Sauce Gardner wins NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Detroit Lions’ Aidan Hutchinson 2nd

Detroit Free Press

Aidan Hutchinson said being passed over for the first pick in last year’s NFL draft “will stick with me forever.” Now, the Detroit Lions defensive end has another sleight to use for motivation.

Hutchinson, the second pick of last year’s draft, finished second in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting announced Thursday, behind New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner.

Gardner, a Detroit native, earned first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie, intercepting two passes and recording an NFL-high 20 passes defensed this season for a Jets team that finished 7-10 and ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring defense.

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In his acceptance speech, Gardner thanked his family, his coaches in little league, high school (Detroit King), college (Cincinnati) and current team, but saved a special shoutout for last.

“Last but not least, I’ve got to thank Detroit,” Gardner said during the NBC telecast of the NFL Honors show. “The eastside of Detroit, man. Seven Mile, it was hard growing up, man, it really was. The neighborhood that I stayed in, a lot of violence going on. A lot of adversity, but that’s what it took to get here.”

Hutchinson led all NFL rookies with 9½ sacks and was twice named Defensive Rookie of the Month, in November and December/January. The Lions went 9-8 and finished with their first winning record since 2017, but gave up the most yards and tied for the third-most points in the NFL.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Tariq Woolen (six interceptions) was the other finalist for the award, which is selected annually by a panel of 50 sportswriters.

Gardner received 46 of the 50 first-place votes to go with four second-place nods, finishing with 242 points. Hutchinson received three first-place votes, 35 second-place picks and nine third-place votes, meaning there were three ballots that left him off completely.

Another member of the Lions, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, finished second in the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year voting to 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, now the head coach in Houston.

Hutchinson had five sacks and three interceptions in 10 games after Halloween, when the Lions went 8-2 after making bye-week adjustments to their defense scheme and personnel to narrowly miss the playoffs.

Hutchinson played more as a stand-up pass rusher in the second half of the season, and primarily as the team’s left end on first and second downs. He had an acrobatic interception on the goal line of a November win over the Green Bay Packers, recovered a fumble and had another interception two weeks later in a win over the New York Giants and had two sacks in the Lions’ season-ending win over the Packers at Lambeau Field.

After the Packers game, Hutchinson told reporters, “the future is very bright for the Lions.”

“It was a lot of learning, definitely a lot of ups and downs but I’m happy to have ended it on this note and now I can move on to 2023 and look forward to this next season and really improve so much this offseason,” he said.

A Michigan native who starred at the University of Michigan, Hutchinson is expected to be a key cog in the Lions’ young defense going forward.

Teammate James Houston finished second among NFL rookies with eight sacks, sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez started 15 games at linebacker, third-rounder Kerby Joseph had four interceptions after moving into the starting lineup at safety in place of an injured Tracy Walker and second-rounder Josh Paschal was a sometimes starter on the defensive line.

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Collectively, Lions rookies finished with seven interceptions, tied for most in the NFL this season, and 20.5 sacks, the most in NFL history.

“I think ultimately, any of your draft picks, you just want to see, you want to see them develop,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said in his end-of-season news conference. “You want to see them get a little bit better every week. You want to see that a mistake that they made early, they don’t make again. And really, they’ve all done that, and that includes Aidan. And I go back to this, I mean he – he didn’t just walk in the door and all of a sudden all these great things happen. I mean, he goes into Washington, he has three sacks, and then it’s expected that he’ll have three sacks every week from then on, and that’s just not the reality. But the fact is he was disruptive, and he’s a football player, and he did improve, he did get better. And they all did.”

Hutchinson had the best showing by a Lions player in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting since Ndamukong Suh won the award in 2010. Bubba Baker (1978) and Lem Barney (1967) are the only other Lions to win Defensive Rookie of the Year since the award’s inception in 1967.

Billy Sims (1980) and Barry Sanders (1989) are the only Lions to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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