2023 Detroit Lions roster preview: Can Aidan Hutchinson make a Year 2 jump?

Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

As we are now in the deadest period of the NFL offseason, it is a perfect time to start reviewing the Detroit Lions roster and start talking about 2023 expectations. As a team, the Lions are hoping to accomplish some franchise-defining moments, but let’s look at what we’re expecting from individual players in the upcoming season.

We’re going to start this series with some of the core, young players who could be in for big seasons. It’s time to talk about the 2022 draft picks and the potential Year 2 jumps (or sophomore slumps) ahead.

Of course, we kick off the series with the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft: edge defender Aidan Hutchinson.

Aidan Hutchinson

Expectations heading into 2022

As the No. 2 overall pick, expectations were obviously very high for Hutchinson. With there being a healthy debate between himself, Travon Walker, and Kayvon Thibodeaux as the best edge rusher in the class, Hutchinson was expected to be the most pro-ready of the bunch. And with the Lions otherwise thin at the position, Hutchinson was in line to make an immediate impact in Detroit.

While there were some reasonable questions about Hutchinson’s pass rushing moves, his tenacious attitude made him a perfect fit in Detroit.

Actual role in 2022

17 games (17 starts): 958 snaps on defense (84.3%—second-highest percentage on Lions defense)
Stats: 52 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 53 pressures, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions
PFF overall grade: 80.7 overall (18th of 72 EDGE with at least 500 snaps—first among rookies)

Hutchinson finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, and he certainly has the statline to prove it. He was disruptive in every phase of the game. He tallied more sacks than any rookie, had three interceptions—while every other rookie defensive lineman in the NFL had two combined—and he was a force in the run game.

On top of that, don’t overlook his enormous workload. Only one other defensive lineman in the entire NFL (Maxx Crosby) played more snaps than Hutchinson did. And despite that, the rookie out of Michigan never truly hit a rookie wall.

In fact, Hutchinson’s growth in the middle of the season is what made 2022 truly special for him. Early on, his pass rush was inconsistent and a lot of his production was based on hustle plays. But in the final eight games of the season, Hutchinson was not just a high-effort player, he was a dominant one. From Week 11 to the end of the regular season, Hutchinson earned a PFF grade of 89.7—the third highest among all NFL edge players over that span.

Interestingly, it wasn’t his pass rush that pushed him over the top during the final stretch. He was only credited with 25 pressures over that time (23rd), but his run defense was near elite. He tallied 17 run stops (t-eighth) and didn’t miss a single tackle during that stretch.

And while the pass rushing win percentage for Hutchinson’s season (12.4%, 39th of 125 per PFF) may seem a little disappointing, it’s important to remember that Hutchinson was the extreme focus of the opposing offenses—catching double team rates more often that Micah Parsons.

Outlook for 2023

So what is next for a player who gave you everything you could have reasonably expected in his rookie season? There is some national noise that Hutchinson may have already reached his full potential. With a lack of elite bend and already considered a highly-cerebral player, where can he grow?

For one, Hutchinson started taking better care of his mind and body now that he doesn’t have to prepare for the NFL Combine.

“I have all these new routines and I took this offseason to evaluate all the different ways I can improve the little things – dieting, food, get a chef in, good stuff like that,” Hutchinson said back in May. “Last year I was eating takeout meals probably after every day during the season, so just couldn’t be good for inflammation at all.”

And while Hutchinson is saying the typical offseason “faster and stronger” stuff that we hear from every player during OTAs, there are also improvements to his game that can be had just from the comfort level of entering his second career season in the same defensive scheme.

“You can get a lot better,” new defensive line coach John Scott Jr. said. “Going through the year that Aidan had, he did some great things well, (but) there’s always things you can tweak and add to your game to take it to the next level. Having the opportunity to see yourself on tape doing it amongst the best and then analyzing the things you can improve upon and adding that to your game is only going to make you have a better year.”

Hutchinson could also see improvement with a better surrounding cast. At least part of the reason he was able to be so effective in the final stretch of 2022 was the emergence of James Houston, who produced a whopping 8.0 sacks in seven games. Now he’ll have Houston on the opposite side for the entire season.

Additionally, Hutchinson had to carry the unit while Charles Harris (11 missed games), Romeo Okwara (12), Josh Paschal (seven), and John Cominsky (three) all dealt with significant injuries. With all four entering training camp at full health, Hutchinson should benefit from a better, deeper room.

One important question is whether he’ll get more help from interior pass rushers. Guys like Cominsky and Paschal proved helpful when kicking inside, but will Alim McNeill take a Year 3 jump? How quickly will rookie Brodric Martin make an impact? Will Levi Onwuzurike even make it on the field? Interior disruption is an edge defender’s best friend, and Hutchinson has largely had to create pressure without that help.

In the end, I think Hutchinson has an uphill battle to surpass his rookie season numbers simply because we may see a decrease in playing time. Don’t get me wrong, the Lions are going to want him out there as much as possible, but if the unit stays healthier this season, the Lions would be wise to slightly scale back Hutchinson’s playing time to keep him fresh and efficient.

That said, with a better supporting cast, Hutchinson should see a decrease in double teams, which means he may be a more efficient player on a down-to-down basis. And if that comes to be, Hutchinson could move from Rookie of the Year conversation to Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro conversation.

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