Detroit Lions defensive line coach knows his unit must ‘be foundation of our defense’

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions didn’t try to get cute in the 2022 NFL draft.

After posting one of the three worst statistical seasons as a defense in the history of the organization, addressing that side of the ball became a top priority.

So not only did the Lions spend six of their eight picks on defense, but half of those were on defensive linemen or outside linebackers who can stand on the edge and rush the quarterback.

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“I was called being greedy a times, I wanted to get another one,” joked Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash earlier this month at minicamp. “But no, we addressed our needs and it worked out exactly the way we planned in all our scenarios.

“To get the players we got for our team, it’s been really good. We have a lot of tools we can use in certain situations.”

The most notable addition is of course former Michigan star Aidan Hutchinson, taken No. 2 overall after recording a program-record 14 sacks and finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up.

Wash said that the defensive end can bend in ways they didn’t initially see on tape, that he already has among the best work ethic and defensive understanding on the team and that the Lions “got a better player than I even thought we were going to get.”

Wash compared Hutchinson to Yannick Ngakoue — who the Jaguars took in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft when he was on staff in Jacksonville — in terms of someone who came out of college who was an immediate difference maker on a unit that struggled the season before.

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“When (Ngakoue) came in he just had ‘it’ as a pass rusher and Hutch has ‘it’ as a pass rusher,” Wash said. “And he’s still has enough play strength to play a lot of different spots up front and he’s intelligent enough to play different fronts.”

That’s important now that the Lions will switch to a 4-3 base scheme with a more downhill-attack mindset.

The other rushers the team added were second rounder Josh Paschal from Kentucky, the only three-time captain in program history, and James Houston from Jackson State University, who led the FCS in sacks while playing for Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders a season ago.

But for all his jokes about being “greedy,” Wash understands the capital that was used on his group and knows exactly what it means.

“You know you hope it’s a foundation for the future, when you’re spending that much money and that kind of stuff to draft these guys this high in the draft,” he said. “They need to be the foundation of our defense, that’s the way (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) wants it.

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“We knew we had to upgrade there the last couple years, Brad (Holmes) did it and so they’d better be the foundation of this team for many years to come.”

Fortunately for the group, other foundational pieces are returning as well.

Romeo Okwara, the team leader with 10 sacks in 2020, is still rehabbing from a torn Achilles he suffered last season but Wash said he is expected to be ready in the middle of the season.

The surprise player of last season, Charles Harris, also returns, after leading the unit with 10.5 sacks a season ago and said he is in “prove it” mode once again.

The interior linemen include Alim McNeil, Michael Brockers and Levi Onwuzurike, who has received positive marks in camp after struggling his rookie season.

Wash also singled out a fourth defensive tackle who, like Harris a season ago, has turned heads early on.

“Jashon (Cornell) really flashed this spring but we’re still in gym class, we’re not running the football yet and that’s the area we need to get better in once we start training camp,” Wash said. “But Jashon is under the radar right now.

“I think he had a really good spring and I look forward to seeing what he can do once he’s healthy again.”

Contact Tony Garcia at apgarcia@freepress.com. Follow him on twitter at @realtonygarcia.

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