Allen Park — After years of lacking adequate pass-rush production, the Detroit Lions suddenly have a wealth of quality edge rushers. That group is obviously led the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Aidan Hutchinson, but the depth is bolstered by the returns of Romeo Okwara and Charles Harris, who led the team in sacks the previous two seasons, respectively.
After a breakout season in 2021, Harris wasn’t able to shake a nagging groin injury last season, which limited him to six games.
“Charles has picked up where he left off from before the injury,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Charles is a pro. His approach to practice, walkthroughs, everything, you watch it, he’s on the details.”
Harris, a first-round pick in 2017, joined the Lions ahead of the 2021 season on a low-cost, one-year deal. He quickly worked his way up the depth chart and ended up starting 14 games after Okwara suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear.
Now, with his groin issues in the rear-view, Harris has been back working with the first-team defense. Still, Campbell said Harris has been approaching the offseason like he has to earn everything all over again.
“That’s his approach,” Campbell said. “To last in this league and be a good player in this league and produce, you have to have that mindset and he’s got it.”
Meanwhile, Okwara, who had 10 sacks in 2020, netting a three-year, $30 million extension the following offseason, missed more than a full year with the torn Achilles. He appeared in just five games last season, logging 119 snaps and two sacks.
But with another offseason to recover, he’s hopeful to return to the level of performance that earned he him that extension.
“I feel like I’m at maybe even at better place than I was at in terms of how my body feels like I did that year,” Okwara said. “I think I can make even strides this year.”
Hutchinson, Harris and Okwara are complemented by John Cominsky, an inside-outside option who re-signed with the Lions this offseason, second-year standout James Houston and Okwara’s younger brother, Julian.
Trying to carve a path
Running back Jermar Jefferson is an often-forgotten piece of general manager Brad Holmes‘ first draft class. The seventh-round pick’s first season was prematurely ended by injury, and he spent the entirety of his second campaign on the practice squad.
But outside the public eye, Jefferson has been steadily developing. Campbell said the young runner showed enough on the practice field last season to earn a main roster promotion, but the team just couldn’t get the math to work.
This offseason, Jefferson is getting an extended opportunity during the offseason program to show he merits a roster spot, getting plenty of work with the first-team offense while David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have been slowed by injuries.
“He’s having a good spring,” Campbell said. “And I think for somebody like Jefferson, he’s another guy, you’re going to feel a lot better when the pads come on. That’s kind of his type of game too. The style of runner that he is. But he’s doing well. He’s doing well in special teams too.”
Special teams could be the path for the third-year player out of Oregon State. That includes kick returner, where the Lions have a vacancy after not re-signing last year’s return man, Justin Jackson.
Not that Jonah Jackson is complaining, but the veteran guard hasn’t always benefited from continuity as a football player. In fact, this will be the first time since high school he can recall having the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons.
The silver lining, in his opinion, came from learning different offensive schemes and styles, which he feels helped ready him to play professionally. Still, Jackson is thrilled to continue working under coordinator Ben Johnson, who led the Lions to a top-five finish in yards and points last season.
Entering his fourth season, Jackson is eyeing improved consistency for himself and the offensive line as a whole. A Pro Bowler in 2021, he’s entering the final year of his current contract and primed to net a big pay day if he can solidify his resume with another strong season.
“Shoot, (I’m approaching this season) the same I have the past three years,” Jackson said. “Just putting my head down, going to work, showing up each day, training and just putting my best foot forward. If I do what I do, then everything else will fall in its place.”
At this stage, he said there haven’t been serious talk between the two sides about an extension, but he’s hopeful something eventually gets worked out.
“I’d love to retire a Lion,” Jackson said. “I love this city. I have a great time here, enjoy everything about it from the sports, to the people, to the cuisine. There’s nothing like it.”
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