Detroit Lions training camp: Five position battles to watch

Matt Patricia’s first camp starts Friday

When Detroit Lions training camp gets underway on Friday, the shape of this team will start to reveal itself more than in the off-season workouts.

All eyes will be on first-year head coach Matt Patricia. It’s a big task that he is expected to handle well.

Just like every NFL team, there are plenty of questions at several key positions for the Lions.

Here are five battles to watch:

1. The offensive line, which is so crucial to the run game, is not set in concrete. Taylor Decker at left tackle, Rick Wagner at right tackle and T.J. Lang at right guard are givens as long as they are healthy. According to the snaps during minicamp and OTAs, it appears Graham Glasgow has the edge at center replacing Travis Swanson who was not re-signed. Glasgow started all 16 games last year either at center or guard. Look for rookie Frank Ragnow to get the shot at starting left guard. He’ll have to prove himself. If he doesn’t it’s a huge indictment of Bob Quinn’s first-round draft pick. He played 15 games at left guard at Arkansas but the past two seasons at center. When he was drafted the door was left open that he may be moved back to guard. Joe Dahl is highly respected but he has only a dozen games of NFL experience over the last two seasons. He’d be a solid choice to be a Sunday backup at center and guard but veteran Kenny Wiggins might have something to say about that. The Sunday tackle backup role will likely be a choice between Brian Mihalik, Corey Robinson and Dan Skipper.

2. It’s really tough to judge running backs in training camp due to lack of hitting except on days when they wear full pads. We’ll get a glimpse into how Jim Bob Cooter ranks his running backs by the number of reps each gets. During minicamp and OTAs, rookie Kerryon Johnson looked solid and got plenty of touches along with veteran LeGarrette Blount who is coming off the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Don’t expect Cooter to name one starting back. He’s typically gone with running back by committee and that’s should continue depending on who is doing well and also on the opposing defense each week. Will Ameer Abdullah be on the 53-man roster come September? Good question. It seems unlikely they would keep him around just as a return specialist and not sure there is a role for him. Would not be surprising if he was traded. The versatile Theo Riddick is a lock. Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington will be battling to stay on the roster. I’d give the edge there to Zenner, but that is not a popular sentiment.

3. The defensive line must be a bit more nimble moving from 4-3 to 3-4 packages during games. That’s the expectation. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. Ziggy Ansah should be motivated to get a new contract after signing as the franchise player. If he’s healthy, watch out. If he’s not, it could be another disappointing season for the big guy and the line as a whole. Anthony Zettel, A’Shawn Robinson should play key roles along with Kerry Hyder who is coming back from a torn Achilles which sidelined him for the entire 2017 season. In 2016 he led the Lions with eight sacks. Can he get back to that form? We will get an idea during camp, but more likely we’ll see what he has in the preseason games. Da’Shawn Hand, a rookie tackle out of Alabama, has a chip on his shoulder after getting drafted in the fourth round. Shoulder chips are a good thing, typically providing even more motivation. It’s tough to get a total handle on the line because of the new defensive coordinator, along with Patricia and a different defensive scheme. There’s a good mix of young guys and veterans like end Cornelius Washington, end Cam Johnson and tackle Sylvester Williams.

4. Linebacker Jarrad Davis is expected to improve in his second season. It’s a natural phenomena that players improve the most from Year One to Year Two. The 2017 first-round pick was thrown in as a starter as a rookie last year and graded out well, for the most part. At times he certainly did look like a rookie but seemed to learn from his mistakes. Now his challenge is to grasp the new scheme. He’s a smart player so there is not much doubt that he will do exactly that. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, another linebacker entering his second season, developed before our eyes during his rookie season, playing in 14 games. Free agent Jonathan Freeny, a former Patriot (2015-16), was signed to bolster this group and add a little veteran leadership. Also Christian Jones and Devon Kennard will be in the mix. Talent does not seem to be an issue for this position group. They key will be finding the right multi-dimensional guys who fit the scheme.

5. Long-time Lions fans know what a relief it is to have a starting quarterback, especially one as talented as Matthew Stafford. The question here is at backup. It caught some off-guard when Quinn signed veteran Matt Cassel as a backup. He looked solid during minicamp and OTAs. Cassel, another former Patriot (2005-2008), was much more accurate than Jake Rudock, the Michigan product who is entering his fourth season with the Lions. Rudock has not thrown one pass in an NFL regular season game while the 36-year-old Cassel has played in 105 games. Remember that part of a backup quarterback’s role is to share what he sees with Stafford on game days. It’s too early to know whether Patricia will keep two or three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Much of it depends on depth at other positions.

(More to come on other position groups including wide receiver, tight ends and defensive backs.)



Lions’ defense adapts to Matt Patricia as OTAs wind down before summer break

New coach has high standards, expectations

ALLEN PARK — All eyes have been on the defense through the offseason, including on Monday, the last day of Detroit Lions’ organized team activities open to the media.

Certainly the offense will undergo some changes (especially in the run game), but it’s the defense that requires the massive overhaul. It’s exactly why a defensive-minded head coach like Matt Patricia was hired.

So far?

Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson (in photo) expects the defense to improve over last year when it was ranked 27th overall, giving up 355.8 yards per game.

“Because I feel like we’re willing to learn, everyday we ask questions, we come in with the mindset to get better, the mindset to finding a way understand the defense more,’’ Lawson said on Monday. “I know it’s something new for u,s but the only way we’re going to get it is by repetition, doing it over and over.’’

Linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who was signed as a free agent, played for Patricia in 2015, 2016 and part of 2017 in New England where Patricia was the defensive coordinator.

“He’s the same guy, brings the same enthusiasm, same intensity to the game.  Every day he’s just trying to get better,’’ Freeny said.

Patricia has gotten to know the players and seems satisfied (so far) with their grasp of his defense. (Note the word, phenomenal.)

“Our guys have come in every single day and really tried to learn and study. This is a great group. These guys care about football, they love the game, they work at it. They really try to do everything we’re asking them to do at a high level. Absolutely, from that standpoint these guys have been phenomenal,’’ Patricia said on Monday. “We have high standards. We’re going to live to those. We’re going to expect them. …’’

After this week’s OTAs, the Lions will have several weeks off before reporting back to training camp around July 26.

When the pads go on in training camp, it will be easier to judge where the defense stands.

Five observations on Lions Matt Patricia after 3 days of minicamp

He’s tight-lipped, no surprise

ALLEN PARK — With the coaching change bringing Matt Patricia in as head coach for the Detroit Lions, changes were inevitable. That was the whole point.

Recently it’s been reported that the New England Patriots, where Patricia spent the last 14 seasons, don’t have fun at practice. “I think for us we’re just trying to go out there and get better. I think that’s the main focus for us. We’re trying to improve. We’re trying to learn. We’re trying to do a better job than we did the day before and that’s really the main focus for us,’’ Patricia said.

After three days of mandatory minicamp, here are a few observations on Patricia

1. Wasn’t a surprise when Patricia was asked about rookie fullback Nick Bawden going down at practice on Wednesday. He won’t talk injuries. His reply when asked about Bawden on Thursday morning: “At football practice we’re trying to make sure everyone is put in the best position possible. I don’t have any comment or discussion about anything in that situation. Just unfortunately he couldn’t finish practice. In general, for me, for everybody here injuries will be something that we definitely don’t talk about outside of our own little world. …” He went on and on. It’s his way of saying, “Check the report.” This has been modus operandi for Lions coaches going back to at least Jim Schwartz. Although Schwartz was a little more forthcoming with injury info than Caldwell. Expect Patricia to be more evasive. Just an educated guess – it’s the Patriot way. Patricia, like Schwartz, is in his first stint as an NFL head coach.

2. Which player will start where? First, it’s too early to know in many cases. Second, Patricia will not reveal. Many fans were frustrated that they couldn’t get more information out of Caldwell. Guess what? Patricia could be more tight-lipped. He has changed since his introductory press conference.

3. Patricia is all about football. It’s early and it’s key that he gets his points across to the 90 players on the roster. Getting to know players off the field? Not on his current agenda, but that could happen with training camp. In his first year, Jim Caldwell took all the different position groups out to dinner — let them pick the restaurants. Not uncommon for coaches to try to bond with players and we’ll might see that down the road.

4. Minicamp drills are shorter than previously. Players move around the three fields more often. Patricia’s goal is to keep them working and squeeze every minute out of his available time with them. He’s mentioned several times that he is constrained in time (by the NFL collective bargaining agreement). “I would say that’s probably the biggest frustration from that standpoint,’’ Patricia said.

5. Patricia has a booming voice and not afraid to express frustration on the field to his players. Let’s just say he uses colorful language to make a point. It’s a significant difference over the past four years. Good? Bad? Too early to tell.

Five things to know about Detroit Lions veteran backup QB Matt Cassel

Relationship with Patricia goes back to 2005

ALLEN PARK — Matt Cassel is getting to know his new Detroit Lions teammates and coaches. It’s been intensified this week through the first two days of mandatory minicamp.

The 36-year-old quarterback, who was signed as a free agent, knows one key person in the organization.

Cassel spent his first five seasons (2005-2009) with the New England Patriots where he got to know Lions head coach Matt Patricia.

“We had a great relationship, he actually ran the scout team when I first got there, we had a lot of time together, we had a lot of fun,,’’ Cassel said on Wednesday. “It’s been a great relationship and that’s one of the main reasons I’m here.’’

Five more things to know about Cassel and the Lions:

1. Patricia remembers him well from their Patriots days. “Matt Cassel, obviously someone that I have a lot of history with, extremely professional guy. Guy’s been in a couple different systems now, very smart. A guy, if I remember this correctly, was actually a captain in college even though the positions and quarterbacks that he had to play behind, so I think that tells you a little what his personality is,’’ Patricia said on Wednesday. “The way, what a teammate he is. His approach, his study, and the respect that he gets from not only the players but the coaches too. So, he’s been great.

2. Last season the Lions only kept two quarterbacks — Matthew Stafford and Jake Rudock — on the 56-man roster. Patricia would not say if carrying three quarterbacks is an option this year. It’s too early to know.  Cassel and Rudock will likely battle in training camp for the No. 2 spot.

3. Cassel and Stafford are working on developing a good working relationship. “I think it’s going well, you probably have to ask him he might have a different opinion. We spend a lot of time together, he’s been great, he’s been tremendous, he’s a guy who wants to help out in any manner he can,’’ Cassel said. “That’s really helpful for for a guy coming into a system that I’ve never been a part of before with a lot of elaborate stuff going on.’’

4. Cassel is entering his 14th NFL season which is pretty good for a seventh-round pick. “I feel like you can never become complacent. I’ve always taken that mentality where I was drafted late and had to grind for everything I’ve had,’’ Cassel said. “That’s stuck with me throughout my career and the hard work and determination that continue to push through. At times it’s been tough.’’

5. Patricia still remembers Cassel as a rookie. “You know what? I think the thing about Matt (Cassel) as a young player that people underestimated, and we did defensively definitely, is he’s very athletic. You know, he was much faster than what you thought at the time as a young guy,’’ Patricia said. “Extremely strong arm, you know like everything’s like a fastball. It’s coming out like a baseball pitch, but was very smart, very energetic, great personality. Just a guy that can walk in a room and make everyone smile, go at ease. Great teammate from that standpoint. And as a young guy, he was great at the time for the situation we had back in New England. But really the biggest thing that stands out is his athleticism and his speed. You know, it was pretty impressive back then.”

Glover Quin returns for Lions minicamp; seeks to find better work-life balance

Pro Bowl safety is signed through 2019 season

ALLEN PARK — Glover Quin returned to the field on Tuesday for the first day of the Detroit Lions’ three-day mandatory minicamp.

The Pro Bowl safety has missed the offseason workouts since they started in April, choosing to be home in Houston with his family including his wife Gladys and his three sons.

It’s all a bit of a mystery. Quin talked after Tuesday’s practice but spoke more in generalities.

When asked if he was considering retirement, he paused for several seconds before saying, “No.”

“I think every player once you get to a certain age and look in the mirror and ask yourself can you continue to play at that high of a level? But thinking about retiring was not on my mind, it was just trying to figure out how much I had left,’’ the 32-year-old Quin said.

Since he returned that mean he thinks he’s good to go.

He did say clearly one reason he had stayed away was the chance to spend more time with his family.

The pay is great in the NFL but work-life balance can be tough to achieve.

“Only thing I was contemplating was how do I spend more time with my family. That was really it. How do I spend more time with them? It’s a difficult situation, it was the main thing.,’’ Quin said. “Disconnect and give them everything I’ve got, let’s try to figure out how I can spend more time with them.’’

Five things to know about Quin:

1. Quin, who has played in 132 consecutive games, signed an extension in 2017 that ties him up with the Lions through the 2019 season. He’ll make $3.85 million this season, giving up a $250,000 workout bonus. This will be his sixth season in Detroit. He started his career with the Texans as a fourth-round pick out of New Mexico in 2009. He signed with the Lions as a free agent in 2013.

2. Even though he’s missed time while coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni are installing a new defense, no one seems too worried about Quin’s ability to learn the system. “Everybody’s trying to do the best they can to try and understand what’s going on. And certainly Glover, you know, he’ll come in and work extremely hard. Obviously, a guy that’s a great professional and a guy that’s been in contact with us the whole time,’’ Patricia said before Tuesday’s practice.

3. Quin said playing defense is playing defense. “I’ve been around long enough, I’ve learned new defenses four times in my career. I’ve had four head coaches. So I understand what it’s like, I understand the business, I understand changing in cultures,, I wasn’t really stressing myself about what it was like, what was going on,’’ said Quin who noted he didn’t really bother his teammates who were present for the offseason workouts. He said he didn’t want to be a distraction.

4. While he is in town, it’s all football. “I’m trying to soak up as much of the play book as I can. Football is football to me, I think every day, because one of the things I think He blessed me with, was a great football mind. Being able to learn and understand defenses has been fairly easy for me so I came in (Monday), got a lot thrown at me and same with practice today,’’ Quin said on Tuesday.

5. Quin said it was good to get back into the swing of things and see his teammates again. “It’s cool, being away you go through a phase where you miss the game a little bit,’’ Quin said. “That was the first time in my career that I’ve had to experience that. I’ve always been a part of offseason programs, I’ve never missed games. …  It was more for me to take a step back and kind of separate myself and give myself fully to my wife and kids and enjoy that time, but understand I still had a job to do so I had to make time for that as well. So that was good.’’ He would not say if he’ll return next week for scheduled OTAs.

Five things to know about new Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni

At heart he is a teacher, so this is his time of year

ALLEN PARK >> Paul Pasqualoni set off on a career of teaching.

He started at the bottom, teaching physical education to kindergarteners through sixth-graders.

“I was like a K-6 teacher, had no intentions to ever coach in college or pro football. It’s just I wanted to be a high school coach back in my hometown, Chester, Conn. When I got the freshman job there, I felt like I had the greatest job I could ever have. I mean, this is like, ‘Wow, I’ve got the best job there is. How lucky,’’’ Pasqualoni said on Tuesday.

Since those days his football coaching career has taken him to several states and stops.

A few months ago he landed in Detroit as the Lions’ defensive coordinator under new coach Matt Patricia who worked for him when he was head coach at Syracuse.

Pasqualoni may be a long way from K-6, but in his heart he’s still a teacher.

Five things to know about the affable Pasqualoni:

1. So far all is good in his new position.  “First of all, it’s great to be here. This is a great organization. The Ford family is first class. This is a first class, really. The NFL’s first class, this is really first class. It’s great to be here,’’ Pasqualoni said. “Lot of fun to have the opportunity to work with the guys on the staff we have. We have outstanding coaches on this staff. Obviously, it’s fun to be around the energy that Coach Patricia brings, and it’s fun to be around the energy that the players here bring. There’s a lot of good players here. They’re great to work with. It’s been my pleasure to be here.”

2. His defensive philosophy appears standard. “To be smart, to be tough, that means to be able to perform at a very dependable, high level on a consistent basis. Like you’ve heard a hundred times, stop the run, try to make the quarterback uncomfortable. You’re not going to sack the guy, but there has to be in a variety of ways, discomfort created for the guy playing the quarterback position,’’ Pasqualoni said. “Whether it’s disguise, or pressure, whatever it might be. You just can’t let quarterbacks at this level operate and be comfortable, because in the end they’ll get you. In a nutshell, that’s kind of it.”

3. Patricia has said repeatedly since his arrival that the defense won’t feature just a 4-3 or 3-4 front. “We’ll have some four-man fronts, and we’ll have some three-man fronts and we’ll have a variety of stuff. It’s been very enjoyable because the players have been really terrific, and are working hard in the classroom, in the meeting room and out on the field,’’ Pasqualoni said. “And the coaching staff, the guys I have an opportunity to work with: Al Golden, and Brian Stewart, Bo Davis, the support staff here, they’re just outstanding coaches. So, it’s been very, very, very good.”

4. He loves this time of year because he draws on his teaching background. “You know, I’ve always thought this about this time of year—whether I was a high school coach in Connecticut. We had spring practice, believe it or not, in the state of Connecticut. A lot of people won’t believe that, but we had spring practice. As a college coach, of course you always had spring practice. And then you go on to the NFL, and there’s the offseason program and there’s OTAs. Here’s what I always felt about the offseason, I always felt it was a great time for players and it was a great time for coaches, because coaches could teach,’’ Pasqualoni said. “And you didn’t have to worry about a game plan, an adjustment, and, ‘What are we going to do with this guy and what are we going to do with that guy?’ And for the players, it gave them a chance to just focus on getting better and that’s the goal. We have one goal every day, and that’s to improve. So, they have a chance to work on the tools that they need to perfect, to put in their toolbox, to be able to play the game. As a coach, as I said, you’re just coaching and teaching. We got into this business to be teachers and coaching is teaching. So, it’s a very, very good time of year for players to improve and to worry about technique. We’re not so much worried about scheme. I think the scheme, in the end, will take care of itself. I think the issue right now is improving fundamentally and learning how to play technique.”

5. He’s not intimidated by calling the defense on game day referring to his last two seasons as the defensive line coach at Boston College. “I think that if they (the NFL offenses have) changed, they’ve gone a little bit more to the college spread set, zone-read set. So, the past two years in the ACC, I promise you I’ve seen that a little bit, up front and very, very close and personal,’’ Pasqualoni said. “So, if anything, I think it’s probably helped me a little bit, it really has. And there’s been some good quarterbacks in that league, too, a couple good ones. It’s helped.”

Lions coach Matt Patricia, Matthew Stafford appear to be a good match

They talk non-stop on the field during OTAs

For coach Matt Patricia to turn the Lions into a perennial playoff team, he has to build a solid relationship with quarterback Matthew Stafford.

He knows it, we know it. Now it has to happen.

With three days of organized team activities behind them, it appears that Matt and Matthew are off to good start.

Stafford down-played the fact that Patricia comes from the defensive side of the ball. It’s not a first. His first Lions’ head coach, Jim Schwartz, was also a former defensive coordinator. The quarterback also had a good relationship with former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.

“You know, it’s not like I’ve never talked to (former Lions defensive coordinator) Teryl Austin or any of those guys too. It is, it’s always unique. Every defensive coach kind of has their own philosophy. I’m sure Coach Patricia’s will be different than the guys who have been here before,’’ Stafford said on Thursday. “It’s always fun to kind of pick the brain of the other side and see what they’re seeing and what they’re trying to take away and what they’re trying to force you to do.”

Unlike the defense, the offense is still basically the same with Jim Bob Cooter in charge.

Of course, it will be tweaked just like it is every season.

So far Stafford has impressed Patricia which isn’t exactly a shocker. Patricia was asked about the differences in Stafford and Tom Brady and would not go there. (Not a shocker either.)

“Stafford’s phenomenal. He’s work hard, tough, smart and you know what’s great is when you have quarterbacks like that where you can go out and look (QB Jake) Rudock and (QB) Matt Cassel are the same guys, and you’re going out and you’re having football conversations,’’ Patricia said on Thursday.

“You’re not really having to always explain everything from a ‘let me draw this up for you’ and show you what I’m talking about, you can just have the conversations, ‘Hey if this guy’s here’ or ‘This leverage is played like this’ or ‘The DBs in this position’ or ‘The front looks like this’ and just for them to visually have those conversations with you, that’s what’s great. That’s when you know you’ve got guys who are really dialed in.’’

They appear to have quickly developed a good on-field rapport.

“He’s competitive out on the field, I’m competitive. He’s asking me non-stop, I’m talking to him non-stop. He’s out there a bunch as a head coach, kind of standing behind me looking at the defense and seeing it kind of how I see it,’’ Stafford said. “So, there’s constant back and forth of, ‘Hey, what did you see? Did this guy give it away?’ Whatever. But we’re always talking.”

It would be wrong to down-play Cooter’s role in the offense, but at the same time Patricia knows his success rides on the shoulders of No. 9.

So far, so good.

“Matthew’s unbelievable. He loves this game, like he loves football, loves to practice, loves to prepare, he wants to know as much information as possible, not only scheme-wise, he wants to know it from players, as far as the guys around him, as far as the guys on the other side of the ball,’’ Patricia said. “Different things, that I think for me that are fun to talk to him about is like there’s a little bit of a chess game that happens offensively and defensively through some of the positions and I think from that standpoint, you know, I’m looking at him saying, ‘I’m seeing this’ or ‘You’re doing this’, you know, ‘What are you seeing from this position and how do you view that’. And I think that’s all part of the growth and education of it and it’s great. It’s a lot of fun when you can do that on the field.”

The OTAs continue next week with mandatory minicamp set for June 5-7.