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2023 training camp preview: Defensive line

On the roster: Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Isaiah Buggs, Charles Harris, John Cominsky, Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal, Levi Onwuzurike, Christian Covington, Brodric Martin, Benito Jones, Cory Durden, Zach Morton, Chris Smith

Table inside Article
Name Games Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
Aidan Hutchinson 17 52 9 9.5 0 2
Alim McNeill 17 41 6 1.0 0 0
Isaiah Buggs 17 46 0 1.0 1 0
Charles Harris 6 14 2 1.0 1 0
John Cominsky 14 30 5 4.0 1 0
Romeo Okwara 5 8 2 2.0 0 0
Josh Paschal 10 16 2 2.0 0 0
Levi Onwuzurike 0 0 0 0.0 0 0
Christian Covington^ 4 12 1 0.0 0 0
Brodric Martin* 14 31 1.5 1.5 1 0
Benito Jones 17 16 0 1.5 0 0
Cory Durden* 13 27 2.5 0.0 0 0
Zach Morton* 12 28 8 4.5 2 0
Chris Smith* 13 17 0.5 0.0 1 0

^with another team *college stats

Best competition: Defensive tackle rotation.

McNeill is poised to have a breakout third season after dedicating this offseason to changing his body – cutting 13 percent body fat – and focusing on diet and stretching so he has better movement and bend. He's hoping to be a more consistent playmaker after the changes.

The veteran Buggs played well in his first season in Detroit after coming over from Pittsburgh in free agency, but the Lions don't want him to play 700-plus snaps like he did last year. Buggs handled it fine, but the team thinks he'll be at his most productive if they can limit the wear and tear on him a little bit. That means coaches are looking for some other guys to step up.

Onwuzurike comes to mind right away. Getting the 2021 second-round pick back on the field would be a big boost, but that's sort of a wild card at this point as he continues to rehab a back injury that forced him to miss all of last season. We have yet to see a healthy Onwuzurike in the NFL – he was also dealing with the back injury in 2021 when he was playing. Lions head coach Dan Campbell said this offseason Onwuzurike's rehab is on schedule but provided few details beyond that. We'll see where he's at to start training camp in a week.

The team signed Covington in free agency to provide depth. He's played in 102 career games with 32 starts. Jones returns after playing in 17 games last year and recording 16 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The team drafted Martin in the third round, and he brings length and physicality to the group. He's still developing, but he'll get an opportunity to earn a role in camp.

It's also important to note that Hutchinson, Cominsky and Okwara can and have shifted inside in certain packages, which gives new Lions defensive line coach John Scott Jr. some options.

View photos of the Detroit Lions defensive linemen heading into training camp.

Twentyman's take: Scott wants his group to be violent, and it's something the players have embraced. Detroit ranked 32nd in total defense, 29th in points allowed, 30th against the pass and 29th against the run last year. They were much better the last 10 games of the season when they finished 8-2, but certainly more controlled violence is needed on that side of the football.

On the edge, the defense has good depth with Hutchinson, Harris, Cominsky, linebacker James Houston, Paschal and others. It's a pretty versatile group. I'm personally excited to see what Hutchinson can do in Year 2. The runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year is a football junky who had an entire offseason to work solely on his body and his perceived deficiencies. He said this offseason he's never felt more prepared for a football season. What should we expect from him in his second season?

Getting Harris back healthy is big for this defensive line as a whole. He's a crafty veteran just one year removed from a 7.5-sack season. The young players in that room look up to him as a player who comes to work every day, puts his head down and handles his business. It will also be nice to have a healthy Paschal after he missed seven games dealing with a sports hernia last year.

The interior of the defensive line is probably where the team is most lacking proven depth. An injury to McNeill or Buggs or both would put the Lions in a real bind upfront, especially not knowing the long-term future of Onwuzurike. I wouldn't be surprised if the Lions take a close look at the Giants and Jaguars depth at defensive tackle during joint practices, and when teams cut down to 53 right before the season starts, add some depth inside.

View photos of Lions third-round pick Brodric Martin from the 2023 offseason.

By the numbers:

9.5, 3, 2: Hutchinson logged 9.5 sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries to become the only rookie in NFL history to produce such a stat line.

10: The 10 fumble recoveries by the Lions' defense last season were tied for the 10th most in the NFL.

16.4: Percent of opponent offensive drives last season that resulted in a three and out. That tied with Chicago for second lowest in the NFL behind only Minnesota (14.1 percent).

29.7: Detroit's pressure rate in 2022, which was better than the NFL average of 28 percent.

39: Sacks recorded by Detroit's defense last year. That tied for 18th. Playoff teams averaged 45.

146.5: Rushing yards per game on average allowed by Detroit's defense in 2022, which ranked 29th in the NFL.

Quotable: "For me it's consistency. Being able to do it every snap in the game," McNeill said this offseason. "I just want to be more consistent. I want to make those (big) plays almost every play. I'm seeing some guys around the league being able to do it and I'm just watching them like, 'I can do the same thing.' So, I just took more of a professional approach to the offseason."

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