Five questions about the Lions’ defense heading into the 2021 season

Detroit News

Allen Park — As the Detroit Lions look to rebound from the worst defensive performance in franchise history, here are five questions facing the unit heading into the 2021 season.

► Is Jeff Okudah’s strong offseason indicative of a breakout or a mirage?

Because of how early he was drafted, and the historical significance of being a cornerback selected in the top three, Okudah will never escape the loftiest of expectations as long as he’s wearing a Lions uniform.

After a disappointing debut season, marred by multiple injuries and subpar on-field performance, Okudah has looked like a different player on the practice field this offseason. The first thing that stands out is his confidence, something he understandably lacked as a rookie. And that has translated to his play, where he’s routinely found himself in position to defend the throws his direction.

That practice field success partially carried over to the preseason, but fans probably weren’t thrilled to see Okudah get beat deep for a 43-yard gain the first time he was targeted in coverage. The explanation is he thought he identified something pre-snap and tried to jump a route. Unquestionably, those big-play mistakes can’t be a regular occurrence.

Okudah bounced back from the error and made a play on a run stop near the goal line and later broke up a pass in the end zone. How he moves past the inevitable miscues that come with the territory at the cornerback position will be critical to his overall success.

The hope is Okudah can follow in the path of former Lion Darius Slay, who coincidentally also switched jerseys from No. 30 to No. 23 between his rookie and second season. That’s coincided with a massive jump in playmaking and consistency for Slay, who went on to be selected to three Pro Bowls during his time with the Lions.

If Okudah goes on to make three Pro Bowls, being selected third in the draft won’t look like such a reach.

► What can Michael Brockers contribute after missing most of training camp?

The Lions didn’t pay much to acquire Brockers. For the paltry cost of a seventh-round pick they were able to take the former first-rounder off the Los Angeles Rams’ hands, kickstarting the rebuild of the Detroit’s dismal defensive interior.

But with nine seasons and more than 6,000 snaps under his belt, Brockers comes with a lot of wear and tear. That’s been apparent with how carefully the team has managed his workload throughout the offseason. He barely practiced during training camp and didn’t see any time during the preseason.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. He has plenty of experience playing in the defensive scheme the Lions intend to run, but as he approaches his 31st birthday, maybe expectations should be tempered about the on-field impact Brockers can have.

In 2020, he saw more than 600 defensive snaps, marking the eighth time in nine seasons he’s crossed that threshold. And playing next to the otherworldly Aaron Donald, Brockers had one of the best seasons of his career, tallying 51 tackles, five sacks and 30 quarterback pressures. That will be tough to duplicate without Donald there to draw so much attention.

Then again, maybe the Lions don’t need Brockers to have that kind of workload and production. They added two more defensive tackles in the early stages of the draft and both Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill look ready to contribute immediate. It’s possible the secondary function of the Brockers acquisition, his leadership and mentorship, will be his greater contribution to the short- and long-term success of the franchise.

► Can Will Harris figure it out?

Harris, the third-year safety selected in the third round of the 2019 draft, has all the gifts you could want at the position. At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, he possesses an ideal frame. And athletically, he’s off the charts. His measurables from the combine far exceed the majority of safeties across the league.

Intelligence? They don’t just let anyone into Boston College. Hardworking, accountable, on paper, Harris is everything you could want in a football player.

For whatever reason, things haven’t clicked for the young defensive back through two seasons. At this stage in his career, it’s make-or-break time. After seeing nearly 1,000 defensive snaps his first two seasons, the Lions need to see Harris put it together.

All camp he’s been running with the first-team defense and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be starting when the Lions open the season against San Francisco. The team’s new scheme will alter how the safeties are utilized in Detroit. Will that, combined with the hard coaching of defensive backs assistant Aubrey Pleasant, be enough to finally unlock Harris’ potential?

► How big of a role can Derrick Barnes carve out?

Entering the draft, the Lions appeared to be treading water at inside linebacker. Jarrad Davis departed in free agency and was replaced by former college teammate Alex Anzalone, who brought schematic familiarity but also a history of durability issues.

The one-year deal awarded to Anzalone, combined with Jamie Collins’ contract restructure that points to his departure at season’s end, emphasized the need for a long-term solution. When general manager Brad Holmes traded up early in the fourth round to snag Barnes, they hoped they found it.

After splitting his college career between the defensive line and playing off the ball, the expectation was Barnes would need some extra time to develop. And a hamstring strain that lingered from June into the early stages of training camp seemed to further pump the brakes on what he could offer during his rookie season.

That was until he took the field in the preseason.

Simply put, Barnes looked like a playmaker in 54 snaps, and he was particularly sharp in coverage. The small sample size was never going to be enough to unseat Collins or Anzalone from their starting roles, but defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn should feel urgency about getting Barnes more playing time than originally anticipated.

This isn’t new territory for the Lions. The team faced similar situations with defensive backs Quandre Diggs and Tracy Walker during their first seasons. Both were incorporated into the game plan a couple series per game. That got their feet wet, while preparing them for bigger role in the future. Expect the team to follow a similar course with Barnes.

► Will Julian Okwara, Charles Harris or Austin Bryant step up and solidify the pass rush?

It’s safe to say we know what to expect from Detroit’s starting outside linebackers. Beyond the broken arm that sidelined him much of last season, Trey Flowers has been a model of consistency during his NFL career. From 2017-2019, he averaged seven sacks and more than 60 quarterback pressures.

On the opposite side, Romeo Okwara led the team in sacks for the second time in three seasons, tallying a career-high 10 in 2020. At 26 years old, he’s just now entering his physical prime, and if his training camp is indicative of anything, there’s a real possibility he’ll be even more productive this year.

But beyond Flowers and Okwara, there are a lot of question marks. Detroit is fleshing out its rotation with three high-ceiling players who have proven little during their brief NFL careers.

Harris is a former first-rounder playing for his third team in three seasons. A lethal speed rusher coming out of college, his skill set hasn’t ported to this level. He had just three sacks last season for the Falcons. Worse yet, that was a career high.

Bryant, a fourth-round pick for the Lions a couple years back, hasn’t been able to stay healthy. And in the limited playing time he has seen, he hasn’t looked the part of a difference-maker. Ten games into his career, he’s still looking for his first sack.

Then there’s Romeo’s younger brother, Julian. He played nearly double the snaps in three preseason games than he did during his injury-plagued rookie season. But all three flashed some pass-rush potential during those preseason games. The younger Okwara led the Lions with 12 quarterback pressures, including a sack. Bryant and Harris combined for nine pressures.

If just one of the three can carry over their preseason success to the regular season, it would provide a significant boost to Detroit’s pass rush, particularly if it’s Bryant or Julian Okwara, who are under contract beyond this season.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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