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Detroit Lions 2023 training camp battles: Could 7 EDGE rushers make the roster?

The Detroit Lions return seven edge rushers from their 2022 season but are there enough roles for all of them to make the roster in 2023?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Ryan Garza / USA TODAY NETWORK

Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is almost here and we’re continuing our roster battle series to help you prepare. So far we have completed the offense and interior defensive line players and are focusing our attention on one of the deepest groups on the team: edge rushers.

If you missed any of the series, here’s what we have covered:

Alright, let’s dig into the Lions' edge rushers.

Understanding the Lions' EDGE roles

In the Lions' defensive scheme, they lean on three different types of edge rusher roles. It’s important to understand how each work in order to recognize the value of each player's skill set.

Role 1: The “open (rush) end” is a player who can exist in a variety of defensive concepts. They can line up standing outside the tackle box, with their hand in the dirt on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, and occasionally kick inside to the 3-technique in obvious pass rushing situations. Players who fit this role include Aidan Hutchinson, Romeo Okwara, Charles Harris, and UDFA rookie Zach Morton.

Role 2: The “closed (big) end” is a player who primarily lines up with their hand in the dirt on the “strong side” (the side the tight end lines up on) of the formation. They slide up and down the line, ranging from heads up with the tight end down to the 3-technique. Players who fit this role include John Cominsky and Josh Paschal.

Role 3: The hybrid linebacker, which the Lions designate their “SAM”, typically lines up on the strong side of the formation outside of the closed end. They are stand up pass rushers who, ideally, have the skill set to occasionally drop into coverage, but are typically used to get after the quarterback. Players who fit this role include James Houston, Julian Okwara, and Anthony Pittman (who will be discussed in the off-the-ball linebacker article).

Setting the table

In 2022, the Lions' edge roles evolved as the year wore on. When the season began, the Lions opened up with Hutchinson at closed end, Harris on the open side, Julian Okwara at the SAM, with Cominsky and Austin Bryant as reserves. Romeo Okwara and Paschal were on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and James Houston was on the practice squad.

By Week 5, injuries had begun to take their toll on the group—Cominksy broke his wrist and Harris would eventually land on injured reserve—leaving the Lions looking for new combinations of contributors. After the bye in Week 6, the Lions introduced their new defensive approach, and it included some shuffling of roles.

Hutchinson was shifted to the open end which allowed him more freedom to cause havoc on opposing linemen. Cominsky—now in a working cast—was promoted to starting closed end, and Paschal was removed from the PUP to help absorb some of Cominsky’s snaps while he acclimated through his injury.

For the most part, this new defensive concept would stay in place for the remainder of the season, only adjusting for injuries along the way.

The most two notable injury adjustments came in Weeks 12 and 13. When Paschal was unable to play on Thanksgiving, Houston was elevated from the practice squad for the game. His five-snap, two-sack, and fumble-recovery performance earned him a spot on the active roster and a starting SAM role after Julian Okwara landed on injured reserve. The following week, Romeo Okwara was removed from the PUP list, and over the next five weeks, he would line up at both open and closed end spots.

In the offseason, the Lions were aggressive in making sure as many players from their edge group returned as possible. Cominsky was signed to a new two-year contract, while Romeo Okwara and Harris restructured their contracts, taking pay cuts to stay in Detroit. The only player who did not return for the 2023 season was reserve, Austin Bryant. The only new addition was Detroit native Zach Morton, who signed as an undrafted free agent.

Roster construction

Despite returning seven edge rushers (and adding an eighth following the draft), the Lions operated with five, and no more than six, edge rushers in any game in 2022. This was most likely a direct result of injuries, but it also speaks to the point that game-day roster construction makes it difficult to create space for seven players from this group.

That being said, when you explore the positional versatility of the returning seven players, as well as how their contracts are structured, it’s entirely possible the Lions could retain as many as seven players from this group.

For example, Hutchinson, Cominsky, Paschal, Romeo Okwara, and Harris all have more guarantees built into their contracts than cap hits in 2023. Meaning, it costs either the same or, in most cases, more to release any of these five players as opposed to keeping them on the roster. The only returning players who are contractually vulnerable are Julian Okwara and Houston—the two primary options at SAM.

The battleground

Hutchinson and Cominsky look primed to return to their starting roles, and their contracts all but guarantee they are locks for the roster. Paschal also appears locked in and should start the season as a closed end reserve.

Romeo Okwara and Harris have a lot of similarities in common. Both are former starters who took pay cuts this season to stay in Detroit, have the positional range to play two of the Lions’ edge roles (Romeo: open and closed, Harris: open and SAM), and contractually offer almost no salary cap relief in 2023 if they were released. It’s possible Romeo Okwara or Harris could be on the outside looking in at cutdowns, but the only thing the Lions have to gain by cutting either of them is a spot on the roster—meaning they're not locks for the roster, but awfully close.

The Lions’ biggest decision amongst this position group will be what they do with their SAM role. Julian Okwara opened last season as the starter but, for the second time in three seasons, landed on injured reserve. Houston seized his opportunity to take over the role and was significantly more impactful:

Julian Okwara: 10 games (222 snaps), 17 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits
James Houston: 7 games (140 snaps), 12 tackles, 8 TFL, 8 sacks, 11 QB hits, and a fumble recovery

Yet, when the Lions opened up their spring practices, it was Julian Okwara who was with the starters. Now, this outcome could be the Lions coaching staff favoring the veterans early in camp (which tends to happen at most positions), but there is an element of Julian Okwara’s game that is more advanced than Houston's: the ability to drop into coverage in an off-the-ball linebacker role.

There is little doubt that Houston is the better pass rusher, but at the end of the day, the SAM position is a hybrid role that requires some positional range in order to be maximized. We saw Houston expand his role late in 2022, specifically against Chicago and Green Bay, so there is no doubt he has the range to do what is demanded of the hybrid role, but he simply lacks experience proving that he can do it consistently.

When it’s time to decide how the edge rusher group is constructed, the Lions will need to consider the following scenarios:

  • Are Romeo Okwara and Harris redundant or is there room for both, considering there is not much to gain by releasing either of them?
  • Has Houston developed his off-the-ball skills to grow beyond a pass-rushing-only role?
  • If Houston develops his positional range, is there room for Julian Okwara considering they historically only kept one SAM?
  • Could the Lions find room for both Houston and Julian Okwara, and in turn, keep fewer off-the-ball linebackers?
  • Are we sleeping on UDFA Zach Morton as a potential candidate for the roster or is he destined to land on the practice squad because he is athletic but still raw?


Erik: For me, the positional range of this group has me wanting to keep all seven returning players and sacrifice a roster spot somewhere else on the roster—likely at off-the-ball linebacker. EDGE7 vs. OTB LB6 is a pretty easy decision for me, simply because of how edge rushers impact the game. Of course, this goes against what the team has historically done, but I feel like their offseason decisions point toward this happening.

So Jeremy, is it possible the Lions could keep seven edge rushers and find roles for all of them? Or am I overestimating this group's value?

Jeremy: I don’t think you’re overestimating the value of this group, but I also just don’t see enough playing time to go around to justify seven edge defenders. Whether that spot goes to a special teams linebacker, an RB4, WR6, or a TE4, you’re likely to get more production on Sundays rather than a rotational specialist.

I can’t help but look at Julian Okwara as the player who clearly has the most to accomplish in training camp to justify keeping his spot on the roster. I also think the Lions would be wise to consider trading a player from this group, even if they can only muster a late-round pick.

Erik: Julian Okwara is certainly the most vulnerable but I keep coming back to Houston’s development being the catalyst for most decisions for this group. Houston’s ability to rush the passer is so good that I’d be shocked if they released him. But, at the same time, if he isn’t far enough along to contribute beyond that, they may need Julian Okwara to hold down the fort at SAM for a while.

I’m also not ruling out seeing something unexpected happen during fall camp, further complicating the situation. Will there be a shift in roles/usage? Could the Lions start using Harris at SAM? Will Pittman shift to SAM full-time and throw his hat in the competition?

Bottom line: There are a lot of directions the Lions could go with this group and watching things unfold will be one of the more interesting storylines in training camp.

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