It was a perfect day for Lions Training Camp, and it was greeted with equal gusto from fans and players alike. The turnout today was amazing as the entirety of Allen Park was buzzing with activity. A huge amount of Calvin Johnson #81 jerseys were everywhere, with some Stafford #9 and Bush #21 sprinkled in. There were even some Quin #27s that I saw. The atmosphere was very positive and it was a very enjoyable experience for my children and myself. You don’t want to know about the experience, though, you want to know about the players and how everyone looked. While I covered as much as I could from varying vantage points today, I had the best view of the Defensive Backs drills and Linebackers, later the Receivers, and most importantly for some of you, the Special Teams. Camp won’t give you as good of a view as the regular season, but it can give us an idea of reasons we should be optimistic before the season starts. So who passed the Eye Test at Lions Camp?
It’s over, and I’m ready to declare a winner for the Punting battle going on in Lions Camp. Drumroll please!………Us. We win. The Lions as a team, the Lions as a fanbase. We win. Regardless of whether 5th rounder Sam Martin or UDFA Blake Clingan win the punting battle, the real winner is the Lions as a whole. Both Punters were excellent, at times brilliant, and it is an unquestioned position of improvement from the past few years of futility. Martin had the punt of the day, lasting over 7 seconds in the air and traveling about 70-75 yards, bouncing almost straight up when it hit. He consistently showed accuracy that I don’t even have a comparison for with his kicks, with well above average leg strength. Clingan managed a punt that rivaled it however, late in the day, when he kicked a short 30-35 yard punt that lasted a whole 9 seconds in the air. It just didn’t want to come down. Both Punters caught some heat from longtime veteran Long Snapper Don Mulbach during drills, with Clingan botching a hold during kicking drills and Martin three stepping a punt (Mulbach pointed at the ground and told him “You got hit right there”). Only Clingan continued drills throughout camp (I’m not sure why Martin wasn’t there, aside from when he was doing ST with the team), and his leg strength is not only apparent but astonishing. Clingan’s control isn’t quite there, as was evidenced when he was attempting coffin corner kicks. Now, I didn’t expect him to get it every try, it’s one of the hardest punts to make, but only once out of maybe a dozen punts was even close, every other one landing well out-of-bounds or bouncing into the end zone. It’ll still be an interesting battle to watch, but Lions fans shouldn’t feel slighted if either win.
Yes friends, dear readers, we have been lied to. This whole time, in the Kicking battle, we have been told that it was experience that would be the deciding factor. Both Akers and Rugland’s leg strength was comparable, we were told, and up until today they were both perfect in camp. I believed what we were told about the Kickers’ leg strengths because I had no reason to not believe it. Akers kicked a 63 yarder in last season before his season went off the rails. Rugland has a whole YouTube video where his leg strength is apparent. Seeing them up close, I can tell you that their leg strengths are not close. They’re not even close to close. While Akers has enough leg strength to make 50+ yarders still, and with little apparent effort, Rugland would outkick him in terms of distance 100 times out of 100. As you can see by this picture, there is a building behind the goal posts. If we assumed the net was not there, and both kickers were kicking from 50 yards out, Akers’ kicks would go through the goal posts, bounce off the ground, and hit the front of the building. Rugland’s kicks would easily bounce off the top of that building, in some cases likely sail clean over. Many of his kicks were only just barely caught by the net behind the goal posts, while nearly all of Akers’ were caught by the net between them. This battle will likely lead into the preseason, but if it came down to distance, Akers doesn’t stand a chance and that’s even accounting for the fact that he has lost little if any of the leg strength that saw him tie an NFL record for FG distance last season. Rugland’s leg strength is other worldly. Accuracy is another matter. Both kickers had a rough day as Akers just barely made a 50 yarder and missed a 46 yarder wide. Rugland narrowly missed a 50 yarder wide right, but had another kick blocked. I wouldn’t put too much stock in today’s numbers, as both have been perfect up to this point, but it does make the battle more interesting once it’s game speed with defenders rushing at the Kicker.
I didn’t have the best view of the line battles, so I can’t speak to most of what happened from firsthand viewing. Due to injuries to Israel Idonije, Jason Jones, and Willie Young, both Ronnell Lewis and Devin Taylor rolled with the ones today. Because of my vantage point, I couldn’t see much of the left side of the line, but I was able to see the right side fairly well. Devin Taylor went back and forth with Jason Fox in what was a pretty entertaining exchange. One play had Taylor push Fox clear into the backfield, using his superior length to deny any sort of leverage to the former Miami product. On the next, Fox beat Taylor off the snap and once he got his hands on him it was pretty much over. If that becomes a trend, Taylor will have to seriously work on his technique if he wishes to consistently beat OTs, otherwise it will just be a matter of luck and timing to get his hands out first and utilize his length. Taylor had one terrible moment in camp, however, which I sadly didn’t witness. On one play, the 6’7″ Defensive End was violently pancaked by long time Lions Center Dominic Raiola. Winning the leverage battle, and working on his technique will be on Taylor’s long list of things to work on.
Secondhand Tight End
I wasn’t in a great position to watch blocking drills, and I BARELY caught the tail end of the whole team drills, so I cannot speak from firsthand knowledge on the Tight Ends. From what I’ve been told, Pettigrew looked good, smooth, and faster than last season (The last part I can speak to, he’s a little faster). Outside of that, I had very little on Tight Ends to report.
Chris Greenwood stood about 10 feet away from me during agility drills. Due to a hamstring injury, he is once again sidelined, so I have nothing to report on him other than he still looks like an NFL Cornerback.
About Those Drills
The agility drills are pretty standard, and don’t speak to a DB’s play as much as the actual coverage during drills does. I was amazed after watching the agility drills, however, how much of a difference there was between guys like Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, and Tyrell Johnson and guys like Chris Hope, Ross Weaver, and John Wendling. There is a huge gap in terms of raw ability and speed of movement, it was fascinating. I knew Slay and Bentley were athletic, so Johnson surprised me a little. Then came the catching drills and Johnson fell right back into his spot at the middle/bottom of the Safety rotation as his hands were just not there for his feet.
The Lions cut ties with 2012 starter and former UDFA preseason superstar Ricardo Silva after one disappointing season of play. Silva had a long road to make the team, but it’s very surprising he was cut this early in camp as I felt he hadn’t done anything either last season or now that would have prompted such a move. He wasn’t having a poor camp, in other words. The timing, not the decision to cut Silva are surprising. He was replaced on the roster by former camp tryout and Chicago Bear Trevor Coston. One thing I noticed immediately about Coston (Who is wearing #44) is that he looks small. At 5’10″ and under 200 lbs., Coston is very small and compact for a Safety, and it shows. Unlike Bentley (Who is smaller), Coston looks like a guy who plays his size. I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch him in coverage, and I will do my best to do so, but I’m not optimistic. The other cut was former TAMU DT/DE Spencer Nealy, which is depressing because he’s a really entertaining player and I had hoped to see him on the field. In his place the Lions signed Xavier Proctor out of North Carolina Central. Physically almost identical to Nealy, Proctor is also a DT/DE player, though I wasn’t lucky enough to see him play today. Likely, both end up camp guys.
The Curious Case of Ron Bartell
Ron Bartell played one game for the Lions last season, and in that game he played fairly well. Somehow, that one game led to a media and fan infatuation that has yet to subside, with most proclaiming him the day one starter opposite Chris Houston. The former Ram and Raider’s long injury history, which flared up in camp when he was sidelined with a shoulder injury a few days ago, prompted me to put him on the very bottom of the Lions roster, in my bottom 5. He wasn’t put there by a lack of ability, though there was some of that (He was terrible as a Raider, sub par as a Ram), his play today did nothing to make me want to move him from that spot. Bartell was beaten badly by Calvin Johnson twice. That can be forgiven, it’s Calvin Johnson after all. He was then beaten, badly, by everyone that he was put on to cover. Most notable was 2012 UDFA Pat Edwards, who blew by Bartell on a corner route and had a solid 5+ yards on him after only 30 yards. Bartell’s lack of measurable ability, which has likely been diminished from years of injury, will make him a liability in coverage if the team keeps him onboard. He was made to look even worse when he was followed up by Bill Bentley, who covered the lengthy and lightning fast track star Corey Fuller stride for stride. Bartell still might make the 53 man active roster, but I would bet cash money he doesn’t end the season on it.
Passing the Test
The most exciting part of Training Camp is normally the one on ones between corners and receivers, and today was no different. I’m going to go a little scattershot for a moment, because that’s how fast it happens in camp, but I’d like to cover as much ground as possible with the receivers and corners since I got a very good view of them. How many of them passed the eye test?
- Cody Wilson will not make the team as a receiver. His speed is noticeably lacking, and while I’d like to think it isn’t the case, I have a hard time seeing why he is on the roster outside of who his father is (the team’s Chaplain).
- Corey Fuller is FAST. If you’re a big believer that 40 times are the law of the land, you have no business evaluating football. Fuller ran the 40 in the 4.4 range, so that’s already pretty fast, but he is so much faster in person. It’s track speed, meaning his cuts aren’t the best and he runs upright, both of which will limit which routes he is given, but he is probably in the top 5 fastest players on the team.
- Not just fast, he’s also instinctive. On one play, a streak up the sideline, Fuller turned his head in time to see the ball was overthrown, adjusted at the last possible moment, and made a strong diving attempt for the ball, which he was unable to bring in. It was a difficult catch to make, and it was incomplete, but I was surprised to see a “raw” player making adjustments on the fly that quickly, something they don’t teach you in track.
- Terrence Austin is just a guy.
- Matt Willis will not make the team as a receiver. Pushing off is something that often gets disputed when a player is flagged for Offensive Pass Interference, but there would be no question on the two plays I saw Willis make.
- Kris Durham’s route running is still ugly. His routes were awful last season, and it was a big reason he only had 8 catches despite a signficant amount of targets. They still look sloppy, and Durham runs like a tall, clumsy guy. His hands were FAR better than last season, however, so he isn’t down for the count yet, but it will take a huge effort to make the team and his route tree will be severely limited.
- Patrick Edwards is FAST. Again, if you’re a 40 time guy, Edwards’ 4.57 will turn you off. If you saw him play, you’d NEVER guess that was his time. He plays fast, outrunning Bartell and then Menzie and in both cases it was by a large margin. The good news is that he is also fast in and out of his breaks, so his route tree won’t be as limited as some of the other guys.
- Chaz Schilens is as good as advertised. Schilens was a meh signing to me, but it’s turning into a very curious one. After poor showings in camp and regular seasons both as a Raider and as a Jet, Schilens has been reportedly putting on a show in camp. It was all on display today, as he used his length and speed to separate from Bentley on one play and Bartell on another to make an excellent play on the ball. It says a lot that Schilens was rolling with the ones today, despite no injury to Burleson, Broyles, or the others.
- Mike Thomas can catch in traffic. Hopefully he won’t have to do so often, but Mike Thomas made a couple of neat catches with defenders draped all over him. For such a small receiver, you don’t normally expect contested catches to be hauled in so cleanly, but he made it look easy, and in both cases I saw made it away from his defender, breaking a tackle and running with it.
Speed, Thy Name is Levy
The Linebackers kept drawing my attention from the DB drills I was trying to watch. Specifically, how fast they were. Headlining this group was the recently extended DeAndre Levy, who Putting aside his awful (Awesome) beard was flying around the field, barely touching the ground. It wasn’t only Levy, but Travis Lewis (not known for his speed), Tahir Whitehead, and Corey Greenwood that seriously impressed. Chris McCosky had mentioned Greenwood as a possible outlier to make the team based on his special teams ability and play as a reserve Linebacker and I was hesitant to believe him before I saw him in action. Now I’m not so sure. The Lions have some VERY hard questions to answer at Linebacker this season. One name you’ll notice is absent from my mentions in the Linebackers is Ashlee Palmer. I couldn’t find Palmer during drills. I was told later that he was out there, but I never saw him. Later, in team drills, I also didn’t see him. He’s either very sneaky, or he needs to do more to get noticed.
What to Expect
I tried to cover as much ground as I could today, but I learned last season that if you get too crazy with running around you will miss a lot. Watching the DBs prompted me to watch the receivers drills, and since Kickaliscious was one of the highest requested players for me to cover, I spent a significant time on ST. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will be at it again. This time I hope to catch a better view of the line battles, the Linebackers, and RBs, as well as getting as much from the QBs as I can. There will be some more on the secondary and receivers, since pretty much everything stops for those drills, but I’ll do my very best to cover tomorrow what I missed today. I hope to see you there, and don’t be afraid to chat if you are! Camp is a time to be social about your Lions, and if you can’t be there then by golly I’ll do what I can to be your eyes and ears on the ground!