Aidan Hutchinson lived up to expectations as the No. 2 pick of last year’s draft, and James Houston far exceeded forecasts for his production as a sixth-round choice.
Hutchinson and Houston gave the Detroit Lions one of the NFL’s best young pass-rushing duos down the stretch last season, and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said he’s confident the third member of that group, Josh Paschal, is ready to make his presence felt this fall.
“Absolutely,” Glenn said last week. “I feel like this player’s going to be a good player for us.”
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Paschal missed all of training camp and the start of last season after undergoing sports hernia surgery, then missed two November games with a knee injury.
He returned as a rotational end for the final six weeks of the season and logged his only two sacks in a Week 17 win over the Chicago Bears.
“I mean, this is a guy, when you think about his path, like he really didn’t get a chance to have an OTA last year cause he was injured, he really didn’t have much of a training camp cause he was injured, and I think he only played, what, (10 games)?” Glenn said. “So we’re expecting that player to be the player that we drafted in the second round, and actually improving because he’s had this time to be in the training room, to work with our strength staff, work with our coach, understand exactly what we need out of him.”
The Lions’ belief in Paschal — he finished last season with 16 tackles and four quarterback hits — and his ability to play both as a big end and help as an interior rusher in sub packages is one reason they mostly eschewed help for their defensive line while overhauling the rest of their last-ranked defense this offseason.
Hutchinson (9½ sacks), Houston (eight), Paschal (two) and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (one) combined for 20 ½ sacks last season, an NFL rookie record.
The Lions signed three starters for their secondary and drafted middle linebacker Jack Campbell at No. 18 overall. Up front, they added only nose tackle Brodric Martin, a third-round pick, to a group that returns its top eight players (in terms of snaps played) but was home to one of their biggest perceived weaknesses (interior pass rush).
Glenn said he is comfortable with the resources the Lions have used on their defensive line, and downplayed concerns at the tackle position.
Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs return as starters on the interior line, but Levi Onwuzurike remains out after missing all of last season with back surgery. Martin and Benito Jones currently project as the Lions’ top interior backups, and Glenn said undrafted free-agent defensive tackles Cory Durden (North Carolina State) and Chris Smith (Notre Dame) could help at some point this season, too.
“Here’s what I feel a coach should do, coach the players you got,” Glenn said. “You saw in the second half of the season how Buggs played, how Mac (McNeill) played, and now going and getting a guy of Brodric’s size and length. Even some of these undrafted free agents that we got, I think these guys may help us also.”
McNeill opened last season as the Lions’ starting nose tackle but played more as a three-technique after a midseason schematic adjustment. Glenn said McNeill will play both interior line spots this fall, and touted the third third-year tackle’s offseason improvement.
McNeill changed his diet to eliminate red meat and candy this offseason and added yoga and a regular stretching routine.
“This guy is serious about how he’s going to go out there, and he’s serious about how he wants to be perceived by everybody else,” Glenn said. “I just look forward to seeing how he’s going to operate throughout the season. This is a damn good player for us. We’re looking forward to seeing how he’s going to improve.”
As for the 6 feet 5, 330-pound, Martin, Glenn said his size and length will help the rest of the Lions’ defense and compared the rookie to former Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowler.
“You coach who you got, you build a scheme to where they can be successful and you figure it out as you go, what they can do best, and try to help them as much as possible,” Glenn said. “So I have all the confidence in the world in the guys that we’ve got. And I do believe those guys are going to do a really good job. I do believe that.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.