ALLEN PARK — The Detroit Lions have an off day on Monday. By the end of Sunday’s practice, it was apparent just how much they needed it.
Coach Matt Patricia said before practice that running back Bo Scarbrough and tight end Hunter Brynt would not suit up, although that was only the start of Detroit’s injury woes. That’s especially true at running back, where rookies D’Andre Swift and Jason Huntley also did not suit up, while Kerryon Johnson attended practice but was held out of most team work.
That left the Lions short-handed at the position, with Ty Johnson getting a lot of first-team work ahead of Jonathan Williams and Wes Hills.
But the injury problems hardly stopped there, especially on offense. Kenny Golladay, Detroit’s star receiver, left practice early. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the big free-agent acquisition at right tackle, retreated to the locker room toward the end of practice. Right guard Jonah Jackson and left guard Joe Dahl also didn’t finish the day.
For those scoring at home, that’s Detroit’s No. 1 receiver, top three running backs and three-fifths of the projected offensive line that wasn’t on the field by the end of the day.
The defense was in better shape, although top cornerback Desmond Trufant wasn’t able to finish the workout. And Austin Bryant, a fourth-round pick last year, remains on the physically unable to perform list. Considering how much time he lost last year to injuries too — he played just 133 snaps — Bryant has a lot of work to do to see the field in any capacity when the season opens in three weeks.
Here are some other observations from practice:
— Tracy Walker spent another day putting in a lot of work with the second-team defense. My gut tells me this is a situation where Detroit is just trying to get in good work for guys like Duron Harmon, who was acquired in an offseason trade with New England, and Will Harris, a former third-round pick who struggled as a rookie last year. Then again, the season starts in just three weeks, and you’d figure Detroit would want to have its first-team defense on the field after coming within 64 yards of setting the franchise record for futility last year. The Lions couldn’t stop anybody, allowed the most passing yards in the league, and picked off the fewest passes. But outside of Darius Slay, there was nobody better on defense than Tracy Walker. So it’s a little peculiar that he’s spending so much time with the second-team, although I think it’s premature to say this is another Graham Glasgow situation, where the Lions elected to platoon their best player at the position.
For what it’s worth, here’s Matt Patricia on the situation: “I wouldn’t get caught up on first team, second team, all that stuff right now. We’re trying to practice and do rotations, especially with a very deep safety group — Tracy, Will Harris, obviously Duron, (Jayron) Kearse, C.J. Moore. A lot of times we like to spin the different matchups and the different groups, certainly the packages based on the situations that we’re in. So maybe we’re running some couple different packages from that aspect of it, but everybody’s in competition, everybody is pushing through and certainly at the safety position, there’s a lot of communication that takes place there in that group. Sometimes we like to change up who’s practicing together on different days to work on different communication levels.”
— Reggie Ragland was known mostly as a run-stopper in his early years in the league, but made the defensive play of the day throug the air on Sunday. He stepped in front of a Matthew Stafford pass during seven-on-sevens at the goal line, picked off the football with one hand, then returned it 100 yards for a score the other way. Look, any pass that is picked off could have been better, but it wasn’t a terrible throw either. Give Ragland credit for just going up and getting the rock with one mitt, then sprinting the other way for the score. Although it’s worth noting Stafford hustled back and got a hand on Ragland running up the sideline.
It’s difficult to say whether Stafford would have gotten Ragland in a live situation, but the effort was certainly there, especially when you consider it came at the end of the fourth straight day of practice, and on one of the hottest days of camp at that. Asked if Stafford would have caught him in a game, Ragland didn’t flinch.
“Damn skippy I would have,” Ragland said. “He told me in the locker room he’d have caught me (if it were live). What? He wouldn’t have. I’ll tell you that.”
— The Lions wrapped up practice with one of my favorite drills of the Matt Patricia era. For the first time since drafting Sam Martin back in 2013, there is uncertainty at punter. Jack Fox and rookie Arryn Siposs are duking it out in a good ol’ fashioned head-to-head job battle, and Patricia concluded Sunday’s practice by letting those guys go at it mano-a-mano in front of the entire team. There was a cool wrinkle too where Patricia had players predict which guy they thought would win. All hell started breaking loose, with Fox’s supporters at one point breaking into a chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” (Siposs is from Australia.)
It seemed like there was about a 50-50 split of players for Fox and Siposs, a good indication of how close that competition has been. You could feel the energy ratcheting up, with a lap around both practice fields at stake. The competition considered hang time, distance and accuracy at the goal line. It was difficult to see exactly where the punts were landing from the media’s vantage point, but Siposs won the battle, forcing Fox and his supporters to end practice with a stroll around the yard.
— Fox was the favorite to win Detroit’s punting job at the outset of camp, but as the punt-off showed, that competition is still cookin’. Whatever happens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the loser still make the expanded practice squad. In times of corona, teams are just one positive test for COVID — or perhaps a false positive for COVID — from losing a quarterback or kicker or punter or other specialist. Expect to see a lot of specialists on rosters this year, one way or another.
— Detroit was a top-three passing team with Matthew Stafford on the field last year. Through a week of practice, I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me of the notion they could be just as good this year, if not better. Marvin Jones has made probably the two best catches in camp, twirling for a one-handed 40-yarder on the first day of pads, then spinning around to snag another ball with his left hand today. Poor Jeff Okudah was in tight coverage and everything, and must have been shaking his head when he turned around and realized Jones had somehow stabbed the ball out of the air with his off-hand 30 yards downfield.
And that, ladies and gentleman, isn’t even Detroit’s best receiver. Kenny Golladay has been an impossible matchup when healthy, yet I don’t know how defenses are going to be able to double him when Jones looks like this on the opposite side of the field. And that doesn’t even account for Danny Amendola in the slot, where he continues to be a real problem underneath. Nor does it account for Marvin Hall, who averaged almost 40 yards per catch off the bench last year, and now looks much more developed on his intermediate routes. I think his playing time will grow this season. Throw in rookie Quintez Cephus, who has been among the best players in camp, and the rapid development of Jamal Agnew, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Detroit roll six deep at the position — and have one of the deepest receiver corps in the league.
— The receivers have really dominated most of camp, although one cornerback who has caught my eye is Tony McRae. He broke up a couple more passes during red-zone work today, including PBUing Jamal Agnew near the goal line. And again, Agnew has done some very good work, including reversing direction to catch a pass that was behind him during one-on-ones. He just looks so much more fluid than you’d expect for a guy who just moved to the position full time — yet McRae got the best of him in the red zone. The corner also handled Geremy Davis, a much larger player, during their one-on-one battles. When you consider his special teams contributions — including playing for coordinator Brayden Coombs in Cincinnati — and all the guaranteed money he got, I think McRae is in good position for a reserve job.
— I found myself writing “53″ in my notebook a lot today, not something you usually do while watching any offense. But I’ll tell you what, Jason Cabinda — a former-linebacker-turned-fullback — has some nice wheels and surprisingly soft hands. He could be good for a couple unexpected chunk plays this fall when Detroit catches a defense napping.
— Matt Patricia loves situational work, although the end-of-half drills were a mixed bag that led to a lot of field goals today. One series began at the 35-yad line with 1:33 left. Stafford’s first pass was broken up by Amani Oruwariye, then the second fell incomplete when Jahlani Tavai stripped the ball from Ty Johnson. Quintez Cephus moved the chains on third down, Marvin Hall kept the drive alive with another, but Stafford missed Jones and Amendola, killing the drive at the opponent’s 31-yard line. Prater converted from 48 yards, then again from 55 when the second-team offense fell short of the end zone too.
Later, the offense started at the 33-yard line while trailing 30-28 and just 58 seconds showing on the clock. Stafford got things going with nice completions to Tom Kennedy and Marvin Jones, which gave Detroit a first down at the opponent’s 38-yard line. But then Stafford missed T.J. Hockenson deep, connected with Marvin Hall short, then was sacked on a third-and-4 by Romeo Okwara. Prater connected again, this time from 49 yards. That was good for a go-ahead score in this situation, although you’d always like to see a touchdown there, and Detroit didn’t score any at all during end-of-game work.
— There were some mental mistakes during practice, including Halapoulivaati Vaitai and T.J. Hockenson both running laps for jumping early on the same play. Later, Quintez Cephus — who has had a terrific rookie camp — had to run a lap after he put a ball on the ground.