Several Detroit Lions rookies were playing out of their minds. Smashing quarterbacks. Making interceptions. Climbing into the record books. And winning games.
James Houston was getting sacks, seemingly every time he started to bend and turn the corner.
Aidan Hutchinson was doing a little of everything, getting sacks, pressures and interceptions.
And Malcolm Rodriguez was already staring in commercials.
But Josh Paschal, the Lions second-round draft pick, was just there. Not really doing anything of note.
Paschal’s rookie season was slowed by injury. When he finally started to get healthy, he wasn’t much of a factor in his first four games.
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“When in the hell are we gonna see this player we drafted?” Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash asked Paschal last week.
It was a frank and brutally honest challenge — that’s how the Lions coaches approach their players — and it hit Paschal hard.
“It was a wake-up call,” Paschal said.
Paschal responded in the win over Chicago last week with the first two sacks of his NFL career, a tremendous breakout performance that the coaches had been waiting for.
“I went back to flying around and having fun,” Paschal said. “That’s the big thing.”
Paschal felt like a new player. He stopped thinking and just started playing again, like he did at Kentucky, where he had 13.5 sacks in 52 career games.
“It’s a testament to the guys around me, to the D-lineman that we have in the room for us to just be able to go out there and enjoy each other and play fast,” Paschal said.
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But it’s also something more.
It’s a small reflection of how the Lions’ coaching staff has pulled potential out of these rookies. It’s one thing to draft players with tremendous upside; it’s another to actually get them to perform, whether that means teaching technique or teaching assignments or pushing the right motivational buttons.
“Yeah, they’ve done a good job overcoming coaching,” Wash said, modestly. “It’s a credit to them.”
More than just beginner’s luck
Actually, it’s a credit to the entire organization.
Paschal is just the latest rookie to emerge from this tremendous, talented, deep rookie class that has significantly altered the trajectory of this franchise. It’s the best thing to come out of this season.
Lions rookies have recorded 18.5 sacks, the second-most in NFL history, just a half sack away from tying the record (Tennessee Titans in 1999).
“I think the best way to describe our room is that there’s no ego, everybody is really selfless,” Paschal said. “We got a lot of guys giving their all for their teammates.”
More than anything, all of these sacks are a reflection of everything working together — the blend of veterans and youngsters. Because every sack can be traced back to an entire team effort — from the defensive call, to the film study, to the secondary discipline and technique, to the defensive front.
“We’ve got a good mix of vets and young guys who are hungry,” Wash said. “The vets are obviously hungry to win. But it’s an enjoyable group to coach.”
Houston (sixth round) leads all rookies with eight sacks — the most sacks through six games in NFL history. Just for comparison, Ndamukong Suh holds the Lions rookie single-season sack record with 10 in 2010.
“He’s pretty resilient,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “I mean, he doesn’t quit. He goes hard, he is slippery, he’s strong.”
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Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick last spring, ranks first in the NFL in total pressures (50) and first in quarterback hurries (36), according to Pro Football Focus. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in November.
“He’s everything we’ve wanted, man,” Campbell said. “I mean this guy’s a football player, and with the number two pick in the draft, we got a freaking — we got a football-playing dude, man, who’s high motor, and he’s versatile as hell.”
Hutchinson, Paschal, Rodriguez (sixth round), Houston and safety Kerby Joseph (third round) have combined for an rookie-high 87 total pressures.
Which is tremendous production.
And we haven’t even mentioned the offense.
Tight end James Mitchel, a fifth-rounder, has 10 catches and a touchdown in 13 games.
And Jameson Williams, a first rounder, is coming off a knee injury but the Lions are slowly unveiling his talent. He had a 40-yard reverse against Chicago.
“Each week, we’re trying to push the envelope a little bit and maybe learn a couple of different routes that he hasn’t been taught yet or put him a little different spot,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “Each week we’re trying to do that and it’s just how fast can we get him along, feeling comfortable with it and it’s been — I hoped it would click just a little bit faster than it has, I think we all have. But that’s — it takes time sometimes and we’re not losing faith, we’re going to keep pressing it and it’ll end up clicking at some point he’ll have a big game and be like, ‘OK, that’s why. That’s why we took him where we took him.’ And that’s why he can help us so much.”
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‘The right kind of guys’
After the 2022 draft, the Lions brought the rookies together for developmental meetings.
“It’s kind of like your freshman orientation when you get to college,” Mitchell said. “That’s kind of where your class really comes together and I think everybody kind of grew fond of each other in that time. That’s where a lot of different friendships were built.”
They stayed in the same hotel and started to develop a strong chemistry and found that they all shared so many things. The grit and work ethic and drive that the Lions front office talks about.
“You start to develop some chemistry when you spend a month and a half or two months in a hotel,” Rodriguez said.
It is clear that this rookie class has already formed the foundation of the future and one of the reasons — one of the huge reasons — why the Lions have a chance at the playoffs.
If the Lions beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and if the Rams beat Seattle, the Lions will claim a spot in the playoffs.
The opportunity is tremendous, not just for this season, but for the experience.
On Sunday, these rookies will learn what it is like in a playoff environment, and the coaches will find out who can handle the pressure.
“I think we got the right kind of guys in our class that’ll be ready for the challenge,” Mitchell said. “And it’ll be great experience because I feel like we will play in a lot more games like this next year.”
One thing can be lost when a team is rolling through a season.
You forget that these players are experiencing so many firsts. Sunday night will be their first game at Lambeau Field.
“A lot of guys have told me, like Alex (Anzalone), what it’s like at Lambeau,” Rodriguez said. “He said it’s a different type of atmosphere. You know, I’m excited and can’t wait to get out there. And it’s a night game. So that’s a first for me.”
It’s a first for all of them.
The first night game.
And the first game with the playoffs on the line.
But I have a sneaking suspicion, it won’t be the last.
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Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.
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