It’s early. But already you can sense how the Detroit Lions are taking shape.
On Thursday, before the third day of organized team activities this offseason — the first open to reporters — coaches talked about scheme and competition and the hope for young players to take a step forward.
Players aren’t wearing pads yet, but they flew around in shorts and helmets, pounding sleds and whooping and hollering after successful plays during team periods.
There isn’t anything especially new about this. It happens every spring during the earliest stages of offseason preparation.
But there is one key difference this year: The defense. It was awful in the first year of the rebuild under coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes. And now, with lots of capital devoted to it after Holmes’ first two drafts, there has to be some improvement. There has to be, because if there isn’t, people could be looking for jobs after this season.
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The path toward defensive improvement is clear. It starts up front, where the Lions are switching to a four-man front in search of more aggression. They struggled to generate pressure and were fourth-worst in the league on third down and fifth-worst in sacks per pass attempt.
Half of the Lions’ draft picks in the first three rounds the past two years have been defensive linemen. But one player stands out, because he must: 2022 No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson.
Hutchinson isn’t the prospect Ndamukong Suh was when the Lions last had a No. 2 pick, in 2010. Suh is a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer who had 10 sacks on his way to being the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
But Hutchinson must still have a significant impact as a rookie if the Lions are to make strides on defense. Sorry, but there’s a weight of expectation that comes with being the second pick. You don’t like that weight, give back your signing bonus.
I asked Campbell what his early assessment of Hutchinson was, and he said there was “nothing that’s been disappointing,” while describing him as a somewhat typical rookie, albeit a promising one.
“Like the rest of those guys, they’re swimming a little bit,” he said. “But yet his approach is everything we thought it would be. He’s in the meeting rooms, he’s attentive, he’s wanting to learn, he’s taking it all in, he’s doing what’s asked of him, and then it’s trial by fire. Like the rest of them, ‘I’ve got to learn from my mistakes.’ He’s been all business.”
That jibes with what we knew of Hutchinson at Michigan, where he was a devout and dedicated dynamo.
But there’s something that jibes with his time at Michigan: His strength, or at least the perceived lack of it on an elite level. Campbell admitted Hutchinson’s biggest learning curve will come from the physical part of the game, where he must adapt to higher speed and the quality of play from elite offensive tackles, like Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell.
If you’re looking for Hutchinson’s red flags, they arrived with his weight-room measurables. He notably skipped the bench press at the combine, then got quite a bit of help from a spotter who turned it into a synchronized event at U-M’s pro day. The video is pretty cringe-worthy, especially when compared to Kayvon Thibodeaux’s combine performance.
But there’s a difference between weight-room warriors and football players who have functional, practical strength while they play, you know, football. And Hutchinson shined on the field Thursday. He had three simulated sacks while playing with the third-string defense against back-of-the-roster players.
“He’s got a ton of room to really even get more powerful, if you will,” Campbell said.
Hutchinson doesn’t look like the biggest guy out there. But he’s quick and dynamic, like he’s trying to make something happen on every rep. Yes, they’re all in shorts without pads. And yes, it’s still early. But so far, Hutchinson is living up to those early expectations by applying what he’s learning in the meeting room.
“He has this quickness that’s just unbelievable,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “He has this ability to bend and turn and continue to work his hands that is outstanding. Those are one of the things I talked about in practice yesterday with our D-line coach like, ‘Just watch him. He’s always working. He’s always working.’ That’s that relentless attitude that you guys could see when he was at Michigan that made him so successful. It’s natural for him. There’s no doubt in my mind that this player is going to be a really, really good player for us. I’m excited to see him once we get into training camp and he gets into games for us.”
A lot of people like Campbell for his colorful imagery. Biting kneecaps, et cetera. But to me, one of Campbell’s most endearing qualities is his honesty, which he demonstrated again Thursday when I asked him again about Hutchinson’s strength.
“So his strength is good enough to go out there and compete,” he said. “No problems there, but yet, man, there’s still a ton of meat on the bone with him, which is pretty exciting.
“Look, you can never tell for sure, but I would say this, it’s one of the reasons why we wanted to pick this guy — his DNA says that he’s going to do everything that he can to be successful, and he’s got enough ability and enough strength, he certainly does, to go out there and help us and help us win some games.
“Now, when will that be, how fast will that be? I don’t know. I know this, we’re not going to put him out there until he’s ready. I mean he’s going to have to show it to us, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Campbell is right. You never know about a player until the pads come on, the pressure mounts and the games count. At the very least, Hutchinson is starting to show his coaches something. The sooner he shows them more, the better.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.