One of the knocks on Aidan Hutchinson heading into this year’s NFL draft was that he was a lesser athlete than some of the league’s top pass rushers.
Seven weeks into his Detroit Lions tenure, Hutchinson’s position coach said that has proven not to be the case.
“Obviously, we’re very excited to have him, but I think he’s a better athlete than I thought he was,” Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said Monday. “(Head coach) Dan (Campbell) and I and even (general manager) Brad (Holmes), we’ve talked about it. I said he’s a better athlete than I thought he was off tape. There’s kind of a unique way he can lean and bend that we didn’t necessarily always see on tape, but out here you really see it, and versus good competition. So we’re excited about where he’s at.”
Most NFL observers considered him one of the top defensive players in the draft, but ranked him a tier below elite pass rushers like Myles Garrett and Chase Young as a prospect.
Hutchinson, who scoffed at concerns about his athleticism in a pre-draft interview with the Free Press, has impressed Lions coaches and teammates in pad-less workouts this spring, with center Frank Ragnow predicting last week Hutchinson will be “a pretty special player” in time.
“He’s very, very intelligent,” Wash said. “This morning we played defensive jeopardy basically and he was answering all different questions from even different positions, where you’re like, ‘Damn, that’s good stuff.’ So we’re excited and once we get pads on then I think we’re going to see even more out of it.”
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The Lions ranked 27th in the NFL in sack rate last season and are counting on Hutchinson and their revamped defensive scheme to help get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this fall.
Wash declined to set a sack goal for Hutchinson, who will play as a base defensive end and shift inside some in sub packages. Jevon Kearse holds the NFL rookie record with 14.5 sacks, a number Micah Parsons (13) challenged last season.
“I think he just needs to come out each and every day and get better,” Wash said. “I know that’s a cliché every coaches say, but we got high expectations for him but I think he has more expectations for himself than we probably do, so we expect a solid player and a guy that’s going to help us win football games.”
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Wash said Hutchinson’s pass rushing ability is reminiscent of what he saw from Yannick Ngakoue as a rookie. Ngakoue has had eight or more sacks in all six of his NFL seasons, and had years of eight, 12, 9.5 and eight in four years with Wash as his defensive coordinator.
“We took (Ngakoue) later in the draft, but he led college in sacks his senior year,” Wash said. “And when he came in, he just had “it’ as a pass rusher and Hutch has ‘it’ as a pass rusher, and he still has enough play strength to play a lot of different spots up front and he’s intelligent where he can play a lot of different fronts. So when it comes to that, yeah, he has ‘it’ as a pass rusher.”
Romeo Okwara should join Hutchinson, Charles Harris and rookie second-round pick Josh Paschal in the defensive end rotation this season, but Wash indicated that might not happen until later in the fall.
“We’re excited about where we’re at with that depth and obviously we’ll get Romeo back midway through,” Wash said Monday. “Josh is a guy that can play outside also. So we have a lot of tools that we can use in situations where we have to get after the quarterback. We’re excited about that.”
Asked to clarify whether that meant Okwara, who is rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles tendon, would not be back until the middle of the season, Wash said he’s “not sure” and “whenever he gets back we’ll put him in there and we’ll see what happens.”
Okwara had a team-leading and career-high 10 sacks in 2020. Last year, he had one sack in four games before leaving with an injury in the first half of an October loss to the Chicago Bears.
Okwara, who was not cleared to take part in on-field work this spring, is expected to open training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
“He was here last week,” Wash said. “He’s not completely healthy yet, but with an Achilles there’s guys that have come back real quick and they haven’t missed a beat. And the way he works and the way he prepares himself physically, we anticipate we’ll get the Romeo back that we know.”
Key Lions dates this offseason:
June 15-16: Organized team activities.
July 26: Training camp opens.
Aug. 12: Exhibition opener vs. Falcons.
Sept. 11: Regular-season opener vs. Eagles.