As we head towards the dog days of summer and the start of Detroit Lions training camp, I wanted to take a few minutes to highlight four players on the defensive side of the ball that have breakout potential in 2022.
Although Detroit’s offense is far from perfect, they have the pieces in place to be a top-15 group in 2022. The defense, on the other hand, remains a work in progress. This past offseason, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes made a conscious effort to repair the abundance of holes on that side of the football through free agency and the NFL Draft.
Last season the Lions’ defense finished second-last in the league allowing 27.5 points per game. They also ranked 29th yielding 379.8 yards per contest.
Injuries are inevitable, but the Lions are due to have some luck in that department. By the end of last season, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was forced to use safety Will Harris as a starting outside corner. The team seemed to be looking for any able body to start at linebacker, and their top two edge-rushers missed significant time.
This year Holmes brought back a familiar face in linebacker Jarrad Davis. Davis is an ultra-athletic linebacker but struggled mightily to tackle ball-carriers in space during his first stint with the club.
Davis is still intriguing to me, and I wonder if Glenn and this current coaching staff will be able to get the best from the 27-year-old. Other key additions to this defense are safety DeShon Elliott. Elliott will start opposite Tracy Walker in Detroit’s secondary. Detroit also added cornerback Mike Hughes who is most effective working out of the slot but can slide to the outside.
Four breakout candidates on the defensive side of the football for the Detroit Lions in 2022
Aidan Hutchinson is poised to have a sensational rookie season for the Lions.
The Lions also trimmed the fat by finally cutting ties with Trey Flowers this offseason, opening the door for rookie Hutchinson. Hutchinson will work opposite Romeo Okwara and Charles Harris this season, with plenty of Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant, mixed in.
The Lions are certainly getting more of a pure rush with Hutchinson than they’ve seen from Flowers, and that is exactly what this defense has lacked for years.
In year one, Hutchinson will have the green light to pin his ears back and hunt the football right from day one. This is exactly what the Lions needed, and I am thrilled the Jacksonville Jaguars allowed the Michigan product to fall right into Detroit’s lap at no. 2 overall.
Hutchinson is coming off a record-setting season with the Wolverines, where he set school records with 14 sacks and 74 total pressures. Expect the 21-year-old to be in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year in 2022.
Jeff Okudah is a prime breakout candidate for the Detroit Lions
Just when everyone counts Jeff Okudah out, 2022 might be his year. The former no. 3 overall pick will likely never live up to his pre-draft hype, but in fairness to him, former Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn should have never selected a corner that early.
Taking a corner that high automatically puts unwarranted expectations for him to be the next Deion Sanders, Jalen Ramsey, or Darrelle Revis.
After two years of injury hell, Okudah suddenly looks healthy and ready to make an impact. If he’s fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles suffered in Week One of last season, he will have the first opportunity to work outside opposite Amani Oruwariye. Okudah was limited to just nine games as a rookie due to injury as well, so just being able to stay on the field and develop as a player in ’22 will be a win for the organization.
Oruwariye recently told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press this about Okudah;
“I think mentally probably is the biggest thing right now,” Oruwariye said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “I knew he would get back healthy, but mentally he’s amazing. He’s in great spirits, doing his thing, getting back, getting that Achilles and the whole body right in general. But I think we’re going to be excited just to get him back in the locker room, just his infectious attitude around the guys.”
But if Okudah falters, Jerry Jacobs, who emerged as an asset last season but is also rehabbing from a torn knee, will be waiting in the wings.
Alim McNeill has the makings of an all-around force inside for the Detroit Lions
Every year most of us have our draft crushes; last year, for me, one of them was Alim McNeill. The N.C. State product seemed to fit the mold of the perfect nose tackle the Detroit Lions were missing in their 3-4 defense since they received one year of production from veteran Damon Harrison.
After being so pumped Detroit drafted McNeill, he seemed to be a bit underwhelming, especially early on in his rookie season. As the year wore on, McNeill seemed to get more comfortable, and then we started to see the upbeat in production.
Despite the overall grade of 60.1 according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), McNeill finished the season with a 75.8 mark against Seattle in Week 17 and followed that up with a 79.5 grade against the Green Bay Packers in Week 18.
McNeill played just 422 defensive snaps as a rookie; expect a heavier dose of the big man in year two despite the Lions’ defense shifting to more of a four-man front. McNeill finished with 39 tackles and two sacks.
The opportunity is there for Derrick Barnes to solidify a starting role
The Detroit Lions desperately need an impact player at the second level of their defense, and Derrick Barnes might be that player.
Detroit selected Barnes with the 114th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft out of Purdue. Like McNeill, Barnes made more of an impact as the year grew old, finishing the season with 448 defensive snaps. Barnes failed to make an immediate mark appearing in just 51 defensive snaps over the first three games of the season.
PFF was not kind to the 22-year-old, granting him an atrocious overall grade of 30.1 as a rookie. Yikes. It should be impossible for Barnes to perform this poorly in year two, especially seeing his progress down the stretch. Barnes earned a stellar 80.8 mark in Week 16 against the Falcons. He’d follow that up with a solid 69.6 grade in Seattle, playing 40 snaps.
Barnes finished the year with 67 tackles and two sacks. I’d like to see the second-year linebacker emerge as an every-down performer this season.