Detroit Lions: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
Since then, the team has been quite busy. The team training facility in Allen Park has been humming with practices as the coaches implement their schemes and the players get back to full game shape.
Fans are anxious for the first preseason game on Aug. 9 against the Cleveland Browns, the first chance for most fans to see the team in action.
Until that time, here are a few things we have learned from the first week of camp in no particular order of importance. I was fortunate enough to catch the Friday and Saturday sessions in person, and the observations here are from my own firsthand notes unless otherwise indicated.
The Team Is Healthy
Thus far, the Lions have escaped the virulent injury bug that seems to be plaguing so many other NFL teams.
On Friday alone, the Packers lost rookie wideout Jared Abbrederis and San Francisco now faces the season without defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey. The Colts lost starting guard Donald Thomas and running back Vick Ballard this week, too, among many other injuries around the league.
The Lions' biggest scare was when stud right guard Larry Warford rolled an ankle in Wednesday's practice, though he quickly returned to action.
In fact, the Lions only have two players currently on the PUP list. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah appears very close to being activated; he stretched and warmed up without any visible limitations on Saturday. That builds upon what MLive's Kyle Meinke reported earlier in the week, noting Ansah "even was hitting a practice dummy, arms extended, a good sign he is nearing a return."
Rookie wideout T.J. Jones is also recovering from a shoulder issue, and right now he's the only Lions player in danger of missing any regular-season action. As Michael Rothstein of ESPN noted:
It is unclear when that frustration will end. Jones told ESPN.com he had a checkup on his shoulder last week and one is scheduled again for early next week. After that, he’ll meet with coaches and doctors to determine when he might be able to practice for the first time.
This comes a week-and-a-half after Jones reported to camp with his shoulder not 100 percent as he spent his offseason time in Atlanta rehabbing following surgery.
It's unrealistic to expect the great health to continue, but if the Lions can keep dodging the injury bug, the prognosis for the season only improves.
The Right Tackle Battle Is Wide Open
The only starting spot up for grabs on offense is the starting right tackle spot. LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard are locked in a battle that doesn't appear to have a favorite.
The two, who both started at the position in 2013, have been alternating first-team reps by the day in practice sessions. Neither is establishing himself with strong play so far.
Waddle struggled during Thursday's session, according to MLive's Kyle Meinke:
He appeared to hold end Devin Taylor on his first snap, then allowed Taylor to get good push on the second. He faced rookie defensive end Larry Webster in the next round and was blow up by a speed move, then appeared to hold Webster on his final snap -- though playfully disputed that notion after practice.
He had more issues on Friday, getting bulled backwards by rookie Caraun Reid on a rep and just not asserting himself the way he did during his impressive rookie run.
Hilliard has been no great shakes either...
Corey Hilliard with the 1s at RT just whiffed at Tapp on a run block— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) August 1, 2014
He's visibly less rangy as a pass protector, but thus far he's been the more consistent performer.
This is a battle that figures to rage on until the all-important third preseason game, the final dress rehearsal for the starters. Thus far, it's completely up in the air.
George Johnson Is Legit
The rather large man in the photo above has good reason for smiling.
That would be defensive end George Johnson, who has been a camp revelation so far. And a big part of the reason why is that he's not nearly as large as he used to be.
Johnson has lost about 20 pounds from his playing weight during his tenures in Minnesota and Tampa Bay, where he was largely anonymous. His svelter physique allows him to play to his biggest asset, his quickness.
With Ansah still sidelined on the PUP, the young journeyman from Rutgers is getting first-team reps. As Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reports, Johnson is impressing the right people. One of them is defensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, who said of his surprise talent:
He’s done a good job so far,” Washburn said. “We just got started, only had two or three practices, but he’s doing good. We like him. He was in the league for a while, and I think he’s played at like 285 and he’s played in a lot of read schemes. I think that what he does best is what we do, sort of lends himself to what we’re doing, so he’s doing a good job.
Johnson had some impressive reps in Saturday's practice session, too. From my notes at Detroit Lions Draft:
His first step for a guy his size is outstanding, and he knows how to use his hands already. On one rep he chucked aside a shoulder block from Brandon Pettigrew and exploded into the backfield for what would have been a tackle-for-loss. That was on the closed end. On the next set he wound up on the open end and embarrassed Riley Reiff with a shoulder dip move to get a QB pressure.
He faces a crowded field to make the Lions, but Johnson has started the climb impressively.
Eric Ebron Is a Roller Coaster
It's becoming pretty clear that rookie receiver Eric Ebron is Detroit's answer to the thrill rides at Cedar Point, the record-setting amusement park in nearby Sandusky, Ohio.
His well-chronicled drop issues continue to rear their ugly head in every practice. Yet for every egregious drop, the first-round pick demonstrates why the Lions are so bullish on their hybrid tight end/wideout.
From Dave Birkett's notes on Wednesday's practice at Wayne State:
Eric Ebron has caught some grief for early-camp drops, but he made a couple nice catches tonight. His best grab came in seven-on-sevens, when he contorted his body to haul in a Kellen Moore pass on his back hip while Julian Stanford trailed in coverage.
He similarly made the astonishing play look routine during Saturday's session:
Ebron with a tough, stretching sideline grab. #hands Those are the plays he makes up for the drops with.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) August 2, 2014
The Lions continue to line him up all over the formation. In Friday's session, he even took two reps at fullback. He's definitely a big part of the offensive plan, and the Lions seem content to accept the negative plays as the price for the outstanding ones Ebron will make.
Matthew Stafford Needs to Stay Healthy
Matthew Stafford has proven the injury woes from his first two seasons are well behind him, having started 48 straight games over the past three years.
That durability needs to persist going forward, because the Lions have taken a step back with the depth behind him. There is a very visible drop-off from departed Shaun Hill to new No. 2 Dan Orlovsky. The latter often appeared hesitant to pull the trigger, and his accuracy vacillated from series to series in the two practices I watched.
Still, Orlovsky looks like Kurt Warner compared to the two behind him. Neither Kellen Moore nor James Franklin did anything to prove they belong even on a practice squad.
Kellen Moore back to his rookie days, low velocity, elongated throw.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) August 1, 2014
As poorly as Moore performed, missing wide-open targets and failing to see the proper read at times, Franklin was even poorer in his very limited action.
A Welcome Change at the Top
The coaching change from Jim Schwartz to Jim Caldwell is a very visible change in culture.
Gone is Schwartz's crass demeanor and favoritism, replaced by Caldwell's reserved persona and universally respectful nature. The players have certainly noticed, as Tim Twentyman of the team's official website chronicles.
The purposefulness and organization during practice is a welcome change that Caldwell has ushered in as well. Fans in attendance quickly picked up on the differences:
Clarification: Caldwells practices are better because 1. It's obviously better organized. 2. Everyone is involved 3. No wasted moves (Cont)— SandmanLions (@Sandman7773) July 28, 2014
4. More coaches for more players 5. Focusing on the small things 6. Constant movement. Very little standing around.— SandmanLions (@Sandman7773) July 28, 2014
All of those observations carried true throughout the week. Several fans around Allen Park noted the increased pace of reps and hockey-like rapid personnel changes, foreign concepts during Schwartz's tenure.
One other big switch is that every receiver sees a throw on every rep, even if he's not the primary receiver. During Saturday's work, even the defensive backs saw throws on every pass rep. It keeps everyone sharp and engaged at all times.
Corey Fuller Stepping Up
One of the more impressive performers from the first week is second-year wideout Corey Fuller.
The speedster, a 2013 sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech, failed to impress as a rookie and spent his initial season saddled on the practice squad. Fuller seemed fated to that role again heading into camp, but he's strongly proving he wants to change that fate.
Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News noted Fuller's impressive week:
In training camp Friday, Fuller showed his potential when he beat cornerback Chris Greenwood on a go route for an easy catch during a 2-minute drill with the second-team offense. Fuller made another fantastic catch on a go route Wednesday night at Wayne State’s Adams Field when he high-pointed a ball along the sideline against cornerback Cassius Vaughn.
As noted in Katzenstein's piece, there is a role for a field-stretching wideout in Detroit's offense. It's a niche that Fuller is quickly demonstrating he just might be able to fill.
He's working hard to make it. Fuller spent time after Friday's practice working one-on-one with receivers coach Robert Prince at getting off jams at the line and releasing at top speed.
Golden Tate Represents a Major Upgrade
Everyone knew the Lions needed a significant boost at the No. 2 wideout position behind Calvin Johnson. After years of middling production from Nate Burleson and Kris Durham, general manager Martin Mayhew aggressively courted Golden Tate from the Seattle Seahawks.
Thus far, it's abundantly clear that decision was a very good one.
As Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press captured Caldwell espousing, Tate's awesome speed shows. He is electrifying with the ball in his hands, capable of doing things that Durham cannot approach.
He impressed Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network when he visited Lions camp, too:
Golden Tate is an outstanding route runner. Quick release, explodes in/out of break point and works back to the ball. Big year ahead.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) July 29, 2014
Tate attacks every rep during practices as if it's the most important thing he's ever done. He's more demonstrative and vocal than Johnson. Those are huge positives for a team with a host of young receivers trying to make it behind him.