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10 QUESTIONS WITH TWENTYMAN: Which Lions rookies can make instant impacts?

From time to time this offseason Tim Twentyman will answer 10 good questions from his Twitter account @ttwentyman in a feature we call "10 Questions with Twentyman."

20man: I expect running back Jahmyr Gibbs and linebacker Jack Campbell to have immediate roles and be instant impact players, but tight end Sam LaPorta might surprise some people with an impact role early too.

I like the Detroit tight end room with the addition of LaPorta. We saw the kind of explosiveness Brock Wright had last year. James Mitchell is entering Year 2. He's a big target and showed he can make guys miss after the catch. Shane Zylstra had a three-touchdown game in Carolina last season. There will be good competition in that room.

LaPorta will be used both on and off the line, and his ability to separate and run after the catch will be a nice addition to Ben Johnson's offense early on.

20man: 1. What does the revamped secondary look like?

Where do the Lions line up C.J. Gardner-Johnson? Who is running with the first team at the other outside cornerback spot opposite Cam Sutton? How does Brian Branch fit into the mix?

2. How do Gibbs and veteran David Montgomery look in Detroit's new backfield?

Both players are productive runners and also really good pass catchers. That could allow them to see the field together at times.

3. Second-year player development

The biggest leap we typically see in a young NFL player's development is between their first and second seasons. Detroit got a lot of contributions from their rookie class last season, and now those players are core pieces in 2023.

Here's a look at a couple more things I’ll be watching out for in the first open OTA practice Thursday.

20man: You'll notice a change in defensive lineman Alim McNeill heading into his third season.

He took a more professional approach to this offseason, maintaining a strict diet and improving his flexibility by stretching at least three times per day.

McNeill started all 17 games for the Lions in 2022 and saw his snaps increase from 422 as a rookie in 2021 to 782 last season, which was 69 percent of the snaps on defense. He finished with 41 tackles, six tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits and a sack.

McNeill played at around 325 pounds last season and said he still expects to be somewhere around that weight, but he's much leaner.

"I feel so much better," McNeill said this offseason. "A lot more lean and a lot more flexible. I can bend a lot better now."

I had assistant defensive line coach Cameron Davis on this week's Twentyman in the Huddle podcast, and we talked a bit about McNeill and expectations for him. Davis had some really good nuggets on McNeill and his body transformation this offseason. Be sure to catch that episode Thursday night.

20man: I'm excited to see how the Lions plan to use defensive back Brian Branch, who the team selected in the second round.

Branch has a chip on his shoulder having gone later in the draft than expected, and he's learning every spot in Detroit's secondary to be a versatile player in Aaron Glenn's defense.

"I have to learn every position because you never know," Branch said at rookie minicamp. "Easiest way to get on the field."

A three-year starter at Alabama, Branch played the 'star' nickel position in Nick Saban's multiple scheme defense, lining up in the slot and playing in the box. He was the only player in the FBS with 90-plus tackles, 14.0-plus tackles for loss and at least two interceptions this past season.

He's smart, tough and instinctive. It will be interesting to see where Glenn lines him up, and how many different spots he plays leading into training camp.

20man: Derrick Barnes played pretty well down the stretch last year and he seems to be settling into Glenn's defense nicely going into Year 3.

For me, I think we'll see a bigger contribution from defensive lineman Josh Paschal in his second season. He didn't make his rookie debut until the end of October last year because of a sports hernia injury that required surgery. Let's not forget he was a second-round pick last season.

Paschal had two sacks Week 17 against Chicago last year and his impact down the stretch was felt outside of the box score with his ability to set the edge and play the run. A healthy Paschal in 2023 should be much more impactful.

20man: Kalif Raymond is one of my favorite players on this roster. He's a player who will do anything the coaches ask. He caught 47 passes last year for 616 yards. Some of those were key third-down grabs in close wins for the Lions down the stretch. Not to mention his 13.2 average yards per punt return was tops in the NFL, and he was one of only three players to return a punt for a touchdown last season.

With wide receiver Jameson Williams suspended the first six games of the season for violating the league's gambling policy, Raymond is going to get a lot more opportunity the first month and a half. He has a base salary of nearly $2.5 million so the Lions certainly value his contributions both on offense and special teams. He's a glue player on this roster.

20man: That will be an interesting competition to watch for sure. A lot of it will depend on when veteran Emmanuel Moseley can get back on the field from the torn ACL he suffered early in October last year. He's seven months out now and will be about nine months out at the start of training camp. He seems to have the edge when he returns, but if he's not ready to return right away some other players will get an opportunity to impress.

The team was looking to play Jerry Jacobs more inside moving forward but the additions of Gardner-Johnson and Branch, along with the return of Will Harris, make for kind of a logjam at the nickel corner spot.

Opponents had a 70.0 passer rating and completed just 53.3 percent of the passes thrown Jacobs' way in his eight starts down the stretch last season after he also returned from ACL surgery. He'll be in the mix competing for a role.

20man: Former Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim has a real shot. He's a bowling ball at 5-foot-8 and 206 pounds, and showed in rookie minicamp he can also catch the football out of the backfield, something he wasn't asked to do a lot of for the Gophers. Only two other collegiate running backs topped Ibrahim's 1,106 yards after contact in 2022. He was the Big Ten's leading rusher (1,665).

He had three 1,000-yard seasons with the Gophers and left school as Minnesota's all-time leader in rushing yards (4,668) and touchdowns (53). In Detroit, Ibrahim will compete with Craig Reynolds, Jermar Jefferson and Greg Bell for one or two backup spots behind Montgomery and Gibbs.

20man: I think kickoffs would be more likely than punts with Raymond on the roster. Gibbs didn't return a single punt in college. He did have 44 kickoff returns in three seasons with Georgia Tech and Alabama, however, with a 23.9-yard average and a touchdown.

Justin Jackson was Detroit's main kick returner last season and he's no longer on the roster. Gibbs could get an early look, depending on how much the Lions plan to use him on offense.

20man: That's another great competition to watch develop over the course of the offseason and into training camp.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed all of last season with a back injury that required surgery, but the latest updates on his recovery are very positive.

"He's in a good place," GM Brad Holmes said earlier this offseason. "We actually got some recent reports back that he's in a really good place. And we felt confident about doing the deal and glad to have him back."

How the back holds up once the pads come on and the contact starts in training camp will be the key here. The addition of veteran Graham Glasgow certainly raises the competition for the right guard spot and gives Detroit two experienced options there.

I think if Vaitai stays healthy he wins the job, but it will be a closer competition than some people might expect.

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