Five thoughts on Giants-Lions joint practices
I spent three days in Allen Park, Mich. to watch joint practices between the New York Giants and Detroit Lions. I’ve moved on to Indianapolis, where the Colts and Baltimore Ravens are set to have a few days of joint practices themselves.
But I thought I should empty some leftovers into a little notebook of things I observed with those first two teams going head to head prior to their preseason game on Friday. Here are a few thoughts:
Saquon Barkley didn’t practice any of the three days, sidelined by a hamstring tweak. Kerryon Johnson didn’t do much to catch my eye following a strong preseason game last week at Oakland.
But that shouldn’t deter anyone from thinking that both have a chance to be special. Barkley’s injury is considered minor, and even if he doesn’t play in the preseason there’s little reason to think he won’t be ready for Week 1 against the Jaguars. Giants TE Evan Engram believes Barkley’s presence will open this offense up in a way it could not be last season.
“He’s ready to come in and make an impact,” Engram said. “He’s picking up on everything really fast and [gives us] another dynamic playmaker that can break a play for 60 [yards]. He’s a breakout, big-play player. He’s going to help us a lot with his presence out there.”
(Worth noting: Giants RB Wayne Gallman is a good little player. Really, he’s an ideal complementary back. Should Barkley ever miss time, I think Gallman has a chance to step up and bridge that gap nicely. I am surprised he didn’t get more run with the previous staff after seeing him move well in practice.)
As for Johnson, there’s maybe a tad more hype in the fantasy community than in Detroit, but don’t take that the wrong way. The feeling I got, when asking players about their teammates (especially a rookie such as Johnson), is that there’s a Matt Patricia hush-hush media quotient one must take into account. He’s put muzzles on the young guys, including WR Kenny Golladay, who has looked good but has been reticent to talk.
The Lions have four running backs who saw the field on the days I was there. Say what you will about Ameer Abdullah, but the guy has been working hard to make this team. I expect Johnson, LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick to all have notable roles, with Abdullah trying to crash the party again. One interesting takeaway: Johnson — not Blount, more of a finesse big man — seemed to take a lot of the short-yardage reps. Fantasy owners, take note.
Other playmakers abound
Both teams are flush with them. The Giants have Odell Beckham Jr. gearing up his workload nicely — and impressively. Sterling Shepard looks feisty out there. Engram is a beast; he’s looking really good again. Plus, there’s Barkley. WR Roger Lewis even made a few nice grabs. The Giants were decimated by injuries to their pass catchers, but if health shines on them they’re in great shape.
The Lions are set with their top three receivers: Marvin Jones Jr., Golden Tate and Golladay. That’s a good trio. The targets Eric Ebron saw last year will be split up, but don’t be shocked if Golladay sees a number of them. He was strong down the stretch, and that trio produced evenly in Weeks 15 to 17. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, one of the holdovers on Patricia’s staff, can roll out “11” personnel and give Matthew Stafford ample targets to move the chains.
The Lions’ tight ends are a mixed bag, but keep an eye on Hakeem Valles. Didn’t know too much about him entering the week, but he opened my eyes. He’s got a nice, long frame and moves well. Luke Willson and Michael Roberts might have opened as the top two at the position, but Valles seems to be making a run. Detroit likes him; the team was able to keep him on the practice squad late last season despite the Arizona Cardinals making him an offer to sign with the 53-man squad. Valles’ loyalty could pay off there.
Front seven concerns
For the Lions, you could make the argument that they have one of the least inspiring front sevens in the NFL. They’re not terrible, mind you, and the depth looks OK, but there are few clear difference makers outside of Ziggy Ansah.
Speaking of Ansah, I saw him rushing from a 3-technique more than once — in individual work and in team periods. In one rep in 11-on-11, Ansah’s pressure inside collapsed the Giants’ O-line and LB Devon Kennard swooped in off the edge for a would-be sack. Kennard, we’ve been told, has had a quiet camp up until then. They’ll need to find ways to generate a rush, and moving Ansah and Kerry Hyder (who told me he’s getting his explosion back after missing all last season) around will be part of that process, I suspect.
The Giants will be a good run-stopping group. Even with a scheme change under coordinator James Bettcher — and they were using two-, three-, four- and five-man fronts all week — that group up front will be tough to move the ball on the ground against. But can they rush? Another question there. I saw a few flash plays from Olivier Vernon, who is standing up more now, but not a ton else from the veterans (I highlight a few rookie standouts below).
Stafford looks very good, especially in the red zone. And you know what? Eli Manning had a nice few days, too. Sure, he’s on the 17th tee of his career, but I thought he was mostly in command out there and confident.
The worry for me is the backup situation for both teams.
The Lions should be on the lookout for help at QB as cutdowns approach. Jake Rudock has struggled from what I can tell, getting pick-sixed by Giants CB Eli Apple (who was very up and down otherwise), and Matt Cassel held onto the ball way too long more than once. Both struggled with accuracy.
The Giants might have more young promise in their reserves. Davis Webb came back after a bad preseason effort to play better. Fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta looked solid but clearly has the weakest arm of the group. Webb can make throws Lauletta won’t even attempt. I didn’t see much from No. 4 QB Alex Tanney, to be perfectly honest.
Webb told me that nerves got the best of him in the Oakland game. “Been a year since I played in a game, you know? I just came out there and fired a few balls [high],” he said. Head coach Pat Shurmur disagreed slightly, indicating there were some mechanical issues they were working on with Webb. After Tuesday’s practice, Shurmur also said of Lauletta — with perhaps a slight knock on Webb — “there’s something to be said for completed passes.”
Take from that what you will. Webb has ability but has been scattershot. Lauletta has less upside, perhaps, but he makes positive plays more often than not. Is the Giants’ successor to Eli on the roster? That clearly remains yet to be determined.
Rookies having to step up
The Lions likely dodged a bullet with the Graham Glasgow injury. He missed time after suffering a leg injury on Tuesday but appeared to be in decent shape long term. (Patricia wasn’t about to talk specific — we know that by now.)
First-rounder Frank Ragnow took most of the center reps in Glasgow’s place, but also getting reps there were Joe Dahl and Wesley Johnson, who played a number of OL positions in college at Vandy. None of them blew me away, and Ragnow looked to be on his heels a bit, perhaps thinking a little after shifting over from guard. Yes, he played center at Arkansas, but it’s still a different system entirely, and learning two spots as a rookie is a challenge.
“I have to be ready to play any position because I’m trying to earn my keep around here,” Ragnow said. “Individually, preparation-wise, I’m preparing to play wherever they want me to step up.”
Keep an eye on Giants third-rounder B.J. Hill. Similar to last year’s second-round DL Dalvin Tomlinson, there isn’t a ton of flash to Hill’s game. But he looks to be a solid contributor in the making — perhaps even as a starter at some point this year. Hill found his way into the backfield more than once that I saw, and had the practices been full-go we might have seen a few big plays.
The Giants’ other third-rounder, Lorenzo Carter, also had two splash plays. He unleashed a spin move for one pressure and then a speed-to-power rush that opened my eyes. Carter could be a contributor right away, depending on the health of Connor Barwin as he tries to make his way onto the practice field. A few times I saw Carter picking the brain of Barwin on the sideline, which is a nice thing to see.