The Detroit Lions training camp is nearly here and we continue to roll out our roster battle series to help you be prepared for the big event. So far, we have completed all of our offensive previews and opened our defensive previews by taking a closer look at the defensive tackle group. In this installment, we turn our attention to the EDGE, where the Lions have invested heavily during the rebuild.
If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out:
- Who is QB2 and will QB3 be on the 53-man roster?
- Sorting the running back depth chart
- Establishing a WR hierarchy
- Examining the TE2/3 competition
- Who is OT4 and will they make the roster?
- Who are the favorites for IOL4/5?
- Is there a DT depth problem?
Last season, the Lions’ edge rusher position was a mixed bag of impactful injuries and breakout successes. The Lions initially kept five edge rushers on their initial roster: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, and Charles Harris.
Flowers' season was, unfortunately, a reflection of his time in Detroit. He earned a starting role and was expected to be a leader of the defense, but injuries limited his ability to contribute. A shoulder injury suffered in the opener limited his action early in the season, followed by a knee injury in Week 2 that caused him to miss Weeks 3 and 4. The knee injury lingered and would eventually cost him the season when he re-aggravated it in Week 10.
Meanwhile, the Lions' other starter, Romeo Okwara, tore his Achilles in Week 4 and was also lost for the season. Romeo is currently still working through the rehabilitation process, was unable to practice this spring, and is expected to open training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
With both starters limited during the first half of the year and on injured reserve for the back half of the season, the Lions turned to their backups to fill the void. Enter Charles Harris. From potential bubble player to starter in Week 3, Harris saw a resurgence in his career after he played his best football as a professional. Harris seized the opportunity to start and the former first-round pick was easily the Lions' best defensive lineman throughout the season.
The other replacement starting role was split between Austin Bryant (38.2 percent of defensive snaps) and Julian Okwara (31.7 percent). Bryant was the technical starter, as he has a “base end” frame and skill set, but Julian was the more impactful player, especially as a pass rusher (Julian’s PFF pass rushing grade: 76.8, Bryant’s: 56.2). Jessie Lemonier and Rashod Berry were promoted to reserve roles as injury replacements, but only saw 14 and 5 percent of defensive snaps respectively. Both were re-signed after the season but neither is currently with the team.
Setting the table for 2022
The Lions entered the 2022 season with a plan of aggressively addressing the edge position, both in player talent and by adjusting the scheme.
The Lions had already begun sprinkling in their scheme adjustment late in the 2021 season, moving away from 3-4 looks and showing more four-man fronts. Coaches felt this shift played into the skill sets of their players better. Once the offseason hit, they also adjusted how they attack the offense, shifting from a reactionary first move, to an attacking first step. The idea behind these decisions was to get their athletes in better positions to pass rush and disrupt the offense.
The next step was addressing the talent to operate in this new scheme.
They opened the offseason with Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, and Bryant all under contract. But, despite being a scheme fit, Flowers was eventually released. At the end of the day, his play on the field fell short of his contract, and they opted to repurpose those funds elsewhere.
One of the places they spend their new cap space was by re-signing Harris, awarding him with a two-year contract worth $13 million with $7 million guaranteed. This was a nice bump in pay for Harris, while also not breaking the bank for the Lions. Re-signing Harris bumped the Lions back up to four edge rushers they felt comfortable with.
In the draft, the Lions continued to add to the position, selecting Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick, drafting Josh Paschal with pick No. 46, and grabbing James Houston in the sixth round at pick No. 217. All three players were at the top of the draft class in at least one of PFF’s grading systems:
2021 PFF pass rushing grade:
- Houston: 95.4, 1st in draft class among edge rushers
- Hutchinson: 93.4, 2nd in draft class among edge rushers
2021 PFF run defense grade:
- Hutchinson: 90.8, 1st in draft class among edge rushers
- Paschal: 90.2, 2nd in draft class among edge rushers
Once the Lions opened spring camp, their plan showed up on the field and it came with a few more nuances. The first noticeable difference was that they didn’t have just two static edge rusher roles, but instead, three different roles that players would shift between.
Role 1: Players like Hutchinson, Romeo Okwara, Paschal, and Bryant have skill sets that allow them to both operate as an edge rusher but also push inside to the 3-technique in obvious pass rushing sets. They also expanded this role to include Eric Banks—who previously operated as an interior lineman in the 2021 scheme—while also signing John Cominsky.
Role 2: The second role is the rush end, which is a player who can lineup with their hand in the dirt as well as stand up in an outside linebacker-type of role. Hutchinson, Romeo, Harris, and Julian Okwara all fit here.
Role 3: This hybrid role is suited for players who can operate mainly as outside linebackers (pass rushers), but also expand their game to an off-the-ball linebacker role. Julian Okwara, and Houston are prime examples here. Additionally, off-the-ball linebackers Jarrad Davis and Natrez Patrick saw some time in this role in the spring, while Anthony Pittman has played this role in past seasons.
The second noticeable difference was that not only were they willing to play their edge rushers all over the field, but they would often play three or four edge rushers in obvious pass rushing sets.
This multifaceted approach on the edge makes using the previous year's approaches to predict the number of edge rushers the Lions will keep in 2022 unreliable. On the one hand, this approach is why Jeremy and I (Erik) have felt comfortable reducing the number of interior defensive tackles in our 53-man projection. On the other, we still ended up keeping just five edge rushers in our 53-man roster prediction—as in previous years—even though we tried to keep a sixth.
This will be a topic we revisit in our discussion section.
The Lions have a plethora of options on the edge with seven defensive ends and at least three hybrid linebackers. Of those players, four of them have contracts with more guaranteed money than their 2022 cap hit, meaning, it would cost more to release the player than keep them on the roster. Those four players also happen to be arguably the top edge players on the roster: Hutchinson, Romeo Okwara, Harris, and Paschal.
With Romeo likely heading for the PUP, and three roles occupied, that leaves two or three spots remaining for the players in the battleground.
Julian Okwara (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) is the ideal hybrid player in this scheme and the Lions used him all over the field in the spring, working with both the edge rusher and linebacker units. He rushed standing up in base, with his hand in the dirt in subpackages and even dropped into coverage at times. His role is very similar to the edge roles from last year, which isn’t necessarily suited for a starting role in the new scheme, but he has the potential to be a valuable specialist.
James Houston (6-foot-1, 244 pounds) is a bit of a wild card. He clearly has a knack for rushing the passer but he wants to play off-the-ball linebacker and coaches were willing to give him the opportunity to do that early in the spring. The problem is, he was understandably overwhelmed with a wealth of information to process, and by the end of OTAs, he saw his role reduced so that he could focus on his best trait: pass rushing. Houston’s upside is very appealing but the question remains: are the Lions able/willing to allocate a roster spot for him and wait for him to develop?
Jarrad Davis (6-foot-1, 242 pounds) could be the player who keeps Houston off the roster. Davis is a true off-the-ball linebacker, but his ability to bend the edge is incredibly effective. His work ethic, tenacity, and athleticism allow him to play several different roles on the football field, even if he’s not a master of any of them. Exiting the spring, he was ahead of Houston in almost all aspects of their games.
Natrez Patrick (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) was signed one week before OTAs but he appeared to be working through an injury and missed some time in the spring. There’s some history here with general manager Brad Holmes, as Patrick signed with the Rams as a UDFA in 2019. He played the edge as an outside linebacker for the Rams but has off-the-ball experience dating back to his days at Georgia.
The defensive linemen
Austin Bryant (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) is often overlooked due to his injury history and PFF grades (54.5 in 2019, 54.8 in 2020, and 54.5 in 2021) but it’s important to note that under this coaching staff last season, he started five games and recorded the only five sacks of his career. With the ability to be a base end and push inside on passing downs, Bryant could get a lot of valuable reps in camp if Paschal is still recovering from injury.
John Cominsky (6-foot-5, 285 pounds) was a fourth-round pick by the Falcons in 2019, but an overhaul of the front office and coach staff led to his release this offseason. The Lions were one of eight teams that put in a waiver for the athletic lineman and after a short acclimation period, he took reps at defensive end and at the 3-technique in the spring.
Eric Banks (6-foot-5, 289 pounds) began his career with the Rams as a UDFA in 2020, joined the Chargers in the 2021 offseason, and was claimed by the Lions early in the regular season. He stayed active on the roster for about a month but saw no game action and reverted to the practice squad. Banks was also injured most of spring camp, so it’s hard to say exactly where he will be used in this scheme, but he has the body type and experience to be a big end and/or defensive tackle.
Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Hutchinson, Harris, Paschal, Julian Okwara (LB), and Jarrad Davis (LB), while allocating Romeo Okwara to the PUP list. We really tried to keep a sixth healthy edge rusher, and we both seemed to favor Houston for that role, but had a hard time finding room.
So Jeremy, throughout these preview articles we have held pretty firm on our original projections, with the one exception being at quarterback where we are now leaning on keeping just two signal callers instead of three. Therefore, if we indeed did free up a roster spot, are you still thinking adding a sixth edge rusher is the best way to use it?
Jeremy: Short answer, yes. Long answer, either here or defensive back, and for the same reason. Detroit has so many versatile pieces here that keeping extra edge players means also keeping an extra defensive tackle or an extra linebacker (with defensive backs, you have some players who can back up three spots—outside corner, nickelback, and safety).
Is Houston still your next guy in if we keep an extra one?
Erik: Honestly, he was before I started writing this piece, but now, reflecting on how the coaching staff used Bryant, I’m not so sure it’s as clear-cut. Houston is of course a dynamic pass rusher with upside, but he would also slot in third in that role behind Julian Okwara and Davis, whereas Bryant—or even Cominsky—might be higher up at one of the defensive end spots. Now, I’m not writing Houston off here, and he could still be the best option, but this will be more of a position battle than I originally thought.
Jeremy: It’s important to note, too, that we went back and forth on Davis vs. Houston. That is far from settled, and Houston obviously has youth and upside on his side. Training camp will be huge for both. As for adding a more pure defensive lineman, it certainly isn’t out of the question. The more you can do—both on defense and special teams—the better your chance, and Bryant, Cominsky, and even Banks have some versatility to them.