There’s a new scent crackling in the Motor City air, and it has nothing to do with the stray embers crossing the Detroit River. No, this particular aroma has a much more tantalizing whiff – the distinctive mix of summer sweat, turf, and the well-worn leather of footballs. The Detroit Lions’ training camp begins this week, and the competition for starting roles is sizzling. Veterans are flexing their battle-hardened muscles. Rookies are flashing their untamed talent. And every snap, every tackle, every touchdown is stoking the fires of anticipation for the upcoming 2023 season.
The Lions’ remarkable late-season resurgence in 2022 still rings fresh, fueling dreams of a further improved 2023 season. But to get there, the Lions need to confront several positional battles, particularly on defense. Here are three to keep an eye on throughout training camp:
Lions’ Linebacker Face-Off: Campbell vs. Barnes vs. Rodriguez
Alex Anzalone, the Lions’ undisputed starting strong-side linebacker, is a given. But who will take the field beside him remains a fascinating conundrum.
Jack Campbell, the coveted 18th overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, comes with the buzz of a potentially dominant linebacker. The rookie linebacker is not only a physical specimen, standing at an imposing 6’5″ and 243 lbs, but he’s also a cerebral player with a keen understanding of the game. Campbell is reputed for his versatility and instincts, which allow him to fill multiple roles on the field. The natural playmaker has an innate ability to locate and track the ball with intensity.
Detroit Lions defensive coordinator, Aaron Glenn, describes Campbell’s versatility as his standout quality, saying, “The young man can line up just about anywhere on the field.” During his college career, he consistently demonstrated his ability to make plays in both the run and pass game, and he excelled in applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks. He was often the focal point of opposing offenses, but he still managed to make game-changing plays.
Meanwhile, Derrick Barnes, now in his third year, has shown impressive growth. He has shown consistent improvement since joining the team and ended the 2022 season with 43 total tackles and four starts. Barnes is a balanced player who is adept at both pass coverage and run defense. He’s known for his tackling efficiency and ability to read the game and position himself effectively.
The offseason has been an opportunity for Barnes to hone his skills further and to demonstrate his growth and maturity as a player. He’s far from ready to step aside for Campbell or anyone else. As veteran linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard notes, “that is a player that i’ve seen look like a completely different player.” He continued sharing that Barnes has transformed into a player who’s “taking charge, holding people accountable.”
Despite an unassuming OTA due to a minor injury, Malcolm Rodriguez, the 2022 PFWA All-Rookie Team linebacker, is ready to prove his mettle again this season. Rodriguez made a name for himself as a rookie with his aggressive play and knack for making tackles for loss. He has a relentless motor and a tenacity that coaches and fans love. His quickness and agility allow him to fly around the field, and his sound tackling skills make him a valuable asset in run defense.
With an impressive 87 tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble on a 57% snap share, Rodriguez proved his productivity on the field. Remarkably, Rodriguez became the first Lions’ rookie since 1987, selected in the sixth round-or-later, to start in Week 1 of his draft year. He showed consistent performance throughout 2022, ranking among the top rookie performers in various statistical categories. As 2023 approaches, all signs point to Rodriguez being healthy and ready to contribute again.
- Alex Anzalone (Strong-side)
- Jack Campbell (Weak-side)
Clash on the Edge: Harris vs. Houston vs. Paschal vs. Cominsky vs. Okwara
Aidan Hutchinson is set as the Lions’ starting left edge rusher (and you can probably make that statement for the next 10 years). But who will balance him out on the right?
A significant returnee for the Lions this season is edge rusher Charles Harris, who is gearing up for a comeback after an unfortunate season-ending injury last year. As Harris enters his third season with the Lions (seventh overall in the NFL), his health is looking positive and he is keen to make an impact on the field.
As per Harris’s conversation with Dave Birkett from The Detroit Free Press, he feels more robust and ready than ever, claiming to be in better form than when he logged 7.5 sacks back in 2021. During that season, Harris delivered a career-best performance, with notable stats such as 65 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits, and 7.5 sacks. Despite the compelling rise of James Houston, there are lingering questions regarding Houston’s efficacy as a three-down player, likely cementing Harris’s spot as the starting right edge rusher, opposite Aidan Hutchinson.
Despite the uncertainties around his playtime, James Houston’s undeniable talent makes him an essential player in the Lions’ defensive game-plan. When Houston was called upon in 2022, he rose to the occasion displaying his freakish skills. His ability to get so low, to dip, dodge and bend around massive offensive linemen is a major component of his ever-expanding “bag.”
Houston’s first NFL season in 2022 was a display of his capabilities, with 8.0 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery to his name. Despite participating in just seven games, Houston’s eight sacks ranked him second amongst the Lions’ defenders. To take things a bit farther, Houston is aiming to double his sack total in 2023. If he can demonstrate consistency and continue to develop, Houston has the potential to become a significant threat on the edge for the Lions.
Josh Paschal is another exciting prospect for the Lions who is expected to compete at the edge position. Despite missing his first training camp due to a sports hernia, Paschal made his presence felt in the second half of his rookie season. With 16 tackles, two sacks, and two tackles for loss in just 10 games, he showed glimpses of his potential.
His versatility to play both inside and outside makes him a valuable asset. With a full training camp ahead of him, Paschal will be looking to make a significant impact this season.
In the grand scheme of things, John Cominsky may seem like a quiet contender, but his role within the Lions cannot be understated. Head Coach Dan Campbell lauded Cominsky for his intellect, high motor, and aggressive play. In recognition of his invaluable contribution, the Lions secured Cominsky’s services with a two-year, $18.5 million contract during free agency.
His first season with the Lions saw him reach career highs across various statistics, including games played (14), games started (eight), total tackles (30), solo tackles (18), quarterback hits (12), tackles for loss (five), sacks (4.0), and forced fumbles (one). Cominsky’s influence is best demonstrated by the Lions’ win record in games he starts – an impressive 6-3 out of the nine games he started. His game time increased over the course of the season, and his presence was instrumental in the Lions’ successful late-season success in 2022.
Romeo Okwara might seem like an outside bet, given that he’s not expected to start, but he might just surprise everyone come training camp. Okwara is a competent run defender, and he’s not too far removed from his 10-sack season in 2020. An Achilles tear in 2021 cost him valuable time in 2022, and he sometimes seemed to be battling rust upon his return. However, the hope is that Okwara will return to pre-injury form this season, or at least something close to it.
Okwara’s decision to take a pay cut to stay with the Lions signals a shared vision and interest between the player and the team. If he can shake off the rust and return to his pre-injury form, Okwara could be a game-changer for the Detroit Lions. His athleticism and ability to disrupt plays could be a significant boost for the team’s defense.
- Aidan Hutchinson (Left Defensive End)
- Charles Harris (Right Defensive End)
The Battle in the Trenches: Buggs vs. Onwuzurike vs. Martin
Beside Alim McNeill, the Lions’ steady hand at defensive tackle, a competition brews between Isaiah Buggs, Levi Onwuzurike, and rookie Brodric Martin.
Isaiah Buggs returns to the Detroit Lions after inking a two-year contract extension during the offseason. After joining the Lions as a free agent in July 2022, Buggs quickly established himself as a vital cog in the Lions’ defensive machine. The four-year veteran was a force to reckon with on the defensive line, amassing 46 tackles and a sack over the season.
His 755 snaps in 2022, which made him an ever-present figure in the Lions’ trenches, were indicative of his enduring consistency. The Alabama alumnus showed his potential as a disruptor, recording 20 pressures, second only to Alim McNeill among the Lions’ interior defensive linemen. After a rough performance against the Patriots in Week 5, the Lions revamped their defensive approach, primarily deploying Buggs as a nose tackle or one-technique. This change allowed 2021 third-round pick Alim McNeill to assume more snaps as a three-technique, and it will be intriguing to see how Buggs continues to adapt to this role. Now, under the guidance of new defensive line coach, John Scott Jr., and playing alongside McNeill, Buggs is set to prove his worth and build on his successful first year with the Lions.
The return of Levi Onwuzurike to the Lions’ lineup would undoubtedly serve as a substantial shot in the arm for the team. The defensive tackle has been diligently rehabilitating a troublesome back injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2022 season. Despite health concerns lingering from his collegiate days, Onwuzurike showcased his potential during his rookie year, contributing 35 tackles and a sack across 16 games.
Unfortunately, the aggravation of his pre-existing condition forced him onto injured reserve last summer. However, if he can overcome his health challenges, Onwuzurike could add significant value to the Detroit Lions’ defensive arsenal. The former second-round pick is an agile, sizable presence in the heart of the defense and possesses the potential to be a disruptive force in the middle. The key question mark, however, will be the impact of his recurring back issues on his explosive play. The team and fans alike will be watching his progress closely heading into the 2023 season.
Brodric Martin is the future of the Lions’ defensive line, but it remains a question as to how much he can contribute in the present. Standing at 6’5″ and weighing a colossal 330 pounds, the Western Kentucky alumnus brings an imposing presence to the Lions’ interior defensive line, which was exploited by rush-first offenses last season. What sets Martin apart is his versatility; he sees himself as a multifaceted defensive lineman, not just a nose tackle. “Well, my favorite spot is just anywhere over the center… I’m a defensive lineman, not just a nose guard. I’m a defensive tackle, I’m a defensive lineman. I’ve been everywhere,” Martin shared with the Lions media, indicating his readiness to slot in wherever needed.
The rookie brings an exciting blend of physical attributes that suggest a bright future: he is large, athletic, and tenacious, with a relentless drive that sees him always in pursuit of the ball. Although he may not have been well-known outside Western Kentucky, Martin’s dedication and raw talent have already made a positive impression. As he heads into his rookie season, Martin is expected to play a rotational role on the defensive line, primarily as a nose tackle. His unique mix of size, athleticism, and commitment positions him to compete for a starting role sooner rather than later.
- Alim McNeill (Left Defensive Tackle)
- Isaiah Buggs (Right Defensive Tackle)
Competition will Showcase Depth in 2023
The Lions are crafting an intriguing narrative on the field, with every battle sharpening their claws for the approaching 2023 season. Whether it’s the linebacker standoff between Campbell, Barnes, and Rodriguez, the clash at the edge featuring the likes of Harris and Houston, or the all-important trench war with Buggs, and Martin, these skirmishes underline one truth: talent is abundant in this roster.
As the Detroit Lions brace for another transformative season, these battles may very well determine the path they tread. As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. And the Detroit Lions are ready for the forge.
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
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Original Photo Credit: © David Reginek – USA TODAY Sports