Lions rookies, once Iowa teammates, face off in rookie minicamp

ALLEN PARK — The matchup between linebacker Jack Campbell and tight end Sam LaPorta at Detroit Lions rookie minicamp on Saturday was unlike the others.

On one play, LaPorta beat Campbell to the ball and there appeared to be a little finger-waving involved. Not a big deal, it was just one play with two buddies lining up against each other.

Campbell, a first-round pick, and LaPorta, a second-rounder, both played the last four years at Iowa. Not only were they teammates, the last two years they lived in the same house with a bunch of buddies.

“It’s like backyard football, not actually, but you’re going against your buddy, we’re competing,’’ LaPorta said. “That’s what we all love, we love football and it’s so fun to do it against Jack.’’

Campbell said that competition brings out the best in both of them.

“Hats off to him, he’s an incredible player, you guys know that. All you can do is keep going, every rep, give it your all, focus, (be) fundamentally sound. Obviously I’ll look back on it. There’s definitely something better I could’ve done, but it was a helluva play by him,’’ Campbell said. “In a real game I’m going back to the huddle and get ready for the next play, you can’t sulk about anything.’’

It was just the second day of the three-day Lions’ rookie minicamp for them along with the other draft picks and undrafted free agents. First-round pick running back Jahmyr Gibbs did not participate after a minor tweak on Friday. Cornerback Brian Branch, second round, also was out with a minor injury. Quarterback Hendon Hooker (third round) was watching and taking mental reps. He’s coming off an ACL injury with no timetable on when he’ll be able to participate.

Lions assistant GM Ray Agnew said in this three-day camp they’re looking for movement and to see if the rookies are learning.

“I’m a big believer, if you love the game you’ve got a chance to be a good football player,’’ Agnew said. “They love the game, they’re passionate about the game. We love all the guys that we’ve got.’’

LaPorta and Campbell both showed off their speed and competitiveness.

In fact, LaPorta, wearing No. 87, was a standout throughout the practice which was open to the media. He’s got speed and it showed. He was asked if he looks faster in person than on tape.

“Maybe. Somebody called me underwhelming one time. I think I can play with the best of them,’’ LaPorta said.

LaPorta will help fill the gap left when Detroit traded away tight end T.J. Hockenson at the trade deadline last season. He joins Lions tight ends Brock Wright, James Mitchell, Shane Zylstra and Derrick Deese Jr. 

He’s just getting a feel for the offense.

“They demand a lot, very small details, I’m learning all the real intricate details of the system right now. Of course I’ve messed them up a couple times already. You’ve probably heard them yelling at me,’’ LaPorta said. “Those details are really what separates you apart in the National Football League. They were great last year and I hope I can contribute this year.’’

It’s not lost on him that he’s joining an offense that was ranked fourth in the NFL last year.

“Maybe I’m a little naive, I think all rookies are. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, I got chills, when I heard we were going to Arrowhead to open up the season,’’ LaPorta said. “I’m living my dream of playing ball. I never thought I’d be in this situation but here I am.’’

And it’s on the same field with his Hawkeye buddy.

Coach Dan Campbell has said he expects Jack Campbell, who wears No. 46, to be a starter on Day One. 

“Obviously it’s high expectations for me, but everything is earned. I’m going to come into a room with other guys who are going to be super hungry. I look forward to meeting them, learning from them,’’ Jack Campbell said. “All I can do is prepare to the best of my ability and let my talents and everything else take me to where I need to go. I’m going to do everything I can to put this team in the best position to win games, whatever it is. Right now a lot of people have high expectations, that’s all good, I’m going to stick to what I know, who I am and come out here every day and give it my all.’’

The rookies will get their first turn at practicing with the veterans when OTAs begin on May 23.


Lions trade up to add DB Brian Branch in second round

ALLEN PARK — The Lions moved up in the second round of the NFL Draft on Friday night to select defensive back Brian Branch who played at Alabama.

Detroit made the deal with the Packers to move up three spots to grab Branch who was their fourth pick of the draft and second on the defensive side. He will join Alabama teammate RB Jahmyr Gibbs who was drafted 12th overall on Thursday. The Lions gave up their 159th pick in the fifth round in the deal.

Even though he wasn’t selected in the first round, Branch stayed in Kansas City calling it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He said it was tough getting passed over. “But I’m happy to be a Lion, that’s the main thing right now,” Branch said via Zoom from Kansas City.

Branch, who is 6-foot and 190 pounds, was a star at Sandy Creek High School in Georgia, the same school that Lions Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson attended. He won the Georgia 5A Iron Man of the Year Award as a senior for his play on both sides of the ball.

At Alabama, the defensive back played in all 15 games in 2021, starting seven times and leading the Tide with nine pass breakups (also recording 55 tackles, five for loss). Branch broke out as a second-team Associated Press All-American as a junior, starting all 13 games (90 tackles, 14 for loss with three sacks, two interceptions, seven pass breakups). 

He said playing for coach Nick Saban at Alabama gives him an edge.

“It’s prepared me a lot. I have a bit of an advantage because of the system I was in, I was almost in a pro-style system. Coach Saban taught me a lot of things. I’m happy he was my coach and I’m ready to play at the next level,” Branch said.

He’s versatile enough to play any position in the defensive backfield.

“I value it a lot and I work at it all phases of the game. I’m trying to get on the field anyway I can get on the field whether it be corner, safety, nickel – anywhere they want me,” Branch said.

He was teammates with running back Jahmyr Gibbs who was selected by the Lions with the 12th overall pick.

“Gibbs is a generational talent. … He did a lot of things I feel like his running style is like nobody I’ve ever seen, he can get in and out of holes, cuts easily and him being able to be a receiver sets him apart,” Branch said. “The sky is the limit for Jahmyr.”

As a true freshman at Alabama Branch played in a dozen games with three starts (27 tackles, two INTs, seven PBUs) in their 2020 national championship season.

Branch’s NFL prospect bio by Lance Zierlein reads: “Plug-and-play defensive back with every ingredient necessary to become a high-performing starter early in his career. Branch has primarily handled nickel coverage at Alabama but has the range and instincts for single-high or split safety looks. He’s quick, fast and strong with the ability to match up with shifty slots, bigger possession receivers and pass-catching tight ends. He’s urgent and has a mind for the game. He takes playmaking angles into the throwing lane but does have a tendency to play it a little safe from off-man coverage. There are areas where he can improve but no real weaknesses, which could make him one of the safest picks in the draft.’’