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Time for Lions to find another hidden gem with Kerry Hyder out

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Kris Kocurek has spent the past half-decade finding unknown players and turning them into productive ones for the Detroit Lions. He might have to find more than one for this season.

One of his better pupils, Kerry Hyder, is out for the season with an Achilles injury and with it, the Lions are losing their sack leader from last season and the No. 2 pass-rusher on a team with few options. It's a problem for the Lions -- one that has been simmering for the past two months.

Ezekiel Ansah sat out a bunch of the spring and is still on the physically unable to perform list. Armonty Bryant, one of two defensive ends signed by Bob Quinn, is suspended for the first four games of the season. Cornelius Washington, the team's other signing, has spent most of training camp hurt. And Brandon Copeland, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who could have had a larger pass-rush role with Hyder out, is also likely out for the season with a torn pec that will require surgery.

Now the Lions are in a quandary: Where will the pass rush come from? The answer likely lies in a bunch of unknowns, and they will look to Kocurek to groom one like he has with George Johnson, Devin Taylor and Hyder in previous seasons.

"We've just got to keep playing, keep jelling together and keep working," defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. "To fill in for K-Hyde, man, that's a very big loss. But we've got the guys in the room to step up."

Anthony Zettel has been one of the better performers in camp, but he had only 13 tackles and one sack last season in limited snaps. He's gained speed, lost body fat and has shown an explosive first step and bull rush off the outside. But it is tough to rely on him as the team’s No. 2 pass-rusher.

Yet he is Detroit's only remaining experienced option beyond Ansah and Washington. Behind them are three rookies: Seventh-round pick Pat O'Connor and undrafted free agents Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Valoaga. Of the three, Barrett has shown the best knack for rushing, but he's an undersized player who hasn't faced many first-team offensive tackles. Valoaga has performed well, too, and has good size. But he has similar questions as Barrett.

It's reasonable to think at this point, at least one of the three will make the roster.

If you're Detroit, though, and you're coming off a season when some of the biggest issues were the result of not getting to the quarterback, those options do not inspire confidence looking at a schedule that includes quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Aaron Rodgers.

Without a significant pass rush last season, the Lions allowed an NFL record opposing completion percentage. And this season's pass rush has a lot of unknowns.

The other option for the Lions right now is to explore trades and free agency. But it's unclear who might be available in a trade.

Of the free agents, Dwight Freeney, 37, might be the most intriguing option. He won't be an every-down player anymore and he's been with three teams in the past three seasons. He's also not the player he once was, registering more than five sacks just once since leaving Indianapolis after the 2012 season. But he has familiarity with Lions coach Jim Caldwell and is the type of veteran who could give the Lions something in a clearly-defined role, similar to what Anquan Boldin did last season at receiver.

Trent Cole and Jared Odrick, who are younger, are also available. But both have their questions. Cole had two sacks last season. Odrick might make the most sense, but he played only six games last season and had one sack. But at this late date, they are some of the better experienced options.

How the Lions handle this -- and whether Kocurek can pull off another gem-from-nowhere -- could determine how successful Detroit's defense is in 2017.

"We got a long time between now and preseason's over with and we'll just see how things go," Caldwell said. "We have some young guys with some talent. They have some ability. We'll see what happens."