Receiver DJ Chark eager to branch out, expand route tree with Lions
Allen Park — Shortly after DJ Chark signed with the Lions, he made it clear he was eager to escape the culture in Jacksonville for the one being cultivated in Detroit under coach Dan Campbell.
As it turns out, the veteran wide receiver is also eager to showcase a wider skill set in his new home.
Possessing an impressive combination of size and speed at 6-foot-4 with a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, Chark said he often felt he was put in a box by Jacksonville and was frequently asked to run the same handful of vertical routes, serving as both a deep threat and a safety-occupying decoy.
In Detroit, he's happy to continue bringing those traits to the offense, but feels he has more to offer as a catch-and-run option.
"A lot of times (in Jacksonville) it was routes where it was more possession-type, which I don't have a problem with, but I enjoy having the ball in my hand and being able to run, make moves, show toughness, things like that," Chark said Wednesday after one of the team's early OTA sessions. "Being able to do that, as well, in addition to what I've already been doing would be pretty fun."
The Lions are in the earliest stages of introducing their offensive scheme under first-year coordinator Ben Johnson. Chark, who has played under four different offensive coordinators his first four seasons, said he sees a lot of staples from those different schemes, but also new variations of those staples. That's something Johnson developed a reputation for bringing to Detroit's offense last season, when he was elevated midseason to serve as the team's passing-game coordinator.
One thing Chark has enjoyed during these early OTA practices is running the full route tree from different alignments, which he sees as valuable cross-training, depending on who is available during a given week.
Chark and teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown are also excited about the addition of speedster Jameson Williams via the draft.
"I think it's just going to open up more holes in the middle," St. Brown said. "I don't think we had too much success last year with the deep ball. That's an area as an offense that we want to improve on and adding guys like that is going to help us. Like I said, it's just going to open up more holes in the middle, so it's going to be great for us."
Chark is hopeful he'll be able to be part of the solution, both as a deep threat and across the middle on underneath routes, as Williams potentially takes over some of the safety-occupying duties.
"A lot of times in offenses, I would be used to be the guy to open up the field for others, but it would be cool to open up the field for others and they do the same (for me)," Chark said.
Recovering CB in a good place
We haven't heard much from cornerback Jeff Okudah since he tore his Achilles in last year's season opener. He hasn't done any interviews with local media, so what little we know about his recovery comes through an occasional video clip posted on his social media.
But with players back in the building for the start of the offseason program, teammate Amani Oruwariye offered a positive outlook on where things stand with Okudah.
“Yeah, I think mentally is the biggest thing right now," Oruwariye said. "I know he’ll get back healthy, but mentally he’s amazing. He’s in great spirits, doing his thing, getting back, getting that Achilles and that whole body right. We’re going to be excited just getting him back in the locker room, his infectious attitude all around the guys."
Prior to suffering the injury, Okudah spoke about the emphasis he put on his mental approach the previous offseason, embracing stoic philosophy as he worked to manage the expectations and criticisms that come with being the No. 3 pick in the draft.
Okudah has yet to meet the lofty expectations, in large part because the Achilles injury robbed him of his second season, which is routinely viewed as the year players experience the biggest jump in their development.
And given the inherent challenges of coming back from an Achilles injury, which can sap a player's explosion and quickness, there are understandable questions about whether he'll ever be able to fulfill his lofty potential.
But that talk is just noise to Oruwariye, something he's tried to impress upon Okudah.
“My motto is just keep going," Oruwariye said. "I’ve always told him, ‘You’ve developed so much just from the time I’ve seen you. I can’t wait to see how much you develop when you put up a full (17) games together.’ I think he can’t wait. He’s excited.
"I think people who try to write people off, they’ve got to just stay in your lane because, to me, I think there’s a reason he went No. 3 overall in the draft. The minute he gets on the field, he can make an immediate impact. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and we’re all wishing for that.”
Looking for a rebound
It wasn't the rookie season Levi Onwuzurike hoped for or envisioned. After missing significant time during the offseason with a back injury, the defensive lineman selected early in the second round out of the Washington never managed to hit his stride.
He finished the year logging nearly 400 defensive snaps and 35 tackles, but was a nonfactor as a pass rusher, recording a single sack and a meager three quarterback pressures.
But there's hope for a turnaround in his second season. That hope is rooted in his dedication this offseason, previously noted by Campbell, and a schematic shift that will have the defensive line more focused on attacking upfield.
"Yeah, I like that," Onwuzurike said about the shift. "Me and the guys have been talking and that's what we wanted all along. A lot of us, that's how a lot of the college programs do it. People like to do it. People just like to go up, hit people, knock heads. I think we're excited for it. I think it's a great plan for our defense."
As for his back injury, Onwuzurike was reluctant to admit it hindered him throughout his rookie campaign, noting almost every player is dealing with some kind of nagging issue.
"I don't want to make excuses," he said. "Every athlete goes through something. Pick any guy out there and they got something. At the end of the day, it's just about me getting better. But, yeah, it gave me little limitations in moving and holding my weight, holding other people's weight."
He did acknowledge that he's benefited from the downtime this offseason to heal up, something he didn't have last year while preparing for the draft. He's also being more proactive with treating his back before and after practice under the guidance of the team's medical staff.
A day after cutting five players, the Lions waived another on Wednesday, parting with quarterback Steven Montez.
Montez, an undrafted rookie out of Colorado a year ago, spent the duration of the 2021 season on the team's practice squad.