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Detroit Lions still confident, patient in young defensive tackles

Levi Onwuzurike and Brodric Martin may not be contributing much right now, but the Detroit Lions believe in their future.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Over the past three years, the Detroit Lions have invested a lot of draft picks on their defensive front. Their line features five players drafted on either Day 1 or Day 2 of the past three drafts. While Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, and Josh Paschal are now regular and productive members of the line, two stand out for not having a big impact yet in their early careers: 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike and 2023 third-round pick Brodric Martin.

For Onwuzurike, it’s been a tough road battling through injury. While he played in all 16 games in his rookie season, his body was not right. Dealing with a back injury, he often couldn’t just sit down in meetings, and it clearly impacted his play on the field.

“At the end of my rookie year, I was thankful that I just survived it,” Onwuzurike wrote in an essay published earlier this year. “Seriously. I played 16 games, but not at the level I wanted. A part of me wondered, ‘Is this what the rest of my career will look like? I don’t want to play like this forever. I don’t want my back to feel like this forever.’”

After electing to have season-ending surgery in 2022, Onwuzurike is back and—according to him—beyond the physical and mental hurdles of the back injury. Yet despite that, the defensive tackle has yet to make an impact on the game. He’s played in more than 15 snaps just once all season and has been a healthy scratch in three of the four last contests.

Defensive line coach John Scott Jr., though, still sees a bright future in Onwuzurike.

“I think we sometimes forget Levi basically missed a year and a half of football,” Scott said on Tuesday. “That’s a huge learning curve when you’re not able to get out on the field. Levi is another guy. He has some great talent. We see progression every day — It’ll come for Levi.”

It’s a different story for Martin. Coming out of Western Kentucky—a relatively small Conference USA program—the rookie was expected to be more of a long-term project, even if he was selected on Day 2 of the draft.

“He’s got some rawness, but we’re really excited about his upside,” general manager Brad Holmes said the night the Lions drafted him.

After being a healthy scratch for the first seven games of the year, Martin made a modest debut last Monday against the Raiders, playing in just 11 snaps and recording a single tackle.

“Anytime you get experience, especially on that stage in an NFL game, that’s always really, really good,” Scott said. “There are some positives and negatives that come with that. There are some things, Brod would tell you as well, that he’s got to improve and continue to work and improve upon to be the type of player that he wants to be in this league.”

Martin was notably on the field during the Raiders’ one successful offensive drive. The rookie defensive tackle participated in the five snaps before Vegas got into the red zone. On those plays the Raiders managed 41 yards, including 22 yards on just three carries.

However, Scott saw enough promise out there—and enough work getting put in during practices—to believe Martin is trending in the right direction to be a regular contributor.

“He’s made some strides. But like every player, you’ve got to continue to make strides and you’ve got to continue to put that work in to get to where you want to be,” Scott said. “And that’s what he’s doing. The guy comes to work every day. He practices hard. He gets extra afterward. It’ll come with time. It’s one of those things, it’s muscle memory, man. The more you do it. The more you do it. The easier it comes.”

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