Detroit Lions need more from Jameson Williams. They almost got it from their rookies.

Detroit Free Press

Jack Campbell’s eyes were sparkling.

“I already love Detroit so much!” the Detroit Lions‘ rookie linebacker said after playing in his first preseason game, a 21-16 victory on Friday night against the New York Giants.

The crowd. The loud fans in Ford Field. The game. This rookie group. Campbell just loved it. Loved all of it.  Loved crushing people. Loved ballin’ with his buds.

“I just love the atmosphere,” he said. “I feel like the fans are just blue-collar people, who just love football and would do anything for this team.”

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While many of the Lions’ key veterans didn’t play, which makes a breakdown of the game rather pointless, I had two main takeaways:

1. Man, the Lions had a fantastic first seven months of 2023. Not just the draft. They found some talent in free agency even after the draft ended.

2. I expected more out of Jameson Williams. He had a chance to be amazing. Had a chance to be the best player on the field. But he was inconsistent again — he had a fine catch on a 2-point conversion, but only after committing a horrible drop in the first half.

But we’ll get to Williams in a second.

Let’s focus on this draft class.

Guys like … Brian Branch.

Wham!

Sorry about that.

Keep your head on a swivel whenever Branch is around. He’s gonna take your head off. Branch is a heat-seeking missile, out for destruction, and had the hit of the day.

“He’s just relentless,” said Campbell, his fellow rookie. “I can respect a defensive back and his willingness to go fill gaps and hit people.”

But Campbell will hit people, too. Campbell had back-to-back plays on which he came up and stuffed the Giants’ run.

“Honestly just trying to do my job and get to the ball,” he said.

“I was pretty impressed with your rookie class,” I said.

“It’s a good group,” Campbell said.

It all starts with running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who was impressive, even in limited work — he had just six carries for 19 yards.

On the Lions’ first scoring drive, Gibbs showed off his agility. On a throw from backup QB Nate Sudfeld, Gibbs catching the ball and turned immediately up the field, picking up the first down on an 18-yard gain.. That wasn’t all; although he is known for his flash and speed, he showed toughness between the tackles.

Even in a small dose, it’s obvious he’s special.

Best Lions receiver was…

Again, I promise we will get to Williams, but there was something strange thing about this game.

On a day when everything was set up for Williams to be the star, Chase Cota, an undrafted rookie out of Oregon (after a few years at UCLA), was the best receiver in a Lions uniform.

“Yeah, I would say he’s kind of the quiet sleeper,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Kind of right under the radar. It’s more like the guy doesn’t mess things up and then today he shows up and makes these plays that really catch your eye.”

Cota led the Lions with four catches for 60 yards, including a 24-yarder in the second quarter that got the Lions out of the shadow of their end zone.

“It catches your eye because the lights are on,” Campbell said. “All of a sudden, this guy’s making some serious plays. That makes me want to get him more reps.”

“What was it like?” I asked Cota at his locker after the game.

“The hits hurt more than college, that’s for sure,” he said, smiling. “It just felt good.”

After going undrafted, Cota considered signing with Dallas but picked Detroit.

“I was looking at the rosters,” Cota said. “Then the story just goes, they, like, doubled their offer and I was like, ‘OK, perfect.’ ”

Yes, perfect.

Kinda like the way he played on Friday night.

Williams has to be better

OK, now, let’s talk about Williams.

This was a chance for Williams to get all kinds of playing time before his six-game suspension kicks in a month from now. This was a chance to erase some of the doubt about him. This was a chance to make plays. This was a chance to take a step forward.

This was a chance to dominate. This was a chance to prove that he has improved his hands.

But, ahem, that didn’t happen.

He had seven targets and caught just two balls in an inconsistent performance.

He had some good plays, highlighted by his fine catch in the end zone on a 2-point play in the third quarter.

He had some bad plays, highlighted — lowlighted? — by his horrible drop on a deep ball, one he’s just gotta catch, in the second quarter.

He had some some strange moments: On a deep interception thrown by Sudfeld, he didn’t exactly fight to knock it down.

And some miscommunications: On one play, he appeared to cut off a route and the ball was thrown long.

And, of coure, some under-the-radar positives, as he proved to be a willing blocker and stayed on the sideline, cheering for his teammates.

But overall, he has to be better. He has to catch the deep balls. He has to be more consistent. And he has to, well, actually fight for a ball when it’s about to be intercepted.

“It’s not perfect, but not everybody’s perfect out there either,” Campbell, his coach, said. “We got so much to clean up across the board, but I was more positive with the way that he showed up. I thought he did some really good things.”

Yes, they all have things to clean up.

But I did see so many good things — from the play of the youngsters, to Maurice Alexander’s exciting punt return for a touchdown, to the Okwara brothers combining for four sacks — that this was downright encouraging.

“This team is gonna be fun,” Jack Campbell said. “There’s something special about us.”

All right then — this linebacker with the sparkle in his eyes gets the last word.

Because he is so big, so strong and so violent, with a fantastic ability to just smother people, that I wasn’t about to argue with him.

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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