Now that we’re in the deadliest period of the NFL offseason, it’s a perfect time to start reviewing the Detroit Lions roster and start talking about 2023 expectations. As a team, the Lions hope to achieve some franchise-defining moments, but let’s look at what we expect from individual players this coming season.
We will 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 bounces (or sophomore slumps) ahead.
Of course, we kick off the series with the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft: cornerback Aidan Hutchinson.
Expectations heading into 2022
As the No. 2 overall pick, expectations were naturally very high for Hutchinson. With 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 passing, 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)
Statistics: 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 and he certainly has the stat line to prove it. He was disruptive in all phases 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 was a force against the run.
On top of that, don’t overlook his massive workload. Only one other defensive lineman in the entire NFL (Maxx Crosby) played more snaps than Hutchinson did. And despite that, the rookie from Michigan never really hit a rookie wall.
In fact, Hutchinson’s mid-season growth is what made 2022 all the more special for him. Early on, his pass rush was inconsistent and much of his production was based on hustle plays. But in the final eight games of the season, Hutchinson wasn’t just a high-effort player, he was a dominant one. From Week 11 through the end of the regular season, Hutchinson earned a PFF grade of 89.7 – the third-highest among all NFL wide receivers 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 during that time (23rd), but his run defense was close to elite. He tallied 17 run stops (t-eighth) and didn’t miss a single tackle during that stretch.
And while Hutchinson’s season rushing percentage (12.4%, 39th of 125 per PFF) may seem a little disappointing, it’s important to remember that Hutchinson was extreme focus on the opposing offenses – catching double-team rates more often than Micah Parsons.
Outlook for 2023
So what’s next for a player who gave you everything you could have reasonably expected in his rookie season? There is some national rumblings that Hutchinson may have already reached his full potential. Lacking elite inflection and already considered a very cerebral player, where can he grow?
First, Hutchinson started taking better care of his mind and body now that he doesn’t have to prepare for it NFL Combine.
“I have all these new routines and I took the offseason to evaluate all the different ways I can improve the little things — dieting, food, bringing in a chef, good things like that,” Hutchinson said back in May . “Last year I was eating takeout probably after every day during the season, so that just couldn’t be good for inflammation at all.”
And while Hutchinson says the typical offseason “faster and stronger” things we hear from all players during OTAs, there are also improvements to his game that can be made just from the comfort level of entering his second career season in same defensive plan.
“You can get a lot better,” new defensive line coach John Scott Jr. said. “During the year that Aidan had, he did some amazing things well, (but) there are always things you can tweak and add to your game to take it to the next level. Having the opportunity to watch yourself at tape make it among the best and then analyze the things you can improve and add that to your game will only give you 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 latter part of 2022 was the emergence of James Houston, who produced a whopping 8.0 sacks in seven games. Now he wants 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 had significant injuries. With all four heading into training camp at full health, Hutchinson should benefit from better, deeper room.
An important question is whether he will get more help from interior pass rushers. Guys like Cominsky and Paschal proved useful when they kicked inside, but will Alim McNeill make a Year 3 jump? How soon will rookie Brodric Martin make an impact? Will Levi Onwuzurike even make it on the field? Interior disruption is a fullback’s best friend, and Hutchinson has largely had to create pressure without that help.
Ultimately, I think Hutchinson has an uphill battle to surpass his rookie season numbers simply because we could see a decline in playing time. Don’t get me wrong, the Lions want him out there as much as possible, but if the unit stays healthier this season, the Lions would be wise to reduce Hutchinson’s playing time a bit to keep him healthy and effective.
That said, with a better supporting cast, Hutchinson should see a decrease in double teams, meaning he can be a more effective player on a down-to-down basis. And if it comes to fruition, Hutchinson could move from Rookie of the Year conversation to Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro conversation.