The Lions have trained at their year-round facility in Allen Park, Mich., since 2002, the year after they left behind Saginaw Valley State in Saginaw. Say what you will about Detroit's won-loss record, its spacious team complex is first-rate and easily accommodates the Lions' swelled roster during camp. On the Monday morning I was in camp, there was a pretty modest turnout of fans -- a couple or three hundred, maybe -- but they were rewarded with a fairly physical two-hour-plus practice session to take in.
1. I assume Daunte Culpepper has to look not only better, but considerably better than Matthew Stafford to beat out the No. 1 overall pick. But Culpepper is certainly doing his part so far to make it a tough call for Lions coaches. He's not only moving around much better than any time since his career-changing October 2005 knee injury -- 30 fewer pounds on his always-big frame has helped this year -- but also throwing the ball well and playing with a palpable sense of renewed commitment and determination. One way or another, he wants to revive an NFL career that came untracked nearly four years ago.
Watching Culpepper Monday, I was struck by the fact that exactly 10 years ago right now, he was the vaunted quarterback of the future as Minnesota's first-round pick that spring, biding his time behind veterans Randall Cunningham and Jeff George. Now he's the veteran, trying to hold off the future in No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford. That's kind of coming full circle, wouldn't you say? When I made that observation to Culpepper, he just smiled, nodded his head and said, "I know. I've thought of that, too.'' But then he politely declined any further comment, making it clear that he wants to do most of his talking these days with his play.
2. If you catch passes for a living for the Lions, you're not having much go your way these days. Detroit was without its four top receivers Monday, thanks to various injuries, and I'm interested to see who the Lions are going to put on the field Saturday in their preseason opener at home against Atlanta. Calvin Johnson was wearing a protective cast on his jammed right thumb, and told the media he was slated to be examined again this afternoon. Free-agent addition Bryant Johnson hasn't practiced yet at camp due to that freak golf-cart accident that scraped him up pretty good, and veteran Dennis Northcutt is fighting a case of a painfully sore thumb. One of this camp's bright spots, second-year receiver John Standeford, has missed the past few days of practice with a yet undisclosed injury. Lastly, Detroit's second first-round pick, rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew, just returned to practice Sunday and remains limited with a sore thigh.
If only Matt Millen were still around to draft another first-round receiver.
3. The Lions have changed more than 50 percent of their roster since last season's regular-season opener, and obviously that doesn't even include the new coaching staff. That's a lot of new blood, and every bit of it was called for. On defense, veteran talents such as linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and cornerback/safety Anthony Henry add legitimacy to the Lions. On offense, Detroit picked up experience in acquiring offensive tackle Jon Jansen, receivers Bryant Johnson and Northcutt, as well as fullback Terrelle Smith. I think the majority of those moves were significant upgrades.
"Those guys all know the NFL, and they know that it doesn't matter what happened last year,'' Lions head coach Jim Schwartz told me. "They've been on teams that were good, and the next year struggled, and they've been on teams that struggled one year and turned it around the next. That's the thing that helps the most in this whole thing, because players know there's that opportunity here.''
As we noted, there are plenty of candidates to choose from in this category, but Foote, coming over from the Steelers after winning a pair of Super Bowl rings the past four seasons, could be as impactful as any defensive acquisition. The eighth-year veteran is only 29, and as a native of Detroit and a one-time Michigan Wolverine, he wanted to come home and become part of the solution in Detroit.
Schwartz said Foote has had a calming presence in the Lions defensive huddle and lauds his ability to read and recognize the most subtle of keys on offense. He's showing the younger Lions defenders that intelligence and experience have as much to do with success as talent, and is rapidly emerging as the team's defensive leader.
"We have a lot of veteran guys who weren't here last year, so that 0-16 is not looming,'' Foote said. "But for the players who went through it, it's always going to be with them. We've got to build every day, there's no doubt about it. But if we come out and play, what a challenge, what a reward, to be able to turn this thing around. There's a lot out there for us if we want to go get it. We've got new players here and a different mindset that enough is enough.''
There's a lot to like about all three of Detroit's top picks -- Stafford, Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas -- but let's be honest, there's only one rookie who will remain under the spotlight at every moment this season, and that's the former Georgia quarterback. To my eyes, Stafford looks comfortable and confident in the pocket, and he's making his reads without much hesitation and seems to be keeping up with the speed of the game.
Peterson described for me a play last week in which Stafford seemed to be locked onto his intended target at tight end, but then fired an exquisite no-look pass to a different receiver on the other side once Peterson broke on the tight end. "I was like, 'OK, I see that's the reason you're a No. 1 quarterback,''' Peterson said. "He's well above the learning curve. Whoever has coached him up before he got to this level, somebody's done a good job of keeping him prepared, because he's very prepared.''
Believe it or not, the Lions have two quality options at quarterback in Stafford and Culpepper. How quickly Stafford can force his way into the lineup still isn't clear, but rest assured there's no echo of the Joey Harrington era so far in Detroit.
It's always a sickening sight when you see a player's season end suddenly in training camp, almost before it has even begun. Lions veteran defensive end Jared DeVries stayed down after the third play of a live 11-on-11 goal line drill, and you could tell right away that it didn't look good. Tests confirmed that DeVries suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon, and just like that ... the Lions had lost their expected starter at left end.
The Lions were already in search of more bodies on the defensive line, and were coincidentally playing host to ex-Brown Shaun Smith on a visit when DeVries went down. Fellow free-agent defensive lineman Darwin Walker got a look-see from Detroit over the weekend, and veteran Kevin Carter also remains on the Lions' radar screen. For now, look for Dewayne White to shift to the left side from his usual right end spot.
1. Kind of interesting that the Lions two coordinators, Scott Linehan on offense and Gunther Cunningham on defense, were once NFL head coaches in Missouri. Cunningham lasted two seasons in Kansas City (1999-2000), and Linehan got two full seasons and part of a third in St. Louis (2006-2008). Detroit is the only team with two former NFL head coaches in their coordinator roles.
2. The Lions seem intent on not spending a lot of time this preseason telling people they're not the Lions of old, they'd rather wait until the regular season and show them. Talk has been very, very cheap in Detroit for a long time now, so that's exactly the right call.
3. If Stafford gets a grip on the Lions' starting job, it might be because of the hold he has on the ball. The rookie QB told me he loves throwing the NFL ball in comparison to the NCAA model. "It just feels better in my hand than the college ball,'' he said. "It's just a little fatter. I love it. I love throwing it.''
4. Once he gets healthy and completely immersed in the Detroit offense, Pettigrew is going to be a real weapon as both a receiver and a blocker. At some point in the near future, Lions fans won't be second-guessing his first-round selection any more.
5. He's not Albert Haynesworth mind you, but Grady Jackson, at 36, might still plug some gaps in the middle of the Lions defense. One thing I'm certain about this year in Detroit is that Schwartz and Cunningham will figure out a way to improve a Lions D that got abused last year. And yes, I do remember that Rod Marinelli was considered a defensive guru when he came to town, too.