The Detroit Lions open the regular season Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Here are three storylines on defense that will define the season:
What kind of impact will Aidan Hutchinson have?
The Lions felt like they got the best player in this year’s NFL draft when Hutchinson fell to them at the No. 2 overall pick, and everything they’ve seen this summer has solidified that belief. Hutchinson quickly won a starting job at defensive end and has impressed everyone in the building with his work ethic, demeanor and relentless motor.
Hutchinson has advanced pass rush moves for a rookie, the ability to flex inside in sub packages and his effort and understanding of the game should make him a plus run defender in time. I doubt he has the same kind of statistical impact that Micah Parsons had last year for the Dallas Cowboys (13 sacks, three forced fumbles), but he should be considered the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“I love the kid,” Lions assistant general manager Ray Agnew said last week. “The kid’s relentless, effort and a much better athlete than you thought he was in the draft process. Man, the things he can do rushing the passer, inside, off the edge, using his hands. He’s very creative as a rusher. I would just say this: We got the right one.”
What are reasonable expectations for Jeff Okudah this fall?
Okudah survived a training camp battle with Will Harris to win the starting left cornerback job, and his play will be under a microscope early this season as he faces some of the league’s top receivers — A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin and Justin Jefferson — in his return from a torn Achilles tendon.
The Lions have been pleased with Okudah’s progress this summer. He’s shown some of the athleticism and movement skills that made him the No. 3 pick of the 2020 NFL draft. But he has played so little in his first two NFL seasons, and been so mediocre when he’s been on the field, that I would caution against expecting too much from Okudah this fall.
Fair or not, Okudah always will be judged through the lens of being one of the highest-drafted cornerbacks in NFL history, and simply beating out Harris — a converted safety who seemed to lose confidence as the summer went on — does not put him on a path to becoming a lock-down corner. In all likelihood, Okudah will have his ups and downs this season, but if he can play all 17 games and continue his upward trajectory, he should help a Lions secondary that looks like the weak link of the defense.
How likely is it Aaron Glenn gets a head coaching job in 2023?
There’s a good chance this is Glenn’s last season in Detroit. The Lions’ second-year defensive coordinator had two head coaching interviews last season, with the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, and made a favorable impression at both stops. He was so good in New Orleans, in fact, that Lions coach Dan Campbell thought he was going to lose Glenn for a brief period of time.
The Lions will need to finish better than last year’s 3-13-1 record for Glenn to get a head coaching job. Hiring a defensive coordinator from a team that bad is a hard sell for any fan base. But Glenn has the leadership traits and pedigree to be in the mix for most coaching vacancies this offseason, and if the Lions’ defense is even respectable, he will be viewed as a magician for his work.
If Glenn leaves, the Lions have a couple potential defensive coordinator replacements on staff in Todd Wash and Aubrey Pleasant (though Pleasant could join Glenn on his new team or land a DC job elsewhere). Everyone should be rooting for Glenn to get a job. He’d be the first Lions assistant to go directly to a head coaching gig since Chuck Knox in 1973, and it likely would mean the Lions had a good season.
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3 newcomers to watch
LB Malcolm Rodriguez: A sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, the linebacker affectionately known as “Rodrigo” was one of the biggest revelations of training camp. He quickly climbed the depth chart from third- to first-string, and appears to be in line to start Sunday’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Rodriguez, a high school quarterback, has advanced football instincts that allow him to quickly diagnose plays. He’s a physical hitter and potential impact run defender who also should have a primary role on special teams. The Lions have indicated they will platoon their linebackers, with Derrick Barnes and Chris Board also seeing time alongside Alex Anzalone. That’s probably wise, given Rodriguez’s size (5 feet 11, 230 pounds) and inexperience, but Rodriguez has the makings of a full-time starter down the road.
S DeShon Elliott: Elliott played well as a part-time starter with the Baltimore Ravens the past four seasons, when injuries were his biggest impediment to seeing the field. Elliott missed his entire rookie season with a broken forearm and spent time on IR in 2019 and 2021 with knee and biceps injuries. Healthy now, Lions coaches have raved about his chemistry with returning starter Tracy Walker and what their complementary skill sets will mean for the secondary. “Both of them have good range, both of them are good physical players, so I think they allow us to be interchangeable and kind of hide what we’re doing a little bit,” Lions safeties coach Brian Duker said last month.
CB Mike Hughes: Hughes enters the season as starting slot cornerback after the Lions waived AJ Parker at last week’s roster deadline. Parker played well at times last season as an undrafted rookie, but Hughes is a superior athlete who offers more in coverage. A first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, Hughes has struggled with injuries throughout his NFL career while bouncing between outside and slot cornerback duties. He played almost exclusively inside this summer, where the Lions believe his shiftiness and knack for creating turnovers (he forced four fumbles last season) will serve him well.
DE Charles Harris, Austin BryantDT Alim McNeill, Isaiah BuggsDT Michael Brockers, Levi OnwuzurikeDE Aidan Hutchinson, John CominskyILB Alex Anzalone, Chris BoardILB Malcolm Rodriguez, Derrick BarnesCB Jeff Okudah, Will HarrisCB Amani Oruwariye, Bobby PriceSCB Mike Hughes, Chase LucasS Tracy Walker, Kerby JosephS DeShon Elliott, Juju Hughes
K Austin SeibertP Jack FoxLS Scott DalyKR Craig Reynolds, Kalif RaymondPR Kalif Raymond, Amon-Ra St. Brown