Watch: The Detroit Lions Podcast wraps minicamp and OTAs

The Detroit Lions Podcast wraps up and breaks down the Lions minicamp and OTAs

The Detroit Lions Podcast featuring Lions Wire’s Jeff Risdon is back with the latest episode. This one sees Jeff and Chris wrap up the Lions’ minicamp and OTA sessions.

Special emphasis is placed on the coaching interviews and how Dan Campbell and his staff are handling their second offseason in charge in Detroit. The change from year-to-year and from prior regimes is stark and we break it down for you.

Who looked good in minicamp? Where are the roster battles brewing? Which players unexpectedly captured attention in practices? We cover all that and more in over 90 minutes of straight Lions talk.

You can stream the audio version of the show here, and it’s also available for download at all your favorite podcast providers.

Lions LB coach Kelvin Sheppard remains very excited about Derrick Barnes

Lions LB coach Kelvin Sheppard is very excited with the progress and midset of second-year LB Derrick Barnes

When the Detroit Lions traded up in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL draft to land Purdue LB Derrick Barnes, it was a well-received move. Barnes showed a lot of promise as a versatile backer for a team that had major issues at the position.

Barnes played extensively as a rookie, though he wasn’t nearly as effective as hoped. He struggled in coverage and missed too many tackle opportunities, something that Lions LB coach Kelvin Sheppard is working on cleaning up. Sheppard has not lost any confidence in Barnes. Far from it, in fact.

During Senior Bowl week, I asked Sheppard about Derrick Barnes and the up-and-down rookie season from the young LB. Monday’s OTA media session provided a nice follow-up.

“I’m even more excited about (Barnes) right now,” Sheppard said. “…He’s done everything and more that I have asked. He has completely bought in.”

Sheppard continued while noting the view on Barnes from others within the Lions organization.

“A lot of people around the building say they see a new guy. I see the guy I always thought was there,” Sheppard stated.

We then got a taste of Sheppard’s coaching philosophy.

“It starts with a coach believing in a player to be able to pull out the most in the player. If you go into that with high optimism and high thoughts and praise on a player, the player feels that. In turn, without knowing it, it’s kind of a mind game at the same time with the coach/player dynamic. And with that player, the sky is the limit.”

Barnes continues to work primarily as an off-ball linebacker. During last week’s minicamp, Barnes worked primarily with the second unit behind newcomer Chris Board and veteran Alex Anzalone. He did receive some first-team reps but also ceded a few second-team reps to rookie Malcolm Rodriguez. The Lions are working on finding combinations that work together well and that’s all part of the experimentation.

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Lions OTA notebook: Young players take the stage

Notes from Monday’s OTA session on RBs receiving skills, OL versatility, a big man INT and more

The Detroit Lions are wrapping up OTAs this week. As head coach Dan Campbell stated last week during the team’s mandatory minicamp, this week’s voluntary sessions are focused on the rookies and developmental players.

Very few established players were in attendance on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon in Allen Park. Nearly all projected starters were gone, again by design. Running back D’Andre Swift, right tackle Penei Sewell, linebacker Derrick Barnes and cornerback Jeff Okudah were the only starting-caliber non-rookies who participated.

One prominent rookie who definitely projects to start is Aidan Hutchinson, and the defensive lineman did not disappoint. He attacks every drill as if he’s playing for his livelihood and his competitive attitude rubs off on the others in the drills. It’s easy to see Hutchinson’s perfectionist nature on display; he jumped back into the front of the short (only four DL in attendance) queue to immediately redo a drill where Hutchinson and DL coach Todd Wash were unhappy with the rookie’s shoulder level on a pass-rush exercise.

RB footwork

One of the drills was a receiving exercise for the running backs, which had the entire depth chart other than Jamaal Williams and FB Jason Cabinda in attendance. It gave a good illustration of the different footwork of the participants.

Swift really stood out here. There is very strict attention to detail in his route-running. No wasted steps or false motions at all from Swift. It’s easy to hearken back to Theo Riddick and Reggie Bush, two former Lions RBs who were exceptional receiving weapons, in watching Swift working in the passing game.

Craig Reynolds showed he’s worked on his receiving skills in the offseason. Reynolds made a couple of very nice catches away from his body and demonstrated tight route-running. The fourth-year back is in line to play more in 2022 even if Swift and Williams are healthy. As I noted last week, Reynolds is a lot closer to pushing Williams for the No. 2 spot than he is to being caught by the No. 4 back, currently Godwin Igwebuike.

Quick hits

–RB coach Duce Staley led the practice session with Campbell watching closely. It was akin to the Senior Bowl practices, where Staley served as the head coach of the National team with Campbell in a more advisory capacity.

The coaching development pipeline is something that is critically important to both Campbell and the Lions. Expect to see Staley landing some head coaching interviews next offseason and this is Campbell’s way of helping prepare the energetic RB coach.

–Undrafted rookie nose tackle Demetrius Taylor once again commanded attention with his play. Taylor leapt up and picked off a low David Blough throw. The Appalachian State rookie had two deflections just like it during last week’s minicamp but couldn’t secure the catch. Taylor snagged this one and the entire defensive contingency went crazy in celebration.

–Offensive line coach Hank Fraley spoke to the media before practice and talked up the need for positional versatility for the younger players to crack the roster. Fraley certainly offered the six (plus Sewell) aspirants chances to show they can play multiple spots. UDFA Zein Obeid took reps at every position but right tackle in the drills I watched, with another UDFA, Kevin Jarvis, moving around at every position but center.

–UDFA tight end Derrick Deese Jr. was in attendance but only worked with trainers. He has yet to be cleared by the training staff to be a full participant.

Charles Harris eager to make more plays in 2022 after a strong 1st year in Detroit

Lions EDGE Charles Harris is eager to make more plays in 2022 after a strong 1st year in Detroit

Lions head coach Dan Campbell loves to talk about players’ success stories. He went into great detail about one of Detroit’s veteran acquisition wins from a year ago before Thursday’s OTA session.

That would be EDGE Charles Harris. A first-round bust of the Dolphins in 2017, Harris managed just 3.5 sacks in three years in Miami. He didn’t fare much better in one season in Atlanta, and when the Lions signed him a year ago it was more of an afterthought than the team landing the man who would lead them in sacks and generate pressure more consistently than anyone else.

Harris earned every opportunity by not taking his roster spot for granted and proving he could contribute.

“We were talking about Charles the other day in the team room. What a great story he was,” Campbell told reporters. “This time last year, he’s out there running with the three’s (third team) on the second field, he’s doing all the special teams reps, holding bags like he started all over again and didn’t bat an eye either. He just worked and he worked himself into making some money and coming back with the team that gave him a shot and in return, he gave us a shot to sign him back. That’s what you want in guys.”

After the ensuing practice, Harris himself offered up why it worked for him in Detroit last year.

“Coaching. Coach Shep (LB coach Kelvin Sheppard) is great,” Harris said. “Coach Wash (DL coach Todd Wash) is great, AG (coordinator Aaron Glenn) giving the scheme.”

Harris also gave some credit to his teammates last year.

“The guys around me are also great,” Harris said earnestly. “They did a great job of setting stuff up for not just myself but everybody can make their own plays. I hand it to my teammates and to the coaches themselves for putting us in the right position.”

He’s not resting on his career-best accomplishments, not after the underwhelming seasons he had with the Dolphins and Falcons. Harris knows he’s capable of doing a lot more for the Lions and is eager to prove it.

“I’ve been able to go back and watch a lot of film from last year and see the plays that could have gotten made but didn’t get made,” Harris stated. “I think that’s where I am this year. If I add in everything I could have gotten made my numbers would have been crazy, the statistics would be crazy. I really want to capitalize on that.”

Harris offered up that he needs to be better against run blocks and at not running too far up the field in his pass rush, too.

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Which Lions players missed voluntary OTAs?

The Detroit Lions had a nearly full participation in voluntary OTAs

The Lions wrapped another week of voluntary OTAs with a strong contingency of players at the team’s training facility. Nearly all the 90-man roster was participating or at least in the house and rehabbing injuries.

But it wasn’t a full attendance. That’s perfectly fine by the way; the NFLPA forcefully reminds the players that the OTAs are voluntary activities.

Culled from various reports in Allen Park on the week, the following players were not present for the OTA sessions during the week of June 1st:

TE T.J. Hockenson
TE Garrett Griffin
LT Taylor Decker
EDGE Romeo Okwara
EDGE Josh Paschal
NT John Penisini

All but Penisini are coming off injuries that would limit their participation. All are expected to be at the mandatory minicamp this coming week, Penisini included.

Ben Johnson ready to call the Lions offensive plays if asked

Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is ready to call the Lions offensive plays if asked

We don’t yet know who will be the primary offensive play-caller for the Detroit Lions in 2022. Head coach Dan Campbell declared at OTAs this week that he’s not ready to make the decision “until the season’s almost here”.

But if offensive coordinator Ben Johnson gets the playcalling nod, the rookie OC will be ready. Johnson, who stepped into a more prominent role late in the 2021 season, talked up his confidence and his experience at calling plays.

“I’m confident I’m ready, I am,” Johnson said this week. “Once again, you got to be put in those situations to truly know, but our game planning process is so detailed that I think on game day it takes care of itself. Because you know exactly what you want and where you want.”

Johnson also cited his time with the Miami Dolphins, where he served in several offensive coaching capacities — including a stint as the TE coach under then-interim head coach Dan Campbell in 2015.

“The five percent that gets hard is the end of the game, end of the half situations where the clock is running, you got to think quickly,” Johnson stated. “And those are the situations I actually have experience with from my time in Miami, doing that in practice with some of our guys. So I know what pitfalls there potentially are. It’s a learning experience, no doubt about it, but it’s one I certainly feel confident about.”

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Jeff Okudah shoots down any possible move to safety

Detroit Lions CB Jeff Okudah shoots down any possible move to safety during OTAs

Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah was a popular subject on Thursday. Prior to practice, head coach Dan Campbell offered up an optimistic prognosis for the 2020 first-round pick as he recovers from an Achilles injury suffered in Week 1 of last season.

After practice, Okudah himself fielded questions from the media. And Okudah made it clear he’s still a cornerback — and only a cornerback. While the Lions might be pondering the position changes in the secondary, Okudah is not one of them.

When asked about any potential move to safety, a popular water-cooler conservation piece this offseason, Okudah flatly rejected the notion, per Justin Rogers of the Detroit News:

Where exactly a healthy Okudah fits at cornerback remains to be seen. My personal belief is he will be a starting outside CB and move inside to the slot when the Lions move to three CBs. He will have competition outside from last year’s impressive rookie, Jerry Jacobs, and veteran Mike Hughes to start opposite Amani Oruwariye. Second-year Ifeatu Melifonwu, who is indeed getting reps at safety, is also in the mix.

Watch: The Detroit Lions Podcast’s OTA report episode

The latest episode of the Detroit Lions Podcast breaks down the week in OTAs and possible positional changes for the Lions

After a one-week break, the Detroit Lions Podcast featuring Lions Wire’s Jeff Risdon is back with another episode.

In this episode, we discuss the ongoing OTAs and the action that goes on around the voluntary activities. There are a number of players who are experimenting with position changes and we break those down, as well as how some players fit–or don’t fit–in the Lions schemes. A breakdown of new Lions DL John Cominsky and where he fits into the team also comes up, leading into some Senior Bowl memories and comparisons between where the team was in 2019 and where it is now.

As always, the show streams live on YouTube and is also available from your favorite podcast provider. Just search “Detroit Lions Podcast”. You can also download and stream from here.

Figuring out Julian Okwara’s role in the new-look Lions defense

Julian Okwara has a variety of different potential roles in the new-look Lions defense

One of the offseason puzzles the Detroit Lions must solve is what to do with Julian Okwara. The third-year defender doesn’t have an exact or easy fit in the new scheme and front that coordinator Aaron Glenn is implementing.

That doesn’t mean Okwara doesn’t belong or can’t be an asset. Far from it. But finding where Okwara’s skills fit best might take some experimenting. The Lions seem well-prepared to try the 24-year-old EDGE in a lot of different roles in the fresh attacking style of defense.

During last week’s OTAs, Okwara primarily worked with the linebackers and LB coach Kelvin Sheppard. That is where head coach Dan Campbell sees Okwara.

“We consider him a linebacker. He is a hybrid,” Campbell explained. “We consider him in base as a linebacker, more of a SAM linebacker or on the edge. In sub or in nickel, he becomes more of that defensive end. Third down he could become kind of that spin or stand-up X player. But, just as far as if you’re rolling out base, he’s one of the guys competing to be in our edge, SAM linebacker.”

Sheppard echoed those parameters for how Okwara will be used in 2022.

“Last year, JO lined up everywhere,” Sheppard offered up to reporters last week. “Over the center, on the edge, split out on the number two. You’ll see him stacked. When you’re able to have versatile players it opens up the playbook for the coordinator.”

The competition Campbell mentioned could be crowded. There are a few other candidates for the SAM role in the base 4-man front. That role is effectively a pass-rush specialist who aligns outside the DE, one of whom figures to be Julian’s brother, Romeo. That’s presuming three LBs on the field, a situation that will be far less frequent than with two or even one linebacker, however.

Okwara has had his struggles playing the run, both at playing and tackling in space and at setting an edge and forcing the issue. The Lions drafted James Houston, a more natural off-ball LB who also happened to emerge as a pass-rushing force at Jackson State in 2021. Charles Harris plays more effectively as a heavy SAM backer than a hand-in-dirt DE, too.

It’s the sub-package role, specifically when the Lions go to an odd-man front, where Okwara likely fits best. There should be some 5-man fronts with Okwara definitely in the mix as one of the ends. In a 3-man front — the primary scheme from the last few seasons — Okwara fits as one of the stand-up OLBs who rush from outside the tackle box.

Potential position changes abound in the Lions secondary

The Detroit Lions have a few young players in the secondary who are experimenting at multiple positions in OTAs

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The word “multiple” unfortunately sends shivers down the spine of Lions fans. Former head coach Matt Patricia often used the term to describe his defense, which progressively declined to the worst in the league.

But the basic concept of having versatile players who can perform in multiple different roles isn’t inherently bad. Detroit’s defense in 2022 has a lot of those guys, notably in the defensive backfield.

The Lions are testing the multiple positionalities of players in this week’s OTAs. One of them is Ifeatu Melifonwu. The second-year DB has been a cornerback for a long time, but in Thursday’s OTA session he took a bunch of reps at safety.

It’s a wrinkle that Melifonwu, who is safety-sized at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, is welcoming with open arms. He spoke after practice about the possible move to safety via Ben Raven of Mlive,

“The plan, AG (Glenn) and the coaches just asked me to try it. I’m a football player, so they kinda want to put me in different spots (and) see what works,” Melifonwu said. “If you got versatility and know the other position just in case anything happens.

“I like it. It’s a different perspective. Definitely a different perspective. You see the whole field instead of just one side of the formation. I’m still getting used to it. I like corner as well. It’s honestly two different things. I’m getting used to it.”

The Lions are thinner at safety than cornerback, so it makes sense to cross-train a young player with physical traits that translate to each spot. One of the reasons for the odd depth issue is because veteran Will Harris continues to get a lot of looks at cornerback.

Harris moved from safety to corner late in the 2021 campaign after a rash of injuries ravaged the CB room. He performed better at CB than he had at safety, where he’s just not worked out as hoped. Harris is in the mix at both outside and slot CB, as well as his old box safety role in coordinator Aaron Glenn’s split-safety base package.

When injured cornerback Jeff Okudah returns, he might also switch around multiple positions. With the depth strongest at outside CB, a move inside to the slot or even some dabbling as a coverage safety could be in the works for Okudah in his third season in Detroit, too.