The Detroit Lions largely ignored their need at pass rusher in the 2018 NFL draft. Despite it being the biggest hole on the roster last spring, they neglected to address it in the first two days of the draft.
In the fourth round they finally made an addition to their pass rushing arsenal, when they selected Alabama defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand.
Hand was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2014 coming out of Woodbridge High School in Northern Virginia. Many expected him to commit to the University of Michigan, but he surprised the college football world by joining the Alabama Crimson Tide.
He was largely ineffective in Tuscaloosa, only racking up 71 combined tackles and nine sacks. Hand did stack up some hardware, though, leaving for the NFL as a two-time national champion and three-time SEC champion.
Not much was expected out of the rookie in year one, but he proved to be a star. He was the most effective pass rusher on the Lions defensive front and was the best interior pass penetrator to wear a Lions uniform since Ndamukong Suh.
His stats don’t jump off the page, only being credited with 27 combined tackles and three sacks before his season ended with a late-season knee injury. He did notch two forced fumbles, though.
While Hand was drafted as a defensive end out of Alabama, he primarily played on the interior of the defensive line in his rookie year. Before the arrival or Damon Harrison Sr. midway through the year, Hand played a lot of snaps at nose tackle.
He was very effective when he rushed from the nose. Hand is incredibly strong and is great off of the snap. He uses his hands well and is able to come off of the snap fast and get beneath the pads of his opposition. The rookie gets inside leverage and has the strength— and effort—to collapse the interior of the pocket and force the quarterback to drop into a more vulnerable spot.
On this play against the Green Bay Packers, he beats a double team from the nose position to chase down quarterback Aaron Rodgers and force a fumble.
Hand is able to quickly get across the body of the center on this play and drive between the center and the guard who comes over to help. He is able to swat away the arms from both, and once the center goes elsewhere to help, Hand has already dispatched the guard and has a free run at Rodgers.
He is effective from other positions on the interior as well. On this play against the Seattle Seahawks, he bursts into the backfield after rushing from 1-tech, forcing quarterback Russell Wilson into a tough throw:
Hand comes off of the snap fast and attacks the center’s left shoulder. He get beneath the lineman’s pads and drives him back before the right guard can come around and help on the double team. The defender is able to quickly get deep into the Seahawks’ backfield and then throw the center into the ground. He gets a free run at Wilson and forces the quarterback into a tough, low percentage, throw.
The rookie is versatile. He can rush from anywhere on the defensive front, including on the edge. While he performs better rushing from four point stance inside, he can be effective as a stand-up rusher on the edge.
On this play against the Packers, he manages to contain Rodgers, which seemed to be the gameplan that day, and eventually beats two offensive lineman to flush the quarterback out of the pocket.
Hand comes off of the edge on this play and is able to drive the tackle back far enough to not allow the quarterback any room to his right. A second blocker arrives to double Hand, but he is eventually able to use his great hands to disengage, get into the pocket, and flush out Rodgers.
While the rookie does not have the bend to be a consistently effective edge rusher, he has the strength and relentlessness to cause havoc on the edge. He never gives up on plays and is never content being blocked. His hands never stop moving, always prying for an opening.
He is not just a pass rusher, though. The tackle performed well against the run all year and has a great understanding of how to hold his gap while also moving with the play to close down on runners horizontally.
While Detroit’s run defense was terrible early on in the year, Hand’s play was the only thing that kept it from being an absolute disaster. Even before the arrival of Harrison—who is one of the greatest run defenders of all time and whose presence was a boost to everyone up front—the rookie was able to hold his own in the running game.
Hand’s ability to get the jump on his opponent off the snap and get beneath their pads makes him extremely hard to move out of the way in run defense. He rarely loses his gap and can stuff plays when they come in his direction.
On this play the Dallas Cowboys attempt to run Ezekiel Elliott in his direction, and he shuts them down.
Hand is lined up at 5-tech. He is blocked by a tight end, while the tackle on that side chips him off of the snap. The Cowboys hand the ball off to Elliott to run up the middle, but with linebacker Jarrad Davis there to stuff the run, he looks outside to his right. The defensive lineman is able to get beneath the pads of the tight end blocking him and drive him back a yard, as Elliott looks to run towards him, Hand is able to collapse the outside and set the edge. This leaves the running back with no room to operate, and Hand is able to tackle him for a loss.
The rookie’s smart, strong, relentless play made him a great piece in run defense when lined up at 3-tech or 5-tech. While Harrison and Ricky Jean Francois took over nose duties for the most part, Hand took roles outside and was often tasked with setting the edge to force runners back to the interior. The rookie was great at diagnosing plays and putting himself in great position to contain runs. Combined with his constant motor, this made him a force in run defense up front.
On this play against the Carolina Panthers, Francois does a great job blowing up the middle to force running back Christian McCaffrey outside. While space was there for the running back at first, Hand does a great job working his way back outside to contain the run.
Hand is lined up at 3-tech here, and the tackle to his left instantly tries to attack his outside shoulder to shove him inside and open up room on the edge. The defensive tackle quickly realizes where the run is going and is able to quickly get his hands around the tackle and work his way across his opponent’s body. He ends up plugging the hole that McCaffery wanted and forces the running back inside.
The defensive lineman’s great play instincts occasionally show themselves in ways that you would not expect from an interior defender. On this play against the Packers, he recognizes the screen pass and quickly gets outside to contain it.
The guard across from Hand chips him and quickly jets outside here. Hand instantly recognizes what’s going on, quickly shoves off another blocker and gets out wide. He gets outside the running back who catches the screen and does not allow him a free run to the sideline. The running back is forced back inside and the Lions defenders are able to gang tackle him to prevent a worthwhile gain on the play.
Hand is a stud.
He is a smart player with the perfect athletic profile needed to have long-term success in the NFL. The defensive tackle fell in the draft because many doubted his ability at the next level. He did not produce at all in college and he was thought to be more of a long-term project rather than a instant contributor. Hand shocked everyone in his rookie year, and was one of the best young defensive tackles in football last season.
In a league where versatile interior defenders who can pass penetrate and stop the run have become especially useful, Hand is exactly what the Lions need. He is an incredible player with a sky-high ceiling. While there is always a chance that he undergoes a sophomore slump or regresses in the future, for now it looks like the Detroit Lions have found a franchise piece that they can build around for the next decade.