The Detroit Lions kick off training camp in Allen Park this weekend and there's a lot of optimism surrounding the 2023 squad.
Detroit was one of the hottest teams in the league the second half of last year, finishing 8-2 and just missing the playoffs. They've significantly improved their defense this offseason and return most of the key components from the No. 4 ranked offense from last year.
Could this be the Lions team to win a division title for the first time since 1993? Can they make a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2016?
Here are five things I'll have my eye on when training camp kicks off this weekend:
1. DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENTS
Lions general manager Brad Holmes made improving Detroit's defense, particularly the secondary, his biggest priority this offseason. We saw some early returns from the additions of Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, C.J. Garner-Johnson and others in the spring during OTAs and minicamp. It was certainly noticeable how many more hands were on footballs and how much tighter coverage was. Quarterback Jared Goff even said as much when asked about the defensive performance in the spring.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has some versatile and experienced players back there now that will allow him to be more aggressive and run a number of different defensive packages and personnel groupings.
While the defense played better the second half of last season, they have to be more consistent throughout the course of 17 games this year. If this defense is just marginally better in 2023, there's a good chance this is a much better team overall.
View photos of the Detroit Lions defensive linemen heading into training camp.
2. ROOKIE CONTRIBUTIONS
If OTAs and minicamp are any indication, running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta are expected to play big roles in the offense early on. Gibbs is a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and he's expected to play a big role in both aspects of the offense sharing the backfield with veteran David Montgomery. LaPorta quickly became a favorite target of the quarterbacks in the spring, especially in the red zone.
Sticking to offense, Colby Sorsdal will try to earn a reserve role along the offensive line, while Antoine Green, Dylan Drummond and Chase Cota try to make the initial 53-man roster as reserve receivers.
On defense, No. 18 overall pick Jack Campbell should have an early role, but it's not a guaranteed starting sport next to Alex Anzalone at one of the two stacked linebacker positions. He'll have to beat out Derrick Barnes, Malcolm Rodriguez and others for that job, which won't be easy. But even if Campbell doesn't start, he's expected to play a role with his size and speed combo.
Defensive back Brian Branch is a versatile defender who can play the nickel and safety. He's got a unique skillset and is expected to play on some packages, but how much and how many?
It's not likely we'll see a lot of quarterback Hendon Hooker to begin camp as he continues to rehab a torn ACL suffered last November. He has been throwing for a couple months now, and told reporters in the spring his rehab was ahead of schedule.
A number of rookies played huge roles for Detroit last season and it's anticipated this year's group will do the same.
3. KICKER COMPETITION
It looked like the Lions were going to roll into camp with three kickers, but the team released Michael Badgley Thursday.
That leaves Riley Patterson and Parker Romo as the two players competing to be the Lions' kicker in 2023.
Patterson was in Lions camp last year before losing the job to Austin Seibert at the end of camp. He landed in Jacksonville and ended up making 30 of his 35 field goal attempts and 36 of his 37 extra points tries. Patterson is an established and accurate veteran, but he doesn't have a particularly strong leg.
That's where former XFL kicker Romo can set himself apart. He was making kicks from 60-plus yards in the spring and was 17-for-19 on field goals in 10 games in the XFL.
4. JAMESON WILLIAMS USAGE
Jameson Williams was suspended the first six games of the regular season for violating the league's gambling policy. That puts offensive coordinator Ben Johnson in an interesting dilemma in camp. How much does he run Williams with the first team knowing he won't actually have his services for the first third of the season? How does he weigh giving Williams enough of a load to prepare him for the season having only played five games as a rookie because of a torn ACL suffered in college vs. making sure the guys who will be on the field the first month and half of the season get enough time to gel and hit the ground running come the start of the regular season?
Williams has elite speed and affects how defenses have to play the Lions when he's on the field. But Johnson also has to prepare his squad for the start of the regular season knowing he won't have Williams for the first six contests. It will be interesting to see how Johnson decides to use Williams' reps in practice.
View photos of the Detroit Lions quarterbacks heading into training camp.
5. TWO COMPETITIONS TO WATCH
First is the starting right guard spot. Veteran Halapoulivaati Vaitai is back after missing all of last season with a back injury. He looks to be the favorite for the job, but veteran Graham Glasgow, who is in his second stint in Detroit after signing in free agency this offseason, will look to push him for the job.
Second is the starting outside cornerback spot opposite Sutton. Moseley was signed this offseason to fill the role, but how much he's a factor in winning the job will ultimately depend on when he gets back to full participation from rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in October of last season while starting in San Francisco. When Moseley returns, his biggest competition is expected to come from Jerry Jacobs, who was arguably Detroit's most consistent cornerback last season after he returned from a torn ACL suffered in 2021. That should be a fun competition to watch.