ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The Detroit Lions are the subject of HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2022. They’re an easy team to root for. A gruff, amiable head coach. An upstart roster filled with young talent. The storylines dominating the Lions aren’t dissimilar to those of a plucky 1980s sports drama. But the Lions aren’t getting high on their own hype. They know how much work is left to do.
Detroit Lions not focusing on the cameras, while the cameras focus on them
The Lions’ Allen Park facility buzzed in the early morning moments on Aug. 9. Fans in line to enter the gates at 7:30 a.m. ET mused about the coming Hard Knocks special, already setting plans to watch the debut episode at 10 p.m. on Tuesday. On the sideline at practice, cameras rolled left and right, as the Hard Knocks crew accumulated footage for future episodes.
Hard Knocks will draw the common fan closer to the team that so many know and love. It’ll affiliate the fans with an emotionally-charged Detroit team desperately searching for success. The storylines are easy to fall for. Dan Campbell won over fans early upon being hired in 2021. His demeanor, his “biting kneecaps” mindset, but also his clear soft spot for the players even through adversity.
Even through a difficult 3-13-1 season, the Lions had their moments of hope — competitive weeks with close final scores. And if you’ve ever seen a dramatic sports flick, that’s how it goes. The underdog has to experience some kind of adversity. There has to be darkness before dawn.
Hard Knocks aims to chronicle Detroit’s next step on the rise to contention. But the truth is, the story started long before it was told. What you see and feel at Lions practice isn’t a play for the cameras. The energy is real, consistent, and authentic. They’re having fun, enjoying themselves. But there’s also a sense of all-business on the east side. A distinct urgency.
Campbell spoke for three minutes before heading to practice. The quarterbacks — Tim Boyle, Jared Goff, and David Blough — all expressed a desire to leave their focus on the field, rather than watching themselves in the upcoming special. The Lions may be the focus of Hard Knocks this year. But the only thing they’re focused on is the scoreboard and the clock. With the cameras converging on them, the clock is ticking.
Aidan Hutchinson and Penei Sewell two irons, sharpening one another
The expectations are high for Aidan Hutchinson, and deservedly so. He was a Heisman finalist in 2021 and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Not only that, but he also played for the Michigan Wolverines. The trip from Ann Arbor to Detroit is not very long at all, and that proximity ensures that all eyes remain on Hutchinson — the hometown hero.
Hutchinson hasn’t taken an NFL snap yet, but he’s already faced steep competition. Lining up across from him often is Penei Sewell, a fellow former top-10 pick. Sewell shined down the stretch at right tackle in 2021 as a rookie and is morphing into a dominant starter before the Lions’ eyes at camp. Sewell and Hutchinson both give everything they’ve got, and the resulting fireworks are impossible to ignore.
Sewell predictably had the edge on Hutchinson during Tuesday’s practice. While Hutchinson brought a hot motor and was able to drive his power forward, Sewell was calm and composed with his pass sets. He locked out Hutchinson at the apex more than once, both in team drills and in 1-on-1s, jarring the rookie with violent strikes.
Even so, however, Hutchinson hasn’t appeared disheartened. He played with fire from start to finish, and it’s clear he’s honing his craft. In individual drills, he worked on sinking his pads and improving his flexibility — a crucial area of needed growth for the former Wolverine. On one team-drill rep, Hutchinson did get inside Sewell with an authoritative push-pull move. His athleticism consistently puts pressure on Sewell, and his hot motor drives him through the very end of each rep.
Hutchinson and Sewell look exactly how you’d expect. They’re two former top-10 picks duking it out, making each other better. That’s something the Lions should continue to benefit from.
New-look wide receiver corps impresses throughout practice
Even with Jameson Williams still unavailable, the Lions’ receiving corps has an entirely new look and feel in practice. DJ Chark flashed again with his length and explosiveness, drawing shots from QBs both downfield and in the red zone.
Kalif Raymond, meanwhile, feels like an essential piece with his dynamic ability. He saw the ball come his way several times and consistently made the most of his opportunities with his speed. He also made an impressive diving catch in team drills, after getting past Jeff Okudah with a crisp release.
Even the agents of stability in the WR corps have changed in some respects, most notably Amon-Ra St. Brown. Last season, St. Brown was a rookie. A very good rookie with a veteran-like mindset but still a young player getting his feet wet. One year later, it feels like St. Brown has leaped several years forward, developing in dog years as an NFL wide receiver. Campbell said as much in his presser before Tuesday’s session.
“He’s a pro,” Campbell said. “For a rookie last year, he was a pro. He’s a high-level thinker. He’s tough. Top to bottom, he may be one of the toughest players we have.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about St. Brown, however — even beyond his toughness and early production — is his tireless work ethic. After a practice stocked with catches downfield — one of which was a smooth reaching grab past Tracy Walker III — and reps as a return man, St. Brown came back to his JUGS machine and caught passes for upwards of 20 minutes after the session ended.
What does St. Brown’s JUGS work say about him? In the words of Campbell, “It says he wants to be the best.”
Lions’ injury report
The Lions’ practice on Tuesday was quick, efficient, and luckily without issue on the injury front. There were no stoppages for downed players, and by and large, things went smoothly. Craig Reynolds did go down for a minute after taking a hard hit from John Cominsky early on, but he soon got up and scored a touchdown on one of the succeeding reps.
As for other players still recovering from injuries or returning from injuries, there’s optimism across the board. Campbell spoke about two defensive backs in particular before practice: 2020 third overall pick Okudah and 2021 UDFA standout Jerry Jacobs.
Okudah returned earlier this offseason after suffering an Achilles injury early in the 2021 season. He’s been working his way ever closer to 100%. Campbell echoed the same sentiment he’s already expressed on Okudah during his presser. All the reps are good for the Ohio State product, and he’s getting as many as possible in practice.
Jacobs, on the other hand, has not returned to the field yet. Nevertheless, Campbell spoke glowingly of Jacobs’ persistence and desire to get back.
“Jerry’s doing great. We’re constantly having to say ‘Easy, Jerry,'” Campbell said of Jacobs. “I would say we’re very pleased with Jerry. We all feel like he’s a little ahead of schedule.”
Campbell didn’t rule out using a PUP spot on Jacobs, suggesting that he’s still not quite on the cusp of hitting the field again. But there’s confidence that, down the line, Jacobs will rejoin the secondary rotation.
Quick hits from Lions training camp
- Jared Goff is entering his second season with the Lions, and he looks visibly more comfortable. A tell-tale sign of that is not just his willingness to give WRs chances downfield but also his work in the pocket. On Tuesday, Goff had one rep in team drills where he sensed pressure looping around, slipped through a closing lane, and rolled out to the right to extend a play. On another, he rolled out to the right again, and when he saw the coverage fade upfield on the scramble drill, he took the ball himself for a modest gain. Goff looks more comfortable being uncomfortable, something you need at QB.
- Raymond’s dynamic athleticism is something the Lions appear to be exhausting to its full capacity under Ben Johnson. He’s getting the ball every way he can, in the short range and deep down the field. He even took reps as a punt returner, where his instant acceleration can destroy tackling angles. Beyond the athletic element, Raymond effectively channeled his athleticism in practice. He can generate displacement with his releases and throttle up and down with his routes. He looks like a legitimate playmaker.
- The Lions only have room for so many wide receivers, and it’s looking like value as a return man could factor into the discussion when cut day comes around. The Detroit staff rotated several players through return drills, including Raymond, Central Michigan UDFA Kalil Pimpleton, Maurice Alexander, and even St. Brown on a couple reps. All four are visibly dynamic athletes, but the acceleration from Pimpleton and Raymond hits a different gear.
- Detroit’s RB room might be deeper than originally thought. D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams figure to have stable roles. Swift showed off his natural ability as a receiver on Tuesday, while Williams brought the energy on a second-effort TD in team drills. But there’s talent beyond that on the depth chart. Craig Reynolds is a smooth runner with fast feet, who shrugged off a hard hit from Cominsky to score a TD. Jermar Jefferson had his moments, showing a willingness to lower his shoulder. Even Justin Jackson flashed, bringing eye-catching quickness on some of his cuts.
- As Campbell has repeatedly said, it’ll take nothing but live reps to completely reaffirm Okudah’s confidence, after the former Buckeye missed the majority of his first two seasons. But Okudah is visibly getting more comfortable with exerting his physicality. Some of his best moments on Tuesday came in run support. He actively squared up runners when they flushed to his side, and he actively pursued runs to the sideline, fully engaging in tackling situations. Contact can only be a good thing for Okudah, as it gives him a taste of regular-season action.
- We’ve heard that Charles Harris is taking on a leadership role for the Lions’ defense. Whether it’s vocal leadership, or leadership by example, Harris is bringing it to the fold. On Tuesday, it was leadership by example. Harris frequently pursued plays to the sideline in team drills, joining tackling scrums with safeties and cornerbacks. In 1-on-1s, he brought visible urgency and violence. On one rep, he beat his man with a brisk spin move, showing off impressive athleticism to go along with his strength and motor. With his traits and attitude, Harris brings plenty of value to the rotation.
- Lions’ safeties coach Brian Duker briefly spoke about his position group ahead of practice. He acknowledges that he has a young group, which “does make a difference at first.” More of the onus is on the coaches, rather than veterans, to bring the young players up. But Duker expressed optimism for his unit, specifically athletic specimens like rookie Kerby Joseph and CB convert Ifeatu Melifonwu. Duker says Melifonwu is progressing well at his new position. And Joseph is a rangy talent with good ball skills, who’s shown growth with his pre-snap communication and run fits.
- You don’t realize how big DeShon Elliott is until you see him in person. Elliott brings a unique frame to the Lions, sporting the frame density and length to adequately complement Walker on the back end. Elliott hasn’t completely locked down first-team reps, but he’s a regular face on that unit — making plays when given the chance. On one red-zone rep against Chark, Elliott played the ball through the catch point and broke up a pass late in the process.
- In the lower groups, one player who stood out several times on defense was defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs. Buggs won multiple times in 1-on-1s. One rep even saw him beat his man with an emphatic cross-chop, while on another, he drove his opponent straight back with a powerful bull rush. Buggs also made his presence felt in team drills, at one point blasting past his blocker and deflecting a pass in the backfield.
- A couple more players who flashed in the lower groups included sixth-round rookie James Houston and UDFA Demetrius Taylor. Houston’s size is a definite hindrance. Particularly in 1-on-1s, he struggled to consistently get outside his man. On one rep, however, Houston got off the line incredibly quick, beat his blocker to the apex, and surged inside for a would-be sack. Playing off the other defensive linemen in game situations, Houston could be an intriguing spark-plug on the edge. Taylor, meanwhile, has shown he can disrupt with his motor and natural leverage.
- The Lions’ kicker battle remains unsettled. Tuesday didn’t feel like a day that made too much progress in that regard. Between Austin Seibert and Riley Patterson, Seibert clearly still has the stronger leg. But he missed two of his field goals wide right during kicking drills. Distance versus accuracy is the obvious trade-off in this battle, but if one of the two can find a rhythm in the coming days, they could create separation.