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O'HARA: Hard work, production earn Hyder more playing time

INDIANAPOLIS –Kerry Hyder Jr.'s rise up the depth chart is a reward he earned for what he brought to the Detroit Lions' defensive line last year.

In a year when quarterback sacks were hard to come by, Hyder led the Lions with eight of them. His performance was one of the surprise success stories of the entire National Football League, not just for the Lions.

Before the 2016 season, Hyder had been active for only one game – the last game of the 2015 season when the Lions promoted him from their practice squad.

View photos from 2017 Detroit Lions training camp practice with the Indianapolis Colts on Aug. 10, 2017.

Playing mostly as a reserve last season, Hyder was a force on a defensive line that had trouble getting to the quarterback. The Lions had only 26 sacks, second fewest in the NFL. Hyder played all 16 games, with two starts, and used his quickness and high-energy level to put pressure on the quarterback.

Hyder has worked with the No. 1 unit throughout training camp, a strong signal that he has worked – and produced – his way to a starting position opposite Ziggy Ansah.

But Hyder's rise creates a question for the Lions. Who moves into the role that Hyder vacates? Who provides the pass-rush threat that the Lions have had from reserve linemen in Jim Caldwell's three seasons as head coach?

In 2014 it was George Johnson with six sacks – the only six of his pro career – in 16 games without a start.

In 2015 it was Devin Taylor, a 2013 fourth-round draft pick, with seven sacks in 15 games without a start.

Hyder topped them all with eight sacks last year.

Someone has to emerge in the preseason as a pass-rush threat off the edge from a group that includes veterans Brandon Copeland, Anthony Zettel, Armonty Bryant and Cornelius Washington and rookies Pat O'Connor (a seventh-round draft pick from Eastern Michigan), Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Valoaga.

Hyder is confident that the Lions have the talent to improve the pass rush. Having Ansah healthy for the full season, after being limited with an ankle injury most of last year, would be a big help.

The Lions will take another step in sorting all that out in Sunday's first preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"We have an intriguing group of guys," Hyder said during the practices with the Colts. "I'm looking forward to seeing the guys out there. We have such a versatile group -- guys who can go inside and outside and really help us rush the passer.

"We have some good guys individually, but as a group I think we're much better than we are individually."

It is well known how hard Hyder worked to get to where he was last year. He dropped 40 pounds to switch from an interior lineman to playing on the edge, where he could use his quickness to get to the passer.

Success didn't go to his head – or his waistline. He worked just as hard on his conditioning in the offseason, but with a different focus.

"This past offseason I focused on getting faster and stronger," Hyder said. "I already had my body to the weight I felt was good enough.

"I felt like I was in the best shape of my life. When I get to camp, I don't want to begin getting in shape. Camp is for practice and sharpening your tools and sharpening your technique. You're not supposed to go to camp to get in shape.

"My goal is coming to camp ready to fly around and really focus on my technique instead of conditioning."

Head coach Jim Caldwell pointed out that it's hard to predict how players will perform from one year to the next because there are so many variables, but he's had no questions or concerns about Hyder's preparation.

"He didn't regress in terms of his body structure," Caldwell said. "He improved. He's gotten better in every single, physical aspect.

"And then also, he's a hard worker and he's smart. When you have those kinds of traits and qualities, you can anticipate that he's going to be somewhere near where he was before.

"Who knows how many sacks he's going to get? Sometimes that may not happen. But I can tell you what, He's a better player today than he was last year."

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