Plenty of things can change between now and the start of the regular season for the Detroit Lions. We still have free agency happening and we’re quickly approaching the 2023 NFL Draft.
In a surprising move on Sunday night, the Detroit Lions landed a big fish from the free agency pool. They signed defensive back Chauncey Garnder-Johnson to a one-year contract. While they lost DeShon Elliot earlier in free agency, they easily replace him with the league leader in interceptions last season.
With so many different moves happening on the defensive side of the football, I thought it was best that we peek at the Lions’ new-look defense. Here’s how the depth chart should be if the season started today for the Detroit Lions.
2023 Lions offensive depth chart prediction after the first week of free agency
- Aidan Hutchinson
- John Cominsky
- Charles Harris
- Romeo Okwara
- Josh Paschal
One of the nice things on the Lions defensive front is how versatile all these players are or can be. Hutchinson is an obvious three-down starter for this defense and he can play in a variety of spots. Whether he’s bumped down inside or plays standing up while rushing off the edge. Bringing back John Cominsky is a smart move as he’s not only versatile but he’s strong and a player’s coach.
As for Harris, Okwara and Paschal, they all play interchangeable roles. Their impact on the game is felt differently but during key moments of multiple drives. There were predictions that Romeo Okwara could be cut this off-season so the Lions could save close to $14 million dollars in cap space but that move hasn’t happened yet. He’s one player to keep a close eye on from this group as the move could happen after the 2023 NFL Draft.
Keep in mind that most mock drafts have the Lions selecting an edge rusher. So obviously, they could very well add to this group. Someone such as Tyree Wilson from Texas Tech with the 6th overall pick would make a ton of sense for this defense. Another option could be Lukas Van Ness from Iowa with the 18th overall pick. Both players are highly versatile and play with a blend of speed and power.
Interior Defensive Line
- Alim McNeill
- Isaiah Buggs
- Benito Jones
- Demetrius Taylor
- Levi Onwuzurike
The one true starter from this group is Alim McNeill as the team’s starting nose tackle. We will see somewhat of a rotation alongside McNeil but down the stretch, Isaiah Buggs started to earn more playing time. In 2022, Buggs earned a career high of 750 total snaps played (per PFF). That awarded him a two-year contract to remain in Detroit.
Another player worth monitoring in Levi Onwuzurike. The Lions selected him in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft. During his rookie season, he played close to 500 total snaps between special teams and defense. However, he suffered a back injury in 2022 and needed back surgery. It’ll be interesting to see how that impacts his status for 2023 and if it alters his explosive play style.
If Detroit was interested in adding another interior defensive lineman to this group, I could see them taking one in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. An interesting name to keep tabs on is Calijah Kancey out of Pittsburgh. Potentially an option with the 18th overall pick, I’ve labeled as dynamite as he’s able to explode into the backfield while consistently working his hands to get there. Even though he’s undersized with short arms, Kancey can most definitely play.
One of the easiest evaluations you'll have for the 2023 NFL Draft is Georgia IDL Jalen Carter. He's one of the best players in the draft, if not, the best player in the draft.
Dominant due to his length, power, athleticism and versatility, he can be an impact player from day… https://t.co/6XvAIbyzsR pic.twitter.com/oGJSeLscpP
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) February 27, 2023
Another option could be with the 6th overall pick and if Detroit would consider drafting defensive tackle Jalen Carter. His draft stock has been on a downward spiral since the Scouting Combine. Meanwhile, he arrived at his Pro Day looking sluggish through the bag drills and then was 9 pounds heavier than he was at the Combine. It’ll be interesting to see how the interior defensive line looks for Detroit after the 2023 NFL Draft.
- Alex Anzalone (starting MIKE)
- Malcolm Rodriguez (starting WILL)
- James Houston (starting SAM)
- Derrick Barnes
- Anthony Pittman
- Julian Okwara
While I remained hopeful that the Lions would spend big and bring in linebacker Tremaine Edmunds from the Buffalo Bills, they did not. Instead, they brought back experienced linebacker Alex Anzalone. On a reasonable deal that spans over three-years for almost $19 million dollars. We should all be able to live with it. Anzalone played well down the stretch last season and finished with 125 total tackles.
Playing alongside Anzalone for most of the year was Malcolm Rodriguez. He was the spark-plug that was needed to the defense and made an immediate impact. It was an impact that we haven’t felt from a drafted Lions linebacker since the days of DeAndre Levy. In addition to a strong rookie year from Rodriguez, the Lions seem to have struck gold in 6th round pick with James Houston. In only 7 games, Houston had 8 total sacks. Plenty of growth potential for both players.
Spoke with Indiana LB Cam Jones after an impressive first day at the #SeniorBowl. Love the way he Carrie’s himself. pic.twitter.com/ncPFVF5oTu
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) January 31, 2023
It’s unclear if the Lions will consider drafting a linebacker at some point in the 2023 NFL Draft. One player that has flown under the radar that impressed me during the Senior Bowl was Cam Jones from Indiana. Jones was a vocal leader on the field in Mobile and had a great overall frame that could even add a few pounds of muscle in the NFL. He was fluid through drills and when I spoke to him, he seemed to have his head on right with the way he processes the game and watches film. I’d think the Lions could take a liking to him.
- Jeff Okudah
- Emmanuel Moseley
- Cameron Sutton
- Jerry Jacobs
- Will Harris
- Chase Lucas
- Khalil Dorsey
- Jarren Williams
- Mac McCain
Over the last week or so, the Lions have made two great signings at cornerback. For starters, they brought in Cam Sutton from the Steelers on a three-year deal worth $33 million dollars. If things don’t work out, it essentially can become a two-year deal. As for Emmanuel Moseley, the Lions brought him in on a one-year deal to prove himself after consecutive seasons of being hurt. There’s a chance that both players earn huge roles as starters in a secondary that had plenty of uncertainty.
There has been some uncertainty about the future of Jeff Okudah in Detroit. He played well during certain points of the 2022 season and then the last few weeks of the season were less than ideal for him. While Okudah enters a contract year, they did bring back one of their own with cornerback Will Harris. There were definitely times when Harris felt like a liability in the slot and that’s why they brought in a player such as Sutton but don’t be surprised if Harris carves out some type of sub-package role and plays on special teams.
As for the draft, it still feels like the Lions are going to target a cornerback early in the 2023 NFL Draft. I’ve been pushing for Christian Gonzalez out of Oregon and there are many reasons why. For starters, he’s the best cornerback in the draft and much of that is due to his fluidity and physicality at the catch point. He’s got the straight-line speed needed to run vertically with receivers and he just feels like the type of player that can easily transition into a key role for Detroit.
- Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (starting strong safety/buzz defender)
- Tracy Walker (starting free safety)
- Kerby Joseph (key rotational player with high chance of starting in nickel/dime packages)
- Ifeatu Melifonwu
- CJ Moore
- Brady Breeze
On Sunday night, the Lions made the surprising move of signing Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. The talented safety hit the market and there was barely any traction on where he could end up. The Lions swooped in and made the smart decision of giving Gardner-Johnson a one-year deal to prove himself. There should plenty of opportunities for him to match his league leading six interceptions from a season ago.
As for Tracy Walker, he’s coming back from an achilles injury. He’s shown his progress on social media and everything looks good but there’s also some uncertainty when it comes to an injury of that nature. If all goes right, he can easily play as the single-high safety in any Cover 1 looks defensively. But don’t be surprised if Chauncey Gardner-Johnson plays closer to the box in more of a “buzz” defender role while Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph play over the top of the defense.
With the signing of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, I think it’s unlikely that the Lions draft a safety in the 2023 NFL Draft. There was some speculation that Brian Branch from Alabama could be an option. While he could still be, it doesn’t seem likely.
If they do consider a safety, it could be on the third day of the draft and the one player that seems like an ideal fit would be Chamarri Conner from Virginia Tech. At the Combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds while reaching 40.5″ in the vertical jump. Conner had some impressive reps at the Senior Bowl, as well. He could play as an overhang defender that fills the alley and covers tight ends and running backs.