ALLEN PARK — As the Detroit Lions opened the doors to OTAs on Thursday, providing the public its first look at the new team, all eyes were on prized No. 2 overall draft pick Aidan Hutchinson.
He did not disappoint.
The former Michigan star wrapped up the padless workout with back-to-back-to-back sacks during 2-minute drills. Of course, those sacks also came against the backup offensive line, so don’t measure the man for a gold jacket quite yet. Then again, for a pass rush that has languished among the league’s worst for years, it was refreshing to see Hutchinson look every inch like a No. 2 overall pick.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this player is going to be a really, really good player for us,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said before practice. “I’m excited to see him once we get into training camp and he gets into games for us.”
Hutchinson was selected with the second overall pick after a record-setting career down I-94. He racked up a school-record 14 sacks at Michigan last season, three of which came in a breakout performance against Ohio State. He rocketed toward the top of draft boards after that game, then solidified his stock with a standout performance at the combine.
He was the No. 1 overall player on Detroit’s board, and once Jacksonville took Georgia’s Travon Walker with the first overall pick instead, the Lions rushed Hutchinson’s name to Roger Goodell so fast that they were scolded by the league.
“(We said), ‘Let’s go, he’s our guy,’” head coach Dan Campbell told Sports Illustrated. “We weren’t going to wait around, and we’re not going to do the whole dog-and-pony show. We got our guy, and we turned the card in.”
Glenn strolled into the press room moments later with a giant smile on his face, repeating over and over, “he’s a true fit.” It’s still early, but the early signs remain promising that the fit is indeed true. Hutchinson was so impressive during OTAs on Tuesday and Wednesday that Glenn paused during the second day of work to marvel at his engine.
“Those are one of the things I talked about in practice yesterday with our D-line coach, like, ‘Just watch him. He’s always working. He’s always working,’” Glenn said. “That’s that relentless attitude that you guys could see when he was at Michigan that made him so successful. It’s natural for him.”
A day later, Hutchinson wrapped up the first round of OTAs by simply overwhelming the second-team offensive line. He beat offensive tackle Obinna Eze during 2-minute drills, then slid inside and whipped past former Ferris State standout Zein Obeid on the very next rep.
Next snap, Hutchinson beat Obeid for the hat trick.
“Everything that I thought we were getting shows up,” Glenn said. “Not just in practice, but in meetings also. What else shows up is just those little things where you’re like, ‘Can he do this? I wonder if I can do it?’ And then you see it in practice that it shows up. He has this quickness that’s just unbelievable. He has this ability to bend and turn and continue to work his hands that is outstanding.”
Some other observations from the first public practice of the year.
Johnson calling plays
When Campbell promoted Ben Johnson from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator this offseason, he declined to say who would call plays. On Thursday, it appeared Johnson was calling most of them, if not all of them. He broke down each quarterback before he took the field, then used a walkie-talkie to relay calls into the huddle.
That doesn’t mean Johnson will call the plays this season — Detroit could have been using a script written by Campbell before practice, for example — although the offense sure seems to be trending that way.
“Ben’s a super smart guy and obviously we’re in the vanilla stages of installing this,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “Let’s just get out there, let’s see if we can break the huddle, run a play, get lined up. But as it develops I’m really excited to see what this offense can be.”
Harris on the move
Campbell called Will Harris a “cafety” earlier this offseason, a sign the struggling safety could add more cornerback looks this year. But if Thursday was any indication, he might already be more cornerback than safety.
With Jeff Okudah (Achilles) and Jerry Jacobs (ACL) still nursing injuries, Harris started at outside cornerback alongside Amani Oruwariye. He did intercept a pass at one point, but also was burned a few times, including on a deep ball from Jared Goff to DJ Chark.
A third-round pick in 2019, Harris has struggled to live up to expectations at safety. He’s ranked among the 10 worst players at that position in each of his professional seasons, according to ProFootballFocus. But he did find some success as an injury replacement at cornerback down the stretch last season. Now it seems his best shot from him to contribute this season – a contract season for him, no less – could occur at cornerback.
Iffy already switching positions, too
The Lions are also tinkering with the idea of moving cornerback Ifatu Melifonwu to safety. Melifonwu was selected with the 2021 third-round pick that Detroit added in the Matthew Stafford trade, but played just 242 defensive snaps in seven games because of injuries.
On Thursday, I have spent most of practice working with the safetyties instead of the corners.
“When I was getting drafted (last year), it was talked about in meetings as something that I could potentially be doing in the future,” Melifonwu said. “So it’s kinda always been in the back of my head. I mean, last year I practiced at some nickel and I played dime. It’s always been in my head.”
No Decker, no worries
Offensive tackle Taylor Decker joined Okudah and Jacobs on the sideline, along with running back Jamaal Williams, tight end Derrick Deese, tight end James Mitchell and cornerback Chase Lucas. Meanwhile, tight end TJ Hockenson and defensive linemen Michael Brockers, Romeo Okwara, Eric Banks and John Penisini weren’t accounted for at all.
Decker is nursing a minor foot injury. He could play through the pain if the Lions were in-season, but the club is taking a proactive approach to his health after another foot injury cost him the final game of last season.
“I had a foot injury last game of the year,” Decker said. “Was rehabbing it all offseason, and just having some of the residual effects from all of that. Just being smart about it really, so it doesn’t continue to linger. Basically, the opinion I got was it’s something that’s going to get better, it’s just kind of a pain in the ass that will take a little time. Just being smart about it right now. Like I said, when it comes time to the bullets are flying and we’ve got to really play, it’s not even a thought.”
Okudah was held out of all drills, but was running on the side, an encouraging sign in his return from an Achilles injury he suffered in the first game of last season. If he’s not ready for the start of training camp, it shouldn’t be long after that. Sure looks like he’s on track to be available for the opener against Philadelphia on Sept. eleven.
Here’s betting Dan Campbell, an outspoken fan of training camp fights, was thrilled by the intensity as Detroit wrapped up its first week of practice. Difficult to say exactly what happened, but offensive lineman Logan Stenberg was in the middle of a failure that involved quarterback Tim Boyle and several defensive linemen.
Offensive lineman Penei Sewell, never afraid to mix things up, also joined the fray.
“Just some little, friendly conversations happening on the field,” Sewell said. “I just want to join in. I might miss a joke or something.
“Most definitely (like that intensity). When you see a teammate of yours get in that mode, in that fight-or-flight mode, oh man, I’m in there with you. There’s nobody I’d (rather) jump into battle with the guys I have here.”