Undrafted Kevin Strong thrives as pass rusher, turns heads in Lions camp
Allen Park — At this point, it's safe to call it a trend.
For nine consecutive seasons, an undrafted rookie has been on the Detroit Lions' roster for the first game of the regular season, starting with defensive backs Randy Phillips and Aaron Berry in 2010 to wide receiver Brandon Powell a year ago.
In all likelihood, that run will continue this year; it's just a matter of determining who that player, or players will be. If we consider the financials, offensive tackle Ryan Pope is a safe bet. He scored a $20,000 signing bonus and has $145,000 of his salary guaranteed, the most for any UDFA across the league.
But beyond Pope, another player forcing his way into the conversation is defensive lineman Kevin Strong.
A uniquely sized defensive tackle out of the University of Texas-San Antonio, Strong has been one of the biggest surprises in the early stages of training camp, putting himself on the radar heading into the team's preseason, where the wheat is separated from the chaff.
“He is a little bit different than some of the bigger bodies that are out there," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "From a defensive tackle standpoint, I think there is a some more flexibility with some of the things positionally that we can do with him."
Strong has had an increased opportunity to shine because of a slew of injuries to Detroit's defensive front. And at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, the Lions are taking full advantage of his versatile skill set, lining him all over the line, from directly over the center to on the edge as a rusher.
"He’s done a good job of handling those different roles," Patricia said. "The defensive line, in general, we’re trying to learn the technique first. Whether you’re outside shade on the guard, outside shade on the tackle, treat it the same, let’s just make sure the technique is consistent."
Where Strong has thrived is rushing the passer. Whether it's been working one-on-one in a drill against an offensive lineman, or in full-team situations, he's routinely found his way into the backfield. At the scrimmage held Friday night at Ford Field, Strong burst through the line for a would-be sack, sending fans scrambling to their programs to figure out who was wearing No. 62.
"One thing about my pass rush, I still have a lot to work on, as far as my different moves, but my number one thing, every time, is my get-off," Strong said. "I try to be the first one off. If I can be connected to the (snap of the) ball, that helps me a lot."
Strong's transition to this next level also has been eased by his connection with Lions defensive coach Bo Davis, who coached Strong at UTSA during the 2017 season.
"Me and coach Bo have a connection where I know what he's talking about and he knows how to put things in a way I understand," Strong said. "I wouldn't want to play for any other coach, to tell you the truth."
Strong, like the rest of Detroit's rookies, will get a further opportunity to impress the decision makers starting Monday, when the New England Patriots come to town for three joint practices and the preseason opener for both teams.