NFC North: Sam Cookie

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

 
 AP Photo/Paul Sancya
 Receivers coach Shawn Jefferson expects Calvin Johnson (above) to make big strides this year.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It turns out our brief sojourn to visit the Detroit Lions will be even shorter than expected. Coach Rod Marinelli cancelled both scheduled practices Thursday, in essence ending training camp a day early.

So, our observations will be based on watching today's pair of practices. We'll get to your mailbag questions later this week (probably Thursday) but here are some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • I'm still thinking of the right word to describe Calvin Johnson. "Beast" is close, but it really doesn't do him justice. I know he was well-built coming out of Georgia Tech, but he looks like he's added more muscle to his 6-foot-5 frame. I was trying to figure out what position he looked like he should play. If you didn't know any better, you would have to guess he was a defensive end. (That suggestion came from David Birkett of the Oakland Press, who has watched all of training camp this summer.) From what I can tell, Johnson hasn't lost any speed. Wednesday afternoon, he put about seven yards between himself and cornerback Travis Fisher while running a fly pattern down the left sideline. The separation was so exceptional that Johnson had time to stop, turn around, face the line of scrimmage and haul in an underthrown ball before Fisher could catch up. I had a good talk with Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson this evening for a story that will appear later this summer. One thing Jefferson said has stuck with me: "I think you'll see the veil lifted this year," Jefferson said of Johnson. If he can stay healthy, Johnson could be the NFL's next great star.
  • At the start of the morning practice, coach Rod Marinelli had an interesting song playing over the loudspeakers: Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang." (Not to be confused with the Otis Redding cover version.) The symbolism of the selection was obvious, but it was still pretty funny to watch a group of players -- none of whom were close to being born when Cooke released the song in 1960 -- react with blank faces. That is, except for defensive tackle Cory Redding, who is no relation to Otis, but nevertheless broke into a funkified version of the song during the afternoon practice. "Just something to lighten things up," Marinelli said.
  • This is all very preliminary, but I agree with those with say it's just a matter of time before Kevin Smith takes over the running back position. He is a really smooth, easy runner who seems to have good instincts.
  • For whatever it's worth, George Foster is still working with the first team at right tackle. For now, that leaves rookie Gosder Cherilus on the second team, where he has practiced at both tackle positions. Everyone has assumed Cherilus will wind up as a starter, but it doesn't appear it will happen before Sunday's preseason game at Cincinnati.

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