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Lions training camp observations: Dan Campbell’s culture still feels very real

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. — DJ Chark knows what a mess looks like.

The 25-year-old speedy receiver lived through one last year with the Jaguars. An operation, torpedoed by Urban Meyer’s well-documented coaching collapse, that one veteran staffer labeled as the most toxic environment they’d seen in the NFL. That sentiment was shared by many, including plenty who opted to do so anonymously.

Chark put his name next to his words, though. He went on the record with The Athletic — calling Meyer out himself — explaining his disappointment over an experience that represented the opposite of what he wants out of football. And when he got off the plane in Detroit earlier this year and walked into Dan Campbell’s office for the first time, he couldn’t help but think he’d flipped his luck. Two days into his first training camp with the Lions, his tune hasn’t changed.

“It’s bigger than me (here), bigger than myself,” Chark said Thursday. “I like how these guys come to work every day, the professionalism around this building.”

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He’s saying this about the Lions, folks. The Detroit Lions.

It’s two days into camp, no one has put any pads on and, lest anyone forgot, the Lions won three games last year. But when you listen to people like Chark — who has respect around the league as a hard-working, young, former Pro Bowler — say these things, the perspective is noted. It’s also important to note Chark is hardly the first player to say this. And while people usually like to make their bosses happy, these types of conversations feel a bit different than the standard hot air you get this time of year. They felt different last year, too.

The attitude the Lions worked to build in year one was that of respect for the game, respect for the process and respect for each other. Crawl before you can walk, all that. The foundation has been built from how the Lions go about their business as a team — a group of professional, grown adults who aren’t hell-bent on sabotaging each other or asserting their dominance.

“One thing I appreciate about these guys, they’re never in the media focusing on being listed as a top 10 on ESPN or anything like that,” added Chark, who has also started to help mentor injured rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams.

“All we talk about is a standard we’re trying to set for each other.”

We’ll see how many more wins find their way to Campbell’s bottom line in year two. But it is impossible not to see the continued change in attitude — almost seismic in nature — two years after the end of the Matt Patricia era in Detroit.  Patricia never spoke about the Lions’ history of losing, almost as if he was scared to attach it to his resume. Former general manager Bob Quinn was the same way. They’d talk about the Lions’ place in the history of the NFL, and how proud it made them to work for a franchise that began in the 1930s, but that’s as far as it ever went.

On Thursday, Campbell was blunt about how the history of struggle here motivates him. It’s why he took the job. He also noted how he and the front office work to find players — like Chark — who feel the same.

So far, so good. — Nick Baumgardner

Charles Harris is comfortable — but not complacent

When practice was over and players dispersed at their own pace, there was Charles Harris, over near the hill, getting some extra work in with the defensive line.

Lions defensive line getting some extra work in on the hill after practice pic.twitter.com/lYpJyQhT1L

— Colton Pouncy (@colton_pouncy) July 28, 2022

There are a couple of reasons why that’s noteworthy. The first: Patricia had that hill built ahead of the 2019 season for extra conditioning and rehab work — something he took from his time in New England. It was, uh, not well-received in Detroit.

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The hill doesn’t get much use these days, other than providing another angle for the camera crew to work with. The defensive line’s willingness to gather there after practice for additional work indicates that this is a tight-knit group that doesn’t need to be told to go the extra mile.

It also speaks to the vocal role Harris has taken up with this unit, leading the charge among the defensive linemen. I asked him about that extra work on the hill and why it was important.

“It was just the leaders of the group,” Harris said. “Me, Brock (defensive end Michael Brockers), every single day we’ll do something — one percent better, every single day — after practice. Conditioning-wise, there’s no way you can prepare for football at camp in the summer. No matter what you do, how many up-downs you do, how many gassers you do, you can’t prepare for actual football. … We all know that, so we take it upon ourselves to make sure we do something every single day post-practice to ensure our cardio and conditioning, just strengthening the technique.”

It’s always good to see a collective unit working together when it doesn’t need to. This time is about getting different groups on the same page, and the Lions’ defensive line is very much a work in progress. It’s a little thing, but one we could point back to down the road.

Harris, specifically, has come a long way. We’re talking about a former first-round pick who had an unspectacular stint with Miami, the team that drafted him. When he joined the Lions last year, it wasn’t quite clear what his role would be. Internally, though, there was hope that Harris would outplay the contract he signed. He did just that, recording career highs in tackles (65), QB hits (16), sacks (7 1/2), tackles for loss (10) and pressures (34), while also starting a career-high 14 games.

Things are different for Harris now. He signed a two-year contract this offseason to remain with the team. In practice, he’s been repping with the first-team defense opposite rookie Aidan Hutchinson, fending off Julian Okwara. Having a player with Hutchinson’s potential on the other side might make things easier for Harris, who was one of the Lions’ sole pass-rush options last year when Romeo Okwara went down with his Achilles injury. If Harris can improve as a run defender, he’ll become even more valuable to the team.

Regardless, you can see what that 2021 season did for Harris. He’s comfortable. He’s in a groove. He looks like a veteran who has secured his role on this team and doesn’t take it for granted. Even then, there’s no sense of complacency. It’s why you see him out there helping lead those uphill runs. Don’t expect that mindset to change. — Colton Pouncy

Second-year defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu has been working at safety this offseason. (David Reginek / USA Today)

Ifeatu Melifonwu’s a safety

Perhaps the biggest note on the Lions’ new roster was the full switch from cornerback to safety for second-year defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu. GM Brad Holmes and Campbell were excited about all the picks during their first draft together. But aside from Penei Sewell, Melifonwu might’ve gotten the biggest reaction from Holmes in terms of pure excitement about the future.

You watch him and think press corner, “but that’s the way he kind of grew on me in the process,” Holmes said following the 2021 draft of Melifonwu, a 6-3, 205-pounder from Syracuse who played outside corner in a very zone-heavy scheme. “When we started matching him up versus the other corners in the draft and just with his movement skills in space … very, very impressive.

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“I do think he has the versatility to do everything” in the secondary.

The Lions started Melifonwu out at corner last season because that’s what Aaron Glenn and Aubrey Pleasant decided on. Rather than throwing too much at him too fast, Glenn’s plan was to ease Melifonwu into a corner role and, perhaps, see if that could blossom into a hybrid assignment over time. An injury last season slowed Melifonwu’s progress, but the Lions started experimenting with their young DB — who has 32 1/4-inch arms and a 78 1/2-inch wingspan, with a 4.48 40 — at safety in spring and are now fully committed to that.

Campbell said Thursday the Lions like knowing Melifonwu can move back to corner if he has to, but it does sound like Detroit’s current wish is to see whether the second-year prospect can develop into the type of oversized, athletic safety (who can also work and cover in the slot) that’s becoming more and more popular in NFL circles.

Melifonwu’s a name to watch this season and beyond. People don’t talk much about him, and that’s understandable since he hasn’t played much. But, if this clicks, he could be a serious weapon for the Lions defensively. — Baumgardner

Will Harris is developing a cornerback’s mindset

Another noteworthy item from Day 1 was that the other Harris — Will Harris — is listed as a safety on the training camp roster. That shouldn’t come as much of a shock, since he moved from safety to cornerback last season, with the Lions reeling from a series of untimely injuries. Based on his play in 2021, and Detroit’s offseason additions of DeShon Elliott, rookie Kerby Joseph and other moves at safety, Campbell and his staff have opted to keep Harris at cornerback heading into the season.

It appears he’s taken on the identity and mindset of his new full-time position, too.

“I love it out there,” Will Harris said about playing corner. “To be honest, I love playing ball. I love playing football. So, with that being said, wherever (I play) kinda feels like home to me. Being out there on an island, it’s nothing else like it. Just adrenaline that you get, I’m a competitor, man, so I get amped just being out there.

“And then a lot of times in the run game, (opposing offenses) don’t expect the corner to come down and be physical. I’m like, ‘I’m with that too, what’s up?’ But there’s a lot of nuances that I really love about being out there.”

The Lions believe Will Harris will benefit from a lighter workload, letting him focus on one position rather than moving him all over the defense — not to mention that having a full offseason to prepare, as opposed to adjusting on the fly, should always help improve that level of comfort. Harris mentioned the importance of having a short memory at corner, but there are some elements of the safety position he’ll look to keep in his back pocket. He said he feels he has a natural understanding of where his help on the back end will be.

“When I line up at corner, I know what the safety’s thinking,” Will Harris said. “I know what Tracy (Walker) and DeShon — I know what they’re seeing in front of them and I know the adjustments that they have to make. There are a couple more nuances at safety, you know, with rotations and things that they have to know. … I know it too, and if there’s ever an adjustment that we need to make, I can be more vocal in that way as well.”

This looks like his job to lose. Whenever the Lions have lined up for team stuff early in training camp, it’s been Will Harris and Amani Oruwariye as the first-team corners, with Jeff Okudah subbing in. It’s clear this staff likes what Harris brings to the table. We’ll see where he goes from here.

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“Because he’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he can run, he’s got a chance,” Campbell said of Will Harris. “And you tell him to get out there and compete and hit a guy up and play technique. He’s pretty good. Sometimes when you take a little bit off a guy’s plate, man, they can really grow. In the meantime, now that he’s played nickel, he’s played safety, if he can excel at corner and get better, man, you’ve got a versatile guy. He’s a jack of all trades, and now he can play multiple spots on top of special teams when he goes in the game. That’s an asset.” — Pouncy

Former first-round pick Jarrad Davis is back in Detroit with a new role. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Jarrad Davis’ restart

The Lions are taking another ride with Jarrad Davis, after their 2017 first-round pick left for the Jets in 2021. And while he spent time with the edge rushers during on-field work this spring, Davis has mainly worked early in camp as a reserve inside linebacker behind starters Alex Anzalone and Chris Board/Derrick Barnes.

Davis should have roles on Detroit’s special teams units, if the fit makes sense, but there’s also potential for hybrid experimentation. Same goes for sixth-round pick James Houston, who has continued to work on the edge so far. But Houston, a Florida and Jackson State product, has linebacker traits as well.

Either way, it’s clear the Lions love Davis’ personality, leadership traits and willingness to work. His position coach, Kelvin Sheppard, is a former teammate.

There are no promises Davis will make the team; he’s here on a prove-it deal. For now, Davis is doing whatever’s asked. When pads come on next week, though, don’t be surprised if he turns a head or two in pass-rush drills. — Baumgardner

James Mitchell easing back in

Rookie tight end James Mitchell practiced full-go for the second consecutive day. That’s good news. Mitchell missed valuable time this offseason while recovering from a torn ACL that cost him the final 11 games of his last season at Virginia Tech. That injury, though, might be the reason the Lions got him. It occurred in September 2021, which wiped out any future tape that could’ve helped raise his stock as a junior. The Lions then happily scooped him up in the fifth round, betting on his traits translating to the next level.

Mitchell isn’t the most physically imposing tight end, but that’s not what he was drafted to be anyway. His athleticism is where he can provide value. He has enough speed to give linebackers issues and stretch the field — he averaged 17.2 yards per reception in 2019 and 16.7 in 2020, which gives you a sense of what he brings to the table in the passing game.

He was hovering around the tight ends on Wednesday, catching some balls in pass-catching periods, even though things haven’t been too intense just yet. A small step, sure, but a promising one.

In a perfect world, Mitchell eventually emerges as the No. 2 tight end and complements TJ Hockenson’s game. How close is he to that right now? It seems like Mitchell is still getting into the swing of things, with others ahead of him at the moment, so early expectations should remain somewhat tempered. Brock Wright, Garrett Griffin and others remain in the picture, too. But all the tools suggest Mitchell could rise quickly. He’s a player we’ll keep a closer eye on in the weeks to come, particularly when pads go on next week. — Pouncy

(Top photo: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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