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2023 position breakdown: Defensive line

The good: The Detroit Lions have a budding superstar on the edge of their defensive line in second-year defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who earned his first Pro Bowl nod this past season as one of the most productive and consistent pass rushers in the league.

He led the NFL in the regular season in quarterback hits, was second in hurries and second in most pressures generated.

Hutchinson and third-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill formed a nice inside/outside duo as McNeill had his most productive season with 5.0 sacks from the interior in 13 games played.

The Lions were one of the best run defenses in the NFL this season and that starts upfront. Detroit only allowed 100-or-more rushing yards in five games, which led the NFL and ranked second in franchise history in any season since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.

When facing third-and-shorts (0-3 yards) and third-and-mediums (4-6 yards) this season, Detroit was among the NFL's best, ranking third and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in those situations.

Detroit's defense forced 97 negative plays this year (negative rushes, sacks for negative yards, negative passes), causing opponents to lose 505 yards on those plays. Only Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston and Indianapolis forced more negative yardage than Detroit.

Per Pro Football Focus, the Lions ranked as one of the best teams when it came to impacting the quarterback. They were second in quarterback hits (77) and sixth in pressures (236).

View photos of the Detroit Lions defensive line from the 2023 NFL season.

The bad: As good as Hutchinson was this season the Lions could stand to bring in a little bit more help alongside him. Hutchinson's 11.5 sacks led the Lions, but Detroit's 41 sacks as a team ranked 23rd and just 17 of those came from defensive linemen not named Hutchinson.

It's too bad second-year edge rusher James Houston broke an ankle Week 2 and didn't return until the NFC Championship Game. He might have been able to give the Lions a boost on the other edge given how he finished his rookie season.

Detroit's defense struggled at times to get off the field quickly. They played 185 defensive series in the regular season and forced a three and out just 17.3 percent of the time. That tied for 28th in the NFL.

Opponents averaged 5.51 yards per play against Detroit's defense, which was the seventh highest in the league.

Key stat: The Lions only allowed a rushing average of 3.37 on first-down runs this season, the lowest mark in the NFL.

MVP: Aidan Hutchinson

It's not just about the sacks and pressure with Hutchinson. This season, he was one of two players to record at least 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. His four interceptions through his first two seasons are the most for a defensive lineman through two seasons in league history. He also owns the most sacks (21.0) by a Lion through a player's first two seasons.

Most improved: Alim McNeill

McNeill cut 13 percent of his body fat last offseason without losing any weight or muscle in an attempt to make himself quicker and faster in the hopes of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage more. It worked.

"I feel so much better," he said last April. "A lot more lean and a lot more flexible. I can bend a lot better now."

That translated to the field where McNeill had a career-high 5.0 sacks from the interior with 10 quarterback hits despite missing four games late in the year due to a knee injury. He added a sack and three more quarterback hits in Detroit's playoff run.

Free agents: Tyson Alualu (unrestricted), Charles Harris (unrestricted), Romeo Okwara (unrestricted), Benito Jones (restricted), James Houston (exclusive rights).

As an exclusive rights free agent, the expectation would be for Houston to be back in Detroit in 2024 to compete for time on the edge. Jones played in all 17 games with 15 starts and was a factor in Detroit's terrific run defense.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes said this week the focus in free agency is first taking care of some of their own contract extensions that players have become eligible for. That could limit their spending some in free agency. I still expect them to add a veteran or two to the group.

Kansas City's Chris Jones is the top free agent out there but is probably out of their price range. There are a number of notable interior and edge free agents set to hit the market next month: Josh Allen (Jacksonville), Brian Burns (Carolina), Justin Madubuike (Baltimore), Christian Wilkins (Miami), Danielle Hunter (Minnesota), Leonard Williams (Seattle), Bryce Huff (New York Jets), D.J. Reader (Cincinnati) and Jonathan Greenard (Houston) are just a few who could become available. It's a strong free agent class along the defensive line.

Draft: This is typically the preferred method of roster building for Holmes, and the Lions have proved over the last three draft cycles they can find talent that can come in and contribute right away in all three days of the NFL Draft.

At the end of the first round there could be a couple of intriguing names like Missouri's Darius Robinson, Penn State's Chop Robinson or Washington's Bralen Trice still on the board.

I expect Holmes to add a young defensive lineman or two to that room.

Quotable: "You've got to be very strategic of how that pot is divided up or divvied up. But we'll be smart, and we'll make the right moves," Holmes said of free agency this year. "But yeah, it just changes the landscape a little bit in free agency.

"You've got to think back, our first free agency, we didn't have any real resources to spend. We had to be very selective and try to find an Alex Anzalone or a Kalif Raymond and all those guys. And then last year, we had a little bit more resources and were able to get a Cam Sutton and a C.J. Gardner-Johnson. This year will be a little bit different, but we'll be smart."

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