Detroit Lions can’t overreact: Aidan Hutchinson still worth No. 1 pick after Georgia game

Detroit Free Press

Aidan Hutchinson was so dominant in his three-sack performance against Ohio State that he soared to the top of draftnik big boards everywhere, the type of game-altering edge player NFL teams would fall over themselves to take in the 2022 draft.

The Michigan football defensive end was even better the next week against Iowa, at least in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators. He had four tackles and one sack, and he showcased his versatility as Michigan steamrolled its way to a Big Ten title.

Then came Friday, when Hutchinson had a quiet statistical day as the Wolverines were curb-stomped in the national semifinal by a Georgia team loaded with NFL talent.

Hutchinson had four tackles, zero quarterback hits and seemingly no impact plays in Michigan’s 34-11 loss. His most memorable moment — or the one that went most viral, at least — was a third-down play in the fourth quarter when he was pancaked by Georgia left tackle Jamaree Salyer, a mountainous man who projects best at guard in the NFL, as quarterback Stetson Bennett scrambled for a first down.

Immediately, my social media timeline filled with “he’s not worth it” takes that Hutchinson was overrated as a draft prospect and the Detroit Lions, who locked up the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft with Sunday’s 51-29 no-show loss against the Seattle Seahawks, would be wise to pass on the local product who was being pushed up rankings in a subpar class.

Oregon edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton and Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal were better players, and the Lions would regret passing on any of them to take Hutchinson, the theory went.

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Thibodeaux, Hamilton and Neal are all good prospects, and I’ll share one Lions player’s thoughts on Hamilton’s draft prospects later in this column. I have no idea who will have the best NFL career years from now, and I feel confident in saying the Lions will do deep dives on all three between now and April 28.

But I thought Hutchinson played well as I was watching Friday’s game from my living room, and sitting in my hotel room Sunday morning in Seattle, I decided to watch the Michigan-Georgia game again and pay special attention to his performance.

Hutchinson was not as dominant as he was against Ohio State, and if NFL teams drafted off a single game, he might rate behind Nakobe Dean and one or two other Georgia defenders as a prospect.

But anyone who thinks Hutchinson struggled Friday or is no longer worthy of a top pick wasn’t paying attention.

Georgia clearly went into that game intending to play keep-away from Hutchinson. Bennett rarely held the ball more than a few seconds, executing a quick-strike passing game with precision. The Bulldogs ran away from Hutchinson more often than not when they kept the ball on the ground. And Hutchinson still made a handful of important, selfless plays that underscore why he will be a top pick in April’s draft.

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I plan to do a deep dive into Thibodeuax in the coming weeks as well, but for now, here are my thoughts on Hutchinson from the TV copy of the Orange Bowl:

• It’s impossible to ignore the pancake, which came on third-and-4 on Georgia’s touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. Hutchinson appeared to get caught in between rush moves, setting Salyer up with a jab step inside, then breaking outside as the big offensive tackle knocked him off balance. Bennett spun away from pressure to Hutchinson’s side of the field, and was able to run for a first down with Hutchinson on the ground, which made the play look even worse.

That pass rush surely won’t go on Hutchinson’s highlight tape, but in my plus-minus grading system, it was one of four negative plays — and the only true negative pass rush snap — Hutchinson had all night.

(Full disclosure: To keep things simple, I give players a positive for doing something to significantly impact a play, a minus for negatively impacting a play, and most plays come out draws. Hutchinson’s other negatives were the offsides penalty he had in the first half and two plays of run defense — one against a double team — when he appeared to get pushed out of his gap on a play that went his way.)

• One thing I thought Hutchinson could have done a better job of was shedding blocks in the run game. Georgia did not run directly at Hutchinson often, and when the Bulldogs did, Hutchinson did not shy away from the play. But Georgia’s big tackles Salyer and Warren McClendon, and even tight end Darnell Washington, were able to tie Hutchinson up at times with their arms.

That’s not meant to be a blanket statement. Hutchinson tossed Washington to the ground like a dishrag on the first play of the game, and part of his responsibility was to set an edge on run plays.

But if I were an NFL team, I’d come away from the Georgia game needing to study Hutchinson more as a run defender against NFL-caliber linemen to figure out how best to use him on run downs.

• Hutchinson has an amazing motor. He played Michigan’s first 48 defensive plays, and was on the field for 56 of Georgia’s first 58 offensive snaps before sitting the final two series with the game out of hand. As a pass rusher, he was relentless even though Georgia sent chip help his way almost every time they called a play designed for Bennett to spend any time in the pocket.

If I’m nit-picky, as NFL teams at the top of the draft must be, I did not see Kyle Vanden Bosch-level pursuit from Hutchinson as a backside run defender. I wrote three times in my notes that Hutchinson’s pursuit was “just OK,” including once in the third quarter when he recognized a bubble screen and nearly tipped the pass, then pulled up slightly as he followed the play downfield to avoid a pile.

To be clear: No one should view effort as a concern. Hutchinson was not lax in chasing plays downfield, and I certainly don’t fault him for avoiding a pile, not with what was on the line for him and where the game was at, at the time. But I thought it was fair to point that out since I noted it re-watching the game.

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• Hutchinson’s instincts are phenomenal. It’s easy to see how well-coached he is and what being the son of former Michigan player has meant to his development. He recognized and leapfrogged all three cut blocks he faced, and twice he identified bubble screens to his side of the field and reacted quickly to disrupt the play.

If the pancake was Hutchinson’s worst play of the night, the tackle-for-loss he made on Brock Bowers on the final play of the first quarter was his best. Perhaps by film study, Hutchinson recognized the screen immediately off the snap and broke quickly to his right, where he yanked Bowers — a very good player — to the ground for a 2-yard loss.

Two series later, Hutchinson ID’d another bubble screen to his side and just missed deflecting the pass in the air. Those type of plays prove he can be disruptive in other ways than just rushing the quarterback.

• Of course, Hutchinson’s pass rush skills are why he will be a top-five pick in the draft. He is not considered a Chase Young-type prospect by NFL evaluators I’ve spoken to, but I was impressed with several rushes he had against Georgia.

On the third play of the game, Michigan schemed up a rush for defensive tackle Donovan Jeter, where Hutchinson crashed the interior of Georgia’s offensive line from his left defensive end spot. He wiped out right guard Warren Ericson and occupied McClendon, which allowed Jeter a clean shot on Bennett running a stunt.

Hutchinson set up David Ojabo on a similar twist later in the game, and was disciplined as a pass rusher when the Wolverines brought defensive back pressure off his edge.

I credited Hutchinson with three pressures and no sacks. Surely, you’d like to see more from a potential No. 1 overall pick, but again, Georgia went into the game determined not to let Hutchinson beat them.

Hutchinson’s best pass rush move came on Georgia’s third possession, when he split a double-team with a good swim move, only to watch Bennett scramble for 20 yards. He had back-to-back quarterback pressures in the third quarter, after taking his first two snaps off of the game and when Georgia was in long down and distance passing situations. On the first, he made a nice inside move to beat Salyer as Bennett scrambled to his right on a bootleg. On the second, he split a double team from Bowers and McClendon to force Bennett to throw early on another bootleg.

• Versatility is another of Hutchinson’s hallmarks. He played 28 snaps from the left defensive end/outside linebacker spot, 25 from the right defensive end/outside linebacker position and three from what would be a more traditional defensive tackle role. He lined up primarily in a wide-nine technique and as a stand-up rusher, but played as a five-technique, with his hand down and sometimes dropped into coverage.

Analytically smart teams value pass rushers because they can contribute at multiple positions — outside on base plays and inside in sub packages if need be. Hutchinson is best as an outside rusher, but certainly capable of contributing from different spots on the field.

Other options

The Lions will have plenty of good options whether they pick first or second in the draft, and they may have their choice of pass rushers even if they finish with the second overall pick.

Neither Hutchinson nor Thibodeaux is considered a lock for future stardom, and the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 could opt for the safer bet in Neal to protect their franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Hamilton is an intriguing player, and Lions offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer shared a great anecdote about his former college teammate last week.

On Hamilton’s first day of camp, Notre Dame players were wondering why this big kid — Hamilton is 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds — was playing safety. Four or five interceptions by Hamilton later, they had their answer.

“At that moment we all knew he was the real deal,” Kraemer said.

Ultimately, the value for a pass rusher trumps just about every position, and the Lions have a significant need on the edge. Hutchinson may or may not end up being their preferred choice, but judging by what I saw against Georgia, he absolutely has the skills to be an impact player in the NFL and one of the first prospects off the board.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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