Lions training camp observations: Are Detroit’s pro sports finally entering renaissance?

Detroit Free Press

After a dark decade in Detroit sports, there is reason for optimism with just about every team in town.

The Pistons have the makings of an exciting team this season, with Jaden Ivey joining Cade Cunningham in one of the NBA’s best up-and-coming backcourts. The Red Wings have reigning NHL Rookie of the Year Mo Seider, with more help on the way. Second-year Lions coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes have assembled a young nucleus some analysts believe has them on the path to the playoffs. And the Tigers … well, at least they have Riley Greene.

None of Detroit’s four major sports teams has won a playoff series since 2013, when the Tigers beat the Oakland A’s in the American League Division Series and the Red Wings won an opening-round skate with the Anaheim Ducks.

That’s unlikely to change this fall, but Pistons center Isaiah Stewart sees better days ahead in Detroit sports.

“There’s parallels,” Stewart said Friday at Lions training camp. “They’re young, we’re young and we’re both up-and-coming at the same time, so I feel like the city’s got something to be excited for.”

Stewart is the second prominent Piston to stop by Allen Park in as many days (and was supposed to be joined by a third, Cunningham, who could not make it Friday). Pistons general manager Troy Weaver took in practice Thursday, where he spent time visiting with his friend, Holmes.

Stewart roamed the sideline Friday during a light day of practice, talking with Charles Harris, Jameson Williams and a handful of other Lions.

The comparisons between the Lions and Pistons are obvious, and they go beyond simply being young.

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Both Weaver and Holmes, hired seven months apart in 2020-21, have aggressively remade their rosters and appear to be building the right way, through the draft.

Weaver passed on big-ticket free agent options this summer, despite clamoring for the Pistons to sign young center DeAndre Ayton. Holmes, similarly, decided against splurging in free agency. Both made splashy draft-day trades to acquire young players they view as being long-term building blocks.

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The road to rebuilding is paved with failed moves and promises of better days ahead, so there’s no telling when, or if, the Lions’ and Pistons’ plans will work.

But Stewart said “it feels good” to be a part of a possible rebirth, and to share it with another team in town.

“It feels good to have the city behind us,” Stewart said. “I know Detroit, they love their sports so we definitely feel that and it just feels good to be a part of it.”

The Lions pulled back at practice Friday after a Thursday session that Campbell called “the most intense and the longest practice we’ve had … to date.”

Observations

• Stewart, 6 feet 8 and 250 pounds, said he played mighty mite football as a youth, where he was a tight end. Asked if he was tempted to put on the pads Friday, he said, “I’m going to let them do their thing. I’m going to stick to the court.” That’s probably a wise move, but my imagination wandered a bit seeing him stand next to (and seemingly tower over) top Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 244) on his way into the practice facility.

• Taylor Decker, D’Andre Swift, Julian Okwara, Quintez Cephus, Levi Onwuzurike and Ryan McCollum were DNPs at practice Friday. The Lions intend to give Decker and Swift periodic maintenance days this summer, and Friday marked Decker’s third day off in nine practices to rest his sore foot. Swift has sat out two light workouts this week, while Onwuzurike has not practiced since getting injured in a pile up Monday.

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• With Decker out, Penei Sewell moved to left tackle while Matt Nelson filled in on the right side. The Lions gave backup center Evan Brown a series with the first-team offense Friday to rest Frank Ragnow, and guard Tommy Kraemer took some second- and third-team reps at center with McCollum sidelined.

Kraemer seems to have a good bead on a roster spot and he likely only would play center in emergency situations. Brown is the backup, and Jonah Jackson can play the position if needed, too. Kraemer had one low shotgun snap that I saw Friday.

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• After what I thought was his best day of practice this summer on Thursday, Jared Goff was so-so Friday. Alex Anzalone intercepted a wobbly Goff pass over the middle in team drills intended for Josh Reynolds. The ball came weirdly out of Goff’s hand to the point I’m not sure it would have made it to Reynolds had Anzalone not been there.

One play later, Goff threw a well-placed ball that Reynolds made a nice back-shoulder catch on against AJ Parker. That ball, too, appeared to lack zip.

As was the case with Thursday’s practice, I wouldn’t read too much into Friday. Goff is the clear-cut by-a-mile starter, and he’ll have to prove himself in the regular season if the Lions are to make the leap to playoff contenders this fall.

• The Lions weren’t in pads Friday, so the intensity was ratcheted down a notch. DJ Chark did make a noteworthy over-the-shoulder catch against Amani Oruwariye in team drills. Adding to the difficulty level, officials said Oruwariye committed both defensive holding and pass interference on the play.

Oruwariye seemed a tad off his game. In seven-on-seven drills, he and Tracy Walker had a mix-up on a crossing route that left Tom Kennedy open for a huge gain.

Two more plays of note defensively: Ifeatu Melifonwu knocked a David Blough pass out of Maurice Alexander’s hands later in team period, and Jarrad Davis made a leaping deflection of a Tim Boyle pass intended for Trinity Benson in seven-on-sevens.

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• I asked Campbell about something I’ve noticed seemingly a few times every practice this summer: Him blowing his whistle to have his players rehuddle when he’s not happy with their pace and tempo approaching the line of scrimmage.

Campbell shared a story of playing the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl and how startling it was to see the purpose with which they approached the line.

“We’re trying to set a tone early, man, we’re not just going to walk out of the huddle,” Campbell said. “Just got to train those guys. It’s the same deal defensively, I hate when we — if we’re in there and we go and it sounds like there’s a (soft) clap.

“So, just about — man, it’s urgency, it’s intensity, it’s your — what’s your intent?”

• One other clean-up note, on Goff’s attempted goal post dunk Thursday after scoring on a keeper, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson joked that Goff would be the last pick for pick-up basketball, and graded his attempt a four out of 10.

“I saw it flash before my eyes,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ And when he came back he said, ‘I had already committed to it, and when I started going, that’s a lot higher than I thought it was.’ Nah, it was good. It was good to see some excitement out there, and happy with where the offense is at right now.”

• The Lions practice at Ford Field on Saturday (11:30 a.m.) and expect to have very good attendance, so if you’re headed downtown make sure you give yourself plenty of time.

• Last note for the day: Shout out to Anthony Prasnjak’s DWWFL fantasy football league, a group of (mostly?) St. Clair Shores Lakeview graduates from 1999. They asked me to do an impromptu drawing for draft position as I was headed back to the media room Friday. Fan interactions are one of the best things about training camp, and I hope Dover takes someone who helps him win the league with his ninth pick.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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