There is considerable debate already about where the Detroit Lions should look to use their first-round picks in the 2023 NFL draft. It’s not just about specific players either; positional need is a root discussion point for the entire draft conversation tree.
The EDGE position, primarily defensive end in Detroit’s base 4-2-5 defense, is often seeded as one of the top draft needs or desires. But a little deeper look into the Lions current roster construction and coaching style nips that perceived need in the bud.
Detroit struck gold with No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson in the 2022 NFL draft. Hutchinson led all rookies in sacks, but his impact grew beyond the pass rush. Hutchinson became just the second defensive lineman in NFL history to record at least 7.5 sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in a season. Not just rookies, mind you, but all players.
He was joined by fellow rookie James Houston in setting a new NFL mark for sacks by a rookie class. Hutchinson finished with 9.5 while Houston, who did not play in the first half of the season, bagged eight.
It was an outstanding boost to the Lions defense, which surged from historically awful to one of the league’s better units over the course of the season. General manager Brad Holmes, who spent three picks in the 2022 NFL draft on pass rushers, was thrilled with the early returns.
Here was an ebullient Holmes assessing the defensive ends and pass rush in his end-of-season press conference,
“I think you know our pass rush is on the come. Obviously, Aidan (Hutchinson) with 9.5 sacks. I think he’s only going to get better. James Houston’s only going to get better – so and then guys that we did not have available to us, is Charles Harris. I mean Charles Harris, he had to go on IR, so him coming back, Romeo (Okwara) had to kind of come back slowly from a really tough injury, so there’s pieces there. They always weren’t available to us, but we saw enough growth”
All of those players are under contract through 2023. So is Julian Okwara, who was not mentioned by Holmes. Then there are the hybrid players, John Cominsky and Josh Paschal.
Cominsky is a free agent, albeit one who has practically begged the Lions to re-sign him this offseason. The 27-year-old (same age as Harris and Romeo Okwara) was a catalyst for the Detroit defense, the embodiment of grit. He notched four sacks and 44 QB pressures (per PFF) in 14 games while playing just over 80 percent of his reps at DE. Like Hutchinson, he can comfortably flop to either side of the formation.
Paschal was the Lions’ second-round pick in 2022 out of Kentucky. Despite missing the entire offseason and the first half of the regular season with injuries, Paschal stepped in and produced 15 pressures and two sacks on 120 pass rush reps. That’s a better pass rush pressure rate than Giants first-rounder Kayvon Thibodeaux logged as a rookie.
Like Cominsky, he’s a bigger end at over 270 pounds, which allows him to play some 5-technique when the Lions go to an odd-man front. Paschal is now healthy and will get the benefit of a full offseason to work out and build upon his rookie experience.
Now consider the Lions and their organizational philosophy of player development. It’s a core pillar of what Holmes, Dan Campbell and the Lions are all about.
Put all of that into a blender and combine it and you’ve got a smooth, young, diversely talented group of young ends and EDGEs. Sure, there’s room for a sweet cherry on top in the form of an early draft pick, but that would come at the expense of other positions (CB, S, No. 2 and No. 3 QB, ILB, OL depth/ starting RG) where the blender mixes up lesser ingredients and well water ice cubes. I strongly believe that and I also strongly believe the Lions see it that way, too.