The Detroit Lions took the field for their first minicamp practice of the year. As head coach Dan Campbell noted before practice, there is essentially no difference between their OTA practices and minicamp practices — other than them being mandatory.
Tuesday, it was clear the focus was on red zone drills, as that was something the Lions really struggled with last season.
“Defensively, we’ve got to apply pressure up front. There’s a number of things that fall into that is coverage and rush. Offensively, man, we shot ourselves in the foot a ton, ”Campbell said before practice.
So in an effort to clean things up well before the games start rolling around, nearly all of the Lions’ full-team drills on Tuesday were in the red zone. Here’s how it all shook out.
Before practice, head coach Dan Campbell noted that the only player who did not report to the mandatory minicamp was John Penisini, but it seemed to imply it was an excused absence and that he would see him later on Tuesday night.
Other than Penisini, here are the players who were not spotted during Tuesday’s practice:
- DE Josh Paschal
- CB Jermaine Waller
Paschal has now missed the past two practices open to media. At this point, it’s unclear why he has missed practices. It’s worth pointing out that he is the one rookie who has not signed his rookie deal, but that is unlikely to have kept him off the field.
The following players were at practice but not practicing:
- TE James Mitchell
- TE Derrick Deese
- WR Jameson Williams
- EDGE Romeo Okwara
- CB / S Ifeatu Melifonwu
- CB Jerry Jacobs
- With DeShon Elliott
Okwara was spotted for the first time all offseason, though he was not suited up at all, unlike most of these other players. Elliott is the only new addition to this list, but whatever is ailing him doesn’t appear to be too serious, as he was jogging at a good pace on the sidelines during practice. Melifonwu continues to be sidelined with a visible wrap around his upper thigh. Deese also appears to be trending in the right direction, as the undrafted rookie was more active on the sidelines than I have previously seen.
The following players were limited in participation:
- OT Taylor Decker
- TE TJ Hockenson
- CB Jeff Okudah
- EDGE Eric Banks
Decker and Hockenson returned after missing most practices prior to minicamp, but both were eased into the lineup. Decker did walkthroughs and positional drills and sat out most team reps. Hockenson appeared to be on the same game plan. Okudah and Banks mostly did work to the side during positional drills, but both stayed mentally engaged during teams.
Change at backup quarterback?
After Tim Boyle struggled through the first two weeks of OTAs, David Blough was the second quarterback in the early days of team drills during the minicamp.
Blough made the most of his early opportunities. In four red zone plays, he threw three touchdowns: to Trinity Benson, Quintez Cephus, and D’Andre Swift. His fourth play was a well-read scramble up the middle for about 10 yards. His second set of reps only consisted of two plays: a rollout touchdown pass to running back Greg Bell and a well-covered rollout touchdown run where Blough faked out a defender with a pump fake to get by him.
And that wasn’t even the most impressive thing Blough did all of practice. But more on that later …
As for Tim Boyle, he struggled mightily in red zone drills. He did not complete a single pass in five attempts and probably would have taken two sacks had there been full contact.
That being said, the two switched roles during the red zone 7-on-7s, with Boyle taking over the second-team offense and Blough dropping to the third team. When that happened Boyle looked much better, throwing touchdowns on five of seven plays and likely drawing a defensive holding or pass interference on one of the other plays. Meanwhile, Blough only converted on two of five attempts.
This, perhaps, suggests that the Lions’ second-team receiver group is just that much ahead of the second-team defensive backs, which makes sense considering how many DBs are currently out due to injury (Okudah, Jacobs, Melifonwu, Elliott) .
The Lions set up an interesting scenario that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team work on. The offense had the ball on their own 19-yard line with just 29 seconds left on the clock and had to score a touchdown on the defense. It’s a near-impossible situation for the offense, but some of the best offenses in the league have scored under longer odds (see: 2022 AFC Championship game).
Anyways, the Lions’ first-team offense didn’t come close to converting. Here were the plays:
- Deep pass intended for Josh Reynolds, nearly intercepted by Tracy Walker
- Deep pass nearly intercepted by Amani Oruwariye — likely sack from Jashon Cornell
- Pass overthrown to Josh Reynolds
Again, the Lions were utilizing a NASCAR package up front, including Aidan Hutchinson, and again, the pass rush spent to be disruptive enough to win the drill handily for the defense.
That said, David Blough absolutely tore up the defense in this drill. Here’s the play breakdown:
- 37-yard strike to Trinity Benson
- 21-yard post to Cephus in between Mark Gilbert and Kerby Joseph (turkeyhole’d)
- 23-yard touchdown pass up the seam to Cephus for a one-handed grab (Joseph in coverage again)
Blough drove the Lions 81 yards in 20 seconds, and he threw his entire body behind that last throw. Impressive stuff from him on Tuesday.
Wide receiver depth
There is quite possibly just a single roster spot available between Cephus, Benson, and Kalil Pimpleton, but they were all taking turns making impressive plays on Tuesday. Benson continues to look like an entirely different receiver capable of actually making a run at a roster spot. His best play came in seven-on-seven red zone drills, when a nice stutter-step move cleared a few yards of separation between him and Mark Gilbert on an out route for an easy touchdown.
Not to be outdone, Cephus had the one-handed touchdown in the desperation drill and a nice toe-tap score later in practice.
It was a quieter day for Pimpleton, but it’s worth noting that he was repping as the second punt returner behind incumbent Caliph Raymond. After them, undrafted rookie Josh Johnson was third in line.
- With all of the injuries in the secondary, here were the “starters” for the first-team defense:
CB: Amani Oruwariye
CB: Will Harris
NCB: AJ Parker
S: Tracy Walker
S: CJ Moore
- For the second straight practice, Chris Board got the majority of first-team linebacker reps alongside Alex Anzalone.
- Hutchinson continues to get more looks with the first-team defense, expanding beyond just NASCAR packages.
Searching for TE 2
With Hockenson still limited and both James Mitchell and Derrick Deese sidelined, the opportunities are aplenty for the four healthy tight ends to make a name for themselves: Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra, Garrett Griffin, and Nolan Given. But without full pads on, the opportunities to shine are really limited to just the passing game, meaning only Wright and Zylstra have really made an impact thus far.
Zylstra had the play of the day with a diving catch during seven-on-sevens with the first-team offense. Although earlier in the practice, he had an opportunity for another red-zone touchdown with the ball firmly in his hands before Tracy Walker punched it out.
Wright had two touchdowns on the day, one in which he just cleanly beat linebacker Josh Woods. The other, Jarrad Davis was just a half-step behind, and a perfect throw from Boyle made it an easy play for Wright.
- The last play of practice was a nice display of how rookie seventh-round cornerback Chase Lucas is savvier than the normal rookie. The offense, working from inside the 5-yard line, sent Pimpleton in motion. Lucas followed the speedy receiver on a tough man-to-man assignment but quickly called to Cedric Boswell to swap assignments with him so that he wouldn’t be caught behind. The communication was made and the switch was done nicely — even if Pimpleton made a nice inside move to beat Boswell anyways.
- Only two “in-game” field goal attempts: a miss and a make by Riley Patterson from 45 yards out.
- Another day, another Jashon Cornell sack. He’s my biggest surprise thus far through three weeks of offseason practices.
Here are the positional groups I would say “won” the day:
- First-team defensive line
- First-team secondary
- Second-team receivers