Detroit Lions camp: Three draft picks among the early stand-outs

ALLEN PARK — After a week of training camp, three of the Detroit Lions draft picks have stood out.

That doesn’t mean the others will not contribute this season, but early on it’s clear that first-round pick tight end T.J. Hockenson (first round), linebacker Jahlani Tavai (second round) and cornerback Amani Oruwariye (fifth round) have what it takes. 

All eyes have been on Hockenson since Day 1. No. 88 is so smooth for a rookie and appears to have developed quite a connection with quarterback Matthew Stafford. He makes the tough catches especially in the corner of the end zone on goal-line drills. He beats defenders in one-on-one drills. It’s early but there isn’t much to not like about the kid.

“He knows that he has a lot to learn and he’s got a long way to go, but he is a hard worker. He loves the game, the guys got a great attitude, the guy just loves the grind and the passion of the game,” coach Matt Patricia said. “So, you take it, you work with it, you go forward, and he’s got a skill set that hopefully we got to see out on the field.”

The Lions were roundly criticized when they drafted Tavai in the second round out of Hawaii because no one else had him going that high. Didn’t matter. Tavai is exactly who they wanted and they got him. He snagged an interception this week from Stafford. Watch one practice and you won’t be able to keep your eyes off No. 51. Again, it’s early but he’s been impressive so far.

Oruwarije (in photo) has seen plenty of reps in camp with Darius Slay on the sidelines (non-football injury). 

“We all know what (Slay) can do, he’s a great player and so I just try to ask him as many questions as I can, I have to use my resources. He’s got so much experience and knowledge I’d be dumb to not ask him questions and learn some things I can take from his game I can take to mine.”

In fact, Oruwarije got some first-team reps on Thursday and grabbed his first interception on a ball intended for none other than Kenny Golladay. 

“Just kind of like being a little tighter, just play with my upper leverage and worked on the technique that (defensive backs) coach Brian Stewart teaches me, came down with the play,’’ Oruwariye said. Like it was that simple.

 

 

Detroit Lions camp: Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson impressive early

ALLEN PARK — Tight end T.J. Hockenson’s catches deep in the corner of the end zone have been among the highlights during the first two days of Detroit Lions training camp.

Even his teammates appreciate it — hooting and hollering for the rookie each time he brings in a ball thrown by Matthew Stafford.

The first-round pick takes his early stand-out plays in stride.

“We’re all just trying to have fun out here. I’m just trying to have fun playing the game I love, being able to do it with these guys means a lot,’’ Hockenson said. “This group of veterans has taken you in really well, they’ve accepted me as part of this team and I’m super excited to get started.’’

If the first two days of camp are any indication, this could be a very tight-end friendly offense under new coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Hockenson doesn’t put more pressure on himself because he’s a first-round pick. Like each and every one of the Lions he repeats the mantra that he just wants to get better every day.

“He knows that he has a lot to earn and he’s got a long way to go, but he is a hard worker. He loves the game. The guy’s got a great attitude, the guy just loves the grind and the passion of the game,’’ coach Matt Patricia said. “So, you take it, you work with it, you go forward, and he’s got a skill set that hopefully we got to see out on the field. He’s got to go out there and do it consistently and do it every single day.”

Hockenson, who is 6-foot-5, is one six tight ends on the camp roster. All of them are new to the Lions this season, although Logan Thomas (6-foot-6) and Jesse James (6-foot-7) bring years of NFL experience. 

“It’s competition in camp, we have such a great tight end room. Logan and everyone in that group has been great, they’ve accepted us they’ve done everything that I can ask,’’ Hockenson said. “They’ve taught us things that a rookie wouldn’t normally see. It’s nice to be with that group of guys.’’

Hockenson repeatedly mentioned how the intelligence level is so much higher than it was in college (Iowa).

“The defense can see a formation one time and know the play. You have to be smarter than the 10-year vet that is in front of you,’’ Hockenson said. “Being a rookie you have to come in and study and work at it, that’s what we’re all trying to do, that’s what I’m trying to do.’’

Tight end is traditionally one of the hardest positions to learn as a rookie requiring that they know how to catch and also block for the run game. Hockenson said it’s all a challenge.

“It’s the next level. Everything is faster, everything is more dynamic, everyone is smarter, it’s different,’’ Hockenson said. “I’m coming to work every day trying to take that next step and get better every single day.’’

Lions Darius Slay watches 1st day of training camp from sidelines

ALLEN PARK — Darius Slay didn’t want to talk about his hold-out during the offseason program.

No matter from which angle the question was asked on Thursday, “next question” was his reply.

The Detroit Lions Pro Bowl cornerback did report to training camp on Wednesday, but was placed on the non-football injury list along with Damon “Snacks” Harrison, another veteran hold-out. Neither participated in the first day of camp on Thursday.

Coach Matt Patricia said it was just a matter of conditioning after being away from football for so long.

Slay has two years remaining on his contract which will pay him $12 million this year and $10 million in 2020.

One exchange went like this:

Reporter: Are you content with your current deal?

Slay: What do you think?

Reporter: I’ve been pretty vocal saying I think you’re underpaid but my opinion doesn’t …

Slay: Everybody in the world knows.

While he hasn’t been at the practice facility he has not lost touch with his teammates.

“It was cool, I was here in Detroit. Guys came over the house, hung out, chilled, cooked them crab legs,’’ Slay said. “It’s a business so it’s all good.

No matter his contract situation he said they’re his guys, his brothers.

“Everybody knows it’s a business,’’ said Slay who is entering his seventh season.

He said he’s happy the Lions signed a few veteran cornerbacks like Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin and Marcus Cooper.

“Oh, they’re great guys. It’s a little less pressure on my shoulders. This is really my first year stepping into the role of a leader, leader, leader with GQ (Glover Quin) not being here (which I miss so much, it’s hard to walk on the field without my dog). He’s chilling. Other than that it’s been good,’’ Slay said.

He said that the contract situation will not affect his play on the field.

“I’m going to do out there to dominate,’’ Slay said. “So I play for the name on the back of my jersey and this organization and my teammates. So ain’t going to never stop me from what I’m doing on the field.’’

He has set goals for himself but said he’s not worried about interceptions. He had three last season after pulling in eight to lead the league in 2018.

“That will come, I’m not stressing on that …’’ Slay said.

Instead he wants to step up his leadership since Quin has retired.

“Be a better leader, be more vocal with the guys, just helping these guys be better than I am that’s my goal,’’ Slay said. “Try to get these guys Teez (Tabor), (Jamal) Agnew, the young corners that just came in I want them to be a lot better than what I did. That’s my goal.’’

 

 

After challenging offseason, Lions’ Matthew Stafford gets up to speed

ALLEN PARK — It was a busy and challenging offseason for Matthew Stafford.

Here is all you need to know about the Lions quarterback entering his 11th season in Detroit.

“I still love this game, I still love preparing for it, I love competing,’’ Stafford said on Wednesday when the veterans reported for training camp which starts on Thursday.

It’s not just another new season, it’s the first under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell who is changing up the offense.

In May, Stafford’s wife Kelly underwent 12 hours of brain surgery to remove an acoustic neuroma. 

(Photo from Instagram account of Kelly Stafford)

At the time, the Lions organization told him to take care of his wife, not to worry about the team. Still he missed little time at the practice facility.

“I try to think I do a decent job of separating the two,’’ Stafford said. “When I’m home, I’m home and when I’m not, I’m here obviously all in. I think Ii was able to kind of compartmentalize. Obviously it helped a lot with the way the Lions treated me through the whole process. It made it easy for me to kind of separate those two.’’

Along with the team he credited the support of family and friends for getting them through the tough days. That included helping with their three daughters ages 2 and under.

“Obviously Kelly was a stud, she was a trooper and is continuing to get better and better,’’ Stafford said.

For the most part, Stafford has turned his attention to football for the next few weeks. During the spring he got a running start on learning Bevell’s offense which is expected to be more balanced with an increased emphasis on the run game. The new coordinator said he told Stafford he was impressed with his offseason.

“He was really committed to us and he was here, he was putting his time in. He was working hard, he really led the way on learning the offense, in verbiage, getting to know the new language, sitting in the huddle being able to call it, helping guys when they needed help,’’ Bevell said. “I was impressed with the level of dedication and commitment that he had to us with the other things he had going on.’’

Bevell and Stafford both emphasized that the better their communication, the sharper the offense will be on Sundays.

“We’ve had some great conversations already. We’ve put a few things in that he feels comfortable with and other things we’re going to push him on, and I think by the time we get there we need to be able to have enough stuff offensively that we can challenge the defense but not too much where it’s overloading our stuff,’’ Bevell said. “That’s the balance we’re trying to get right now.’’

Bevell is Stafford’s fourth offensive coordinator after Scott Linehan, Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter.

“It’s definitely different, there are a lot of things I like about it, a lot of things I’m still getting used to, still learning,’’ Stafford said about the offense. “It’s my job to be a coach on the field. For me to do that I have to be as well versed as the guys that are teaching it, that’s a process and that takes time and experience something that this time of year is perfect for.’’

The Lions finished 6-10 last season but they are looking forward not back. Stafford didn’t have his best numbers in 2018 due to injuries to him (he finished the season with broken bones in his back), Kerryon Johnson and others.

However, he doesn’t look at this as a bounce-back year.

“I feel like every year I come in and try to prove myself. If you’re coming in here feeling like you’ve done everything you need to do and you’re sitting pretty, you’re in the wrong sport,’’ Stafford said. “It’s prove yourself every day out there and it’s prove yourself every week in the season. This year is no different.’’

(Paula Pasche has covered the Lions since Barry Sanders embarrassed defenses every Sunday. She has written two books on the team — “100 Things Lions Fans Should Know” and “Game of My Life Detroit Lions.” Both are available on Amazon.com)