebacking corps, where Malcolm Rodriguez was a Week 1 starter as a sixth-round pick.

“It’s proven here,” Sheppard said Monday before the Lions’ seventh organized team activity practice of the spring. “I know it’s like the right thing to say, but it is proven. We are going to play the best players. We do not care what that looks like, and when that starts top down, it’s easy for me to walk into my linebacker room after we take a guy Pick 18, because in probably 20 other rooms, that player’s starting and there’s nothing you can do about it as a position coach.

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“Well, that’s not the case here. If Jack isn’t the top two or three, Jack will continue to go through the process of rookie development until he’s hit that mark.”

The Lions return their top three linebackers from last season in Anzalone, Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes.

Barnes has taken most of the first-team reps alongside Anzalone this spring with Rodriguez nursing a leg injury he suffered at the start of OTAs.

Lions coach Dan Campbell called Barnes one of the team’s spring standouts last week, and Sheppard doubled down on that assertion Monday.

The Lions have three practices remaining Tuesday-Thursday, but veterans are excused from this week’s voluntary workouts.

“I’m telling you right now, he’s not going away quietly,” Sheppard said. “That is a player that I’ve seen walk in this building since we started up Phase 2 (of the organized offseason program) and look like a completely different player. I mean, a kid growing into a man. Taking charge, holding people accountable, running the huddle, letting everybody know, ‘I know what I’m doing, now let me help you out.’ That’s that next step right there to me. Derrick knew what to do last year, it’s just when things were moving (that was) slowing him down. Now it’s, he has all that. Now it’s, ‘Hey, come here, you should be in a nine technique.’

“When I hear Derrick Barnes going into Year 3 telling a D-lineman, you should be in a nine, you should be in a three, versus, ‘Gee, why are you doing that?’ That’s a player that’s growing and taking steps.”

Sheppard said Barnes texted him when the Lions took Campbell with their second of two first-round picks — no other off-ball linebacker went in the first two rounds — and expressed excitement about the choice.

As part of his replay, Sheppard said he told Barnes the same thing he’s told others in his linebacker room: That the front office picked Campbell because it saw an opportunity for the defense to get better, that the starting jobs are up for grabs and that players will decide who wins those spots come training camp.

“Whoever those two guys are, if that’s Derrick and (Jalen Reeves-Maybin), if that’s Anzo and Malcolm. Whatever that looks like, no one can sit here and honestly tell me 365 days ago that you all thought, or myself thought, Malcolm would take the opening snaps,” Sheppard said. “So that’s why it’s hard for me to speak on what it might be, what it will be. We haven’t even put pads on yet and the position I coach, it all starts there.”

Three’s company

About three dozen players are taking part in the final week of OTAs, mostly rookies and players without an accrued NFL season. All six specialists were at practice Monday, and three veterans stuck around: Receiver Kalif Raymond, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and linebacker James Houston.

Moseley spent most of Monday’s practice running on the side with trainers as he rehabs from the torn ACL he suffered last season with the San Francisco 49ers. Houston, who’s spent most of the spring working behind Charles Harris and Julian Okwara at strong-side linebacker, said he wanted to stay because he thought the week was “important for my development.”

“Just to be in the building, them get a good look at me, I get to continue to go over my stuff,” he said. “Back home, I’m not going to get this. I’m not going to get this. This is quality work, so no, I feel like it’s a blessing more than me having to stay.”

‘Really pleased’ with Hooker

Rookie quarterback Hendon Hooker was out on the field about an hour before Monday’s practice, going through light agility drills with a trainer.

Hooker, the Lions’ third-round pick, recently started throwing routes on air but remains several months away from being cleared to practice.

Still, Lions quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell said Hooker has made a positive first impression.

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“Great work ethic,” Brunell said. “If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be here. He’s a smart player, he’s put the time in obviously. He’s limited right now. Most important is him getting strong and healthy, but I’m really pleased with him.”

Brunell said it will be “really hard” to gauge Hooker’s development until he gets on the field, but he praised the ex-Tennessee star’s mental acuity and study habits.

“There’s some guys that do very well in the classroom but yet it doesn’t translate on the field,” Brunell said. “We don’t expect him to be that at all because we’ve seen him play in college at a very high level. We can’t wait to get him on the field, but it’s, right now he’s doing everything that we’re asking him to do and he’s doing it quite well.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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