The Detroit Lions entered the 2023 season with their best defensive roster in years. But that roster’s depth is about to be tested.
After Week 2, the Lions placed both edge rusher James Houston and defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson on injured reserve. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Houston will be out “at least 6-8 weeks” because of a fractured ankle while Gardner-Johnson could miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, according to The Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett.
The Lions will feel the absence of both players, but the loss of Houston is coming at a particularly bad time. Detroit has just 1 sack in the first two games, so the team losing one of its top edge rushers is obviously less than ideal.
For Week 3, Detroit will turn to its edge rushing depth to create more pressure. But a trade to bolster the Lions pass rush isn’t out of the question.
Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox proposed the Lions as a landing spot for Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett.
“The Lions might be wise to take a look at Barnett, as standout pass-rusher James Houston is set to miss ‘at least’ 6-8 weeks with a fractured ankle,” wrote Knox.
“Detroit fell to 1-1 on Sunday but is still hoping to make a run at an NFC North title. Barnett could at least help the Lions fill Houston’s role in the pass-rushing rotation.”
Detroit’s Edge Rushing Depth Entering Week 3
Without Houston, the Lions lost half of their top pass rushing tandem. Entering the season, that was Houston and former No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson.
According to Pro Football Focus player grades, Hutchinson has been Detroit’s best pass rusher early in 2023. But the 23-year-old needs more help.
USA Today’s Russell Brown argued that Detroit’s front four “is limited” outside of Hutchinson.
“Through two games this season, the Lions talented pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson has a league-leading 13 total pressures (per PFF: three hits and 10 hurries),” Brown wrote. “Those numbers are great, but the lack of sack production is concerning — but not as concerning as the lack of pressure being generated from the rest of the defenders on the defensive line.”
Brown called out veterans Benito Jones, John Cominsky and Alim McNeill as players who must step up for Detroit’s defense.
“Defensive linemen such as Benito Jones and John Cominsky have both played over 55% of the snaps this season. Only Cominsky has generated a pressure,” Brown wrote. “Just one single pressure.
“Defensive lineman Alim McNeil has played 71% of the team’s snaps this season and he hasn’t generated one pressure either.”
Jones and McNeill play on the inside of the defensive line, so they won’t directly replace Houston. That job will likely fall to Cominsky, Romeo Okwara, Charles Harris and potentially a couple other defenders.
But the Lions need a collection of players — on the inside and outside along the defensive line — to improve and overcome the loss of Houston. While he didn’t have a sack yet this year, Houston had 8 sacks in the final 7 games last season when Detroit went 5-2.
How Derek Barnett Could Fit With the Lions
If things don’t improve for Detroit’s pass rush, general manager Brad Holmes may have no choice but to add an edge rusher to compete for the NFC North title.
Barnett would be an interesting addition. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler and Tim McManus reported that Barnett gauged the trade market to “potentially play elsewhere” before the season began. More than likely, the veteran edge rusher would still like to join a different team.
In the first two weeks combined, Barnett played just 30 defensive snaps.
The 27-year-old posted 5 sacks as a rookie to help the Eagles win the Super Bowl during the 2017 season. He also reached at least 5 sacks in 2019 and 2020.
Over the past two seasons, though, he has only 2 sacks. Barnett missed nearly all of last season because of a torn ACL.
In limited playing time during two games this season, Barnett has 2 combined tackles, including 1 tackle for loss.
Barnett could supply an immediate veteran presence in Detroit’s pass rush. He shouldn’t cost much because he’s a disgruntled player who’s due to be a free agent in March.
He’s not as sexy an option as Chase Young, but Barnett would present short-term upside until Houston can return.