The Detroit Lions defense struggled in 2021, ranking 31st in points allowed, 32nd in net yards per pass attempt allowed, and 21st in yards per carry allowed. But given the crater of a roster this team was handed—including bloated contracts of players like Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant that had to be discarded—and the tough injuries they suffered, the Lions did what they could.
There were a ton of young players who were thrust into the lineup, both by design and out of necessity. And while many of them displayed the kind of struggles you’d expect from a young, inexperienced athlete, most at least showed a level of improvement as the season went on, and a few established themselves as legitimate starting or depth options in 2022 and beyond.
Here are our selections for the 2021 Detroit Lions Defensive Player of the Year.
- Breakout Player of the Year
- Special Teams Player of the Year
- Rookie of the Year
- Coach of the Year
- Game of the Year
2021 Detroit Lions Defensive Player of the Year
Kellie Rowe: Amani Oruwariye
In a depleted secondary, Oruwariye was a lone bright spot who took a solid step forward this year. The third-year cornerback is coming off his best season: 57 tackles, 11 passes defended, and six interceptions—the most by a Lion since Darius Slay in 2017. Although injured for a chunk of the season, like pretty much every other player in that unit, Oruwariye came up with some big, game-changing plays in 2021.
John Whiticar: Charles Harris
Nobody predicted this type of season from Charles Harris. Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers were expected to lead the pass rush, but early injuries forced Harris into a bigger role, and he shined. He’s no Watt or Bosa, but on a defense devoid of talent, he was one of the few consistent contributors. From first-round bust to best pass rusher on the team, Harris turned out to be an excellent reclamation project.
Erik Schlitt: Charles Harris
From a potential roster bubble to a Lions’ DPOY nomination is quite a ride for Harris. He put together his best season as a professional and was a productive contributor both as a pass rusher and run defender. He has said Detroit fits what he is looking for in a permanent team, Lions coaches would be “ecstatic” to get him back, but it’ll really come down to money and how much of a raise he has earned.
Mike Payton: Tracy Walker
Tracy Walker’s resurgence is why you watch football. You hope to see a guy turn things around and bounce back strong. That’s exactly what Walker did en route to being one of the best safeties in the NFL in 2021.
Ryan Mathews: Charles Harris
Charles Harris was the team’s defensive player of the year, and I’d be lying if this wasn’t influenced by how Harris landed in Detroit. A former first-round pick who never panned out, Harris signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract this past offseason, and many thought his roster bubble would pop during training camp. Instead, Harris became the team’s top edge rusher after Romeo Okwara’s season ended with an Achilles injury. According to Pro Football Focus, Harris finished 19th in hurries (36) and ninth in defensive stops (41) amongst edge rushers in 2021—and earned himself an absolute bag in the process of being Detroit’s defensive player of the year.
Morgan Cannon: Amani Oruwariye
While I would hesitate to call Oruwariye a shutdown corner, he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time in order to make a play. Oruwariye forced seven total turnovers in 2021 (six interceptions and one fumble recovered), with several coming at crucial points in the game. Extra possessions, especially for an offense that was as limited as the Lions were at times, can make or break teams.
Chris Perfett: Tracy Walker
Walker is fantastic. He’s earned whatever money is coming his way. That’s all.
Hamza Baccouche: Charles Harris
Harris really stepped up in the absence of Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers and revitalized not only his career but the entire Lions' defense with it. Harris led many statistical categories measuring success in pass-rushing by the end of the season, which enabled lots of opportunities for guys like Austin Bryant and Julian Okwara. In a year when the Lions were decimated on the backend, having some semblance of a pass rush was critical to keeping UDFAs and youngsters looking decent in coverage, and Harris managed to make that happen.
Jeremy Reisman: Charles Harris
As much as I’d like to go against the grain here, I can’t. Harris was both the best and most consistent player on the Lions' defense. And while everyone above me did a good job outlining his impact as a pass rusher, I want to reiterate that Harris was just as impressive setting the edge in the run. Harris finished sixth among all NFL edge defenders in run-stop win rate and led the Lions in PFF’s “stops”—or tackles that represent a “failure” for the offense.
But to also highlight his team dominance as a pass rusher, PFF credited him with 52 pressures on the year. The next closest player, Julian Okwara, had 21.
Who was the Lions’ Defensive Player of the Year?
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