Day five of Detroit Lions training camp was the day of the big boys.
Friday’s practice marked the first of the offseason where the players got to put the pads on and hit somebody. So, naturally, it was difficult to take my eyes off the defensive line.
A peek into the Lions’ strategy reveals that they focused on in-house talent development this off-season, rather than making any splashy additions to the defensive line. The Lions’ biggest splash was drafting defensive tackle Brodric Martin in the 3rd round at pick 96 overall. The selection was a bold move that indicated their faith in the defensive tackles already on their roster, versus targeting amateurs like Jalen Carter, Calijah Kancey, and Keeanu Benton in the draft.
The Lions also re-signed veteran contributors Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky and Benito Jones, while adding rookies Cory Durden, Zach Morton, and Chris Smith as undrafted free agent signings.
When I asked head coach Dan Campbell about this, he emphasized the importance of the fundamentals for each player to perform their role to the best of their ability. He remarked:
Yeah, I think more than anything… do your job. The fundamentals, the technique need to show up. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve got (Lions Defensive Line Coach) John Scott (Jr.) here…everything starts with the fundamentals of how you play the position inside-out and stopping the run. And then you go from there, you build from there…the fundamentals need to show up, our hands, our pad level, our strike, our shed, the violent shed.
Promising New Faces, Proven Veterans
Once the pads came on, the defensive line demonstrated aggressive play and significant depth, despite being pitted against one of the NFL’s top offensive lines. Alim McNeill, Aidan Hutchinson, and James Houston, among others, are expected to elevate the entire defense. McNeill, in particular, commanded attention in practice, showing potential to be a consistent force in the middle.
Rookie Brodric Martin, a third-round draft pick, saw plenty of action with the first team on Friday. He showcased flashes of dominance but also signs of a player still finding his feet at the pro level. “Yeah, he’s young, he’s raw, and we knew that when we got him,” Campbell commented. “But there again, we see improvement. He’s got to drop his pads, he plays too high right now, but you can see a guy who’s working through it.”
Veterans Charles Harris and Levi Onwuzurike, and 2nd year lineman Josh Paschal, are also expected to contribute significantly this season. Despite missing time in past seasons due to injuries, these players showed promising signs of playing fast and violent, as described by defensive line coach John Scott Jr.
Coach Scott emphasizes coaching aggression while remaining disciplined. “The violence comes from teaching the technique that way…We definitely want to play violent, and with our hands, and physical,” he said.
Sleeper Standout: Chris Smith
One potential sleeper to keep an eye on is Detroit native Chris Smith. The undrafted free agent rookie is vying for a spot on the 53-man roster, and has shown considerable potential since joining the Lions. He’s quickly impressed the coaching staff with his technical skills, steady learning curve and work ethic.
Scott Jr. applauded Smith’s game, stating, “Chris is a technician, man. He does some things naturally that we don’t even have to coach here. As far as block recognition, block destruction…it comes to him very natural…He’s been a pleasure to have in the room.”
Aligning Personalities and Goals
The alignment of individual goals and personalities is a positive sign for the Lions. Scott Jr. sees great promise in the group as a whole, saying:
I think we have a great mix…we got great personalities too. Guys are hungry. You’ve got guys that have been doing it for a while, you got the younger guys… and then on top of that, they all have the personality of coach Campbell, and AG, and my personality…it’s a great mix. So we’re all aligned, and anytime you get alignment by a group and a football team, you gotta look out.
While the training camp insights are no magic crystal ball into the Lions’ future, it does reflect that the unit is hungry to compete. Dan Campbell finished his comments on the defensive line with this statement of confidence: “All those guys, do your job, do what you’re asked because if we do that, we have enough right now, I believe that.”
As the Detroit Lions move through training camp into the season, there’s an air of anticipation around this defensive line. Their in-house development strategy for the mix of proven veterans and hungry newcomers may just surprise the skeptics.
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
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Original Photo Credit: © Junfu Han | 2023 Jun 7