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Aidan Hutchinson Can Lift Lions to NFL Legitimacy

Detroit has a history of chasing off franchise icons, but a local product from Michigan provides a chance to change that reputation.

If there were a prize for assembling the most sensible on-paper fit in the NFL draft, the Lions’ selecting Aidan Hutchinson with the No. 2 pick has to be the early favorite.

Here is a local product, born 36 minutes from the front doorstep of Ford Field and schooled 15 minutes away at Divine Child High School. Here is a player who cemented his stardom 45 minutes West in Ann Arbor. Here is a dude who smears his face in reverse–William Wallace makeup and leaps at quarterbacks like a hungry leopard paired with a coach (Dan Campbell) who chugs black coffee by the gallon, holds auditions for kneecap biters and once sat on an airplane calmly while his appendix neared explosion.


Of course, we stress the words on paper for a reason in Detroit. In the cozy narrative playing out in our heads, Hutchinson slots across the line from Romeo Okwara, stockpiles sacks in his rookie season and establishes himself as a foundation of the franchise. He is a local superstar who can act as the catch-all net for the fan base’s rampant cynicism and defeatist attitude. And a J.J. Watt–from-the-neighborhood type of catalyst who can help pivot a real turnaround.

For that to happen, though, Detroit has to learn from its previous mistakes.

In Hutchinson, the Lions have someone with real, marketable superstar potential. They have something beyond talent. They also have a track record of acquiring these types of players and alienating them for years, forcing them out of football early, or making situations so painfully stale and unpleasant that even the most patient stewards of Lions football ask to force their way out of town: Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh.

Hutchinson is the franchise’s highest draft pick since 2010, when Detroit selected Suh, the defensive tackle out of Nebraska, a year after selecting Stafford with the top pick in the draft. In that time, the weeds around the club have grown thick. It’s far down the list of anyone’s idea of a free-agent destination. At best, in recent years, they have been sporadically admired for their pluck when clearly overmatched on the field. At worst, they have been obviously and excruciatingly irrelevant.

One can Google what happened to the Lions and Johnson toward the end. One can read Sanders’s book and refresh themselves on the “communications gap” that opened up between the greatest player in franchise history and the executives who were paid to keep him happy. Sanders felt that no one cared about winning in Detroit, which was a thought, he said, that “slammed me harder than any linebacker that ever hit me in my career.”

The arrival of Campbell was clearly an effort to alter that sentiment. He was brought in to sweep the laughable haughtiness of the Matt Patricia regime away and to instill, at the very least, some idea that someone on the sideline cared. Campbell gets openly emotional at press conferences. He weeps after wins. It is a marked improvement from a coach who couldn’t bother to show up to meetings on time.

The arrival of Hutchinson lends Campbell some real potential. Though still overmatched, Detroit now boasts a top-10 offensive line, a quarterback (Jared Goff) who has been to a Super Bowl and, arguably, one of the better pass-rushing tandems in the NFL, plus an extra first-round pick recouped for shipping their old quarterback out of town. The upgraded talent is not immediately enough to consider the Lions a factor in the top-heavy NFC North, but the improvements could be enough to lift them from this perpetual sleepwalk.

This pick of Hutchinson is significant in that the Lions have another chance to not only win games, but to make the Lions an attractive place for players. Joe Burrow reinvigorated Cincinnati and turned the sleepy town into a football hotbed. Chase Young helped the Commanders wade through a divisional slog and into both a playoff race and a sense of identity. Micah Parsons changed the way we thought about both Dan Quinn and the Cowboys.

Hutchinson has that kind of potential, should the Lions realize it early enough and take great care to ensure he won’t be bolting like all the rest. 

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