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As some of you know, I was standing on the sideline at Detroit's practice when news broke of Brett Favre's contract agreement with Minnesota. I managed to jot down a page of practice notes and spend some time with Lions coach Jim Schwartz before I left, and I want to bring you some thoughts before they fade or become irrelevant.
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|Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has looked impressive in the first few weeks of camp.|
(Keep in mind that a full Lions Camp Confidential will appear on a day to be determined in this space.)
As I matched up numbers on the field to names on the roster, it was jarring to realize how many prominent players were sitting out because of injuries.
First-round draft pick Brandon Pettigrew (thigh) was moving around with a notable limp. The Lions' best player last season, placekicker Jason Hanson, was sidelined after having a minor procedure on his knee. Defensive lineman Grady Jackson, receiver Calvin Johnson and receiver Dennis Northcutt were limited. Schwartz, however, said the Lions' long injury list is a function of a caution-first approach as much as anything.
"Our philosophy is to err on the side of caution in [organized team activities] and training camp," he said. "If this were a regular-season game, there would be a lot of urgency to get a guy back. But one thing we don't want to do is turn a minor injury into a major one, or turn an injury with a fairly set timetable into a nagging season-long thing because we're worried about getting him back for one more practice in training camp. There's an urgency to get back on the field, but we don't want to cross the line in setting guys back and making the situation worse than it is."
With that said, it's not a great sign that Pettigrew has only practiced sporadically this summer and has now stepped into more of a long-term recovery process from a quadriceps injury. Schwartz said the injury wasn't responding as hoped, and now the goal is to try to get him healthy in time to have a productive regular season.
I caught a glimpse of one-on-one pass drills and was particularly interested to watch the matchup of right tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive end Cliff Avril. Cherilus, of course, was the Lions' top draft pick last season and had a pretty up-and-down rookie year. He's penciled in as the starter this season and appears to be holding off veteran Jon Jansen for the job.
Avril, meanwhile, offers the Lions perhaps their best chance for an outside pass rush after notching five sacks in limited playing time as a rookie.
For the rep I watched, at least, there was no contest. Cherilus rode Avril wide around the pocket. And when Avril tried a spin move to get inside, Cherilus capitalized on the momentary lack of balance and shoved Avril to the ground. That's how you keep a pass-rusher away from the quarterback.
Speaking of quarterbacks, I was impressed with Matthew Stafford's accuracy on some passes that have a high degree of difficulty. One throw in particular stood out.
Receiver Adam Jennings ran a flag route and found himself with his back to Stafford, about 20 yards downfield and running away to the sideline. Jennings was bracketed by cornerback Ramzee Robinson underneath and cornerback William James over the top. That left the smallest of windows for Stafford to thread a pass, but he got the ball over Robinson's hands but low enough that Jennings could jump and get it into his.
Jennings dropped the ball, but the point remains valid. Stafford really threaded the needle. It's wrong to draw conclusions off one pass, but it seems relevant and fair to mention after we spent so much time questioning his accuracy in the offseason.
Daunte Culpepper is thinner than I ever saw him in Minnesota, even when he was a 22-year-old rookie in 1999. The Lions are listing him at 260 pounds and, if that's accurate, Culpepper was never close to the 265 pounds the Vikings always listed him at.
Weight has always been a conversation topic for Culpepper, even before he tore three ligaments in his right knee in 2005. Prior to that, he had played through a number of minor knee injuries. The Vikings always believed his weight exacerbated those conditions. Moving forward, Culpepper has given himself an excellent chance to remain healthy by shedding the extra pounds.
That said, there is a strong vibe building that Stafford is going to win the Lions' starting job -- and I don't think it's a reflection of Culpepper one bit. But when you pay a player $41.7 million in guaranteed money, and he starts making elite-caliber throws in practice and preseason games, it becomes awfully difficult to keep him on the bench. That's the reality of the NFL.
The Lions need to make progress at a number of positions. But for me, their biggest question mark remains the defensive line. I looked up at one point and saw rookie Sammie Lee Hill and newcomer Shaun Smith working next to each other at defensive tackle, with Avril and Dewayne White at the ends. Hill and Smith surely offer some bulk, but I don't know if it will be enough to keep offensive linemen away from the Lions' talented trio of linebackers. And I really don't know how much of a four-man pass rush this group will muster.
Hill is an intriguing prospect at 329 pounds, but his ability to contribute immediately after arriving from Stillman College remains a question.
"He's got a long way to go as far as technique and understanding," Schwartz said. "But he's continued to put one foot in front of the other in camp. ... From the day he stepped here, he's never looked out of place."
Finally, the Lions are going to have a hard time keeping rookie running
back Aaron Brown off the field. You can't teach speed, and Brown has it and knows how to use it. Sometimes rookie running backs get tied to the bench because coaches don't trust them to pick up blitzes in critical situations. But while Brown has made his share of mistakes this summer, Schwartz said he has been "fairly solid" in pass protection.
"He made a mistake on special teams," Schwartz said, "and went the wrong way on a screen. Things like that. He picked up a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration. But what you see there is rookie mistakes. I've seen that before. We've all seen that before. It would concern us a lot more if his mistakes were all confined to one area. If he was great in all this other stuff, and then his pass pickup was off, then you really worry. When it's sporadic things, it still falls under rookie classification."