How much better is Detroit Lions defense after targeting that side of ball in NFL draft?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions spent six of their eight picks in last week’s NFL draft on defensive players. But even coming off a season in which they allowed the second most points in the NFL, general manager Brad Holmes insisted that was not entirely intentional.

“With all the things that we wanted to do, we had a sense that it might tilt a little toward defense,” Holmes said Saturday. “But (if) we had eight picks (and) it was four defensive guys, four offensive guys, if that’s how it fell, that’s how it fell. … I didn’t even count until we drafted Chase (Lucas with our last pick in the seventh round).”

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The Lions opened the draft by taking Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson No. 2 overall, then traded up for Alabama receiver Jameson Williams at No. 12.

They used both their Day 2 picks on defensive players, Kentucky lineman Josh Paschal and Illinois safety Kerby Joseph, and spent their final picks on defensive players Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston and Lucas after using a fourth-round choice on tight end James Mitchell.

Holmes said Rodriguez, Houston and Lucas were picked in part for their special teams ability.

Rodriguez tied for the Oklahoma State team lead with 11 special teams tackles as a true freshman in 2017, when he was one of the Cowboys’ most productive players on kickoff coverage.

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“He’s a high-caliber special teams player, first and foremost,” Holmes said. “But I do think that he’ll be able to come in and compete at one of the inside linebacker spots.”

Houston played his first four college seasons at Florida before transferring to Jackson State last year. He was a key special teams contributor in 2018-19 for the Gators and said Saturday he expects to be a four-phase special teams contributor in Detroit.

Lucas was a five-year starter at cornerback for the Sun Devils.

“Whatever role that Detroit thinks that I fit the best in, I can go out there and I’m going to do my best,” Houston said. “I’m going to sacrifice everything I need to sacrifice and I’m obviously going to play an important role in special teams, all four roles, and I’m just going to come out there and I’m going to work my heart out. I’m not going give up. I can’t wait to get to Detroit.”

The Lions had the worst defense in franchise history in 2020 and were only slightly better Statistically last year, when they allowed 27.5 points per game – more than every team but the New York Jets — and finished 29th in total defense.

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Injuries to key players Romeo Okwara, Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs contributed to the Lions’ defensive struggles, and their young nucleus was light on making game-changing plays.

Hutchinson and Paschal should upgrade a pass rush that ranked 27th in the NFL in sack rate last season, and Joseph, while likely ticketed for a backup role to start his rookie season, has the ball skills to help a secondary that’s finished among the bottom 10 in interceptions four straight years.

Holmes said he expects the defense to be better this fall, and the new additions are not the only reason why. Okwara, Okudah and Jacobs are expected back this summer, and Holmes said the Lions’ young roster will benefit from a second year under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.

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“The real exciting thing is our coaching staff and their ability to develop those guys at such a rapid rate last year and the growth that those guys made from training camp to late in the season gets you really, really excited for those guys stepping into the second year,” Holme said. “And then these incoming rookies, and just keep building that foundation and having the continuity with our coaching staff again with being able to have A.G. again and his current staff. So that’s what really gets you excited.”

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

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