Finishing up the State of the Roster Series with a look at the Lions front 7. The guys who control the trenches and affect the quarterback the most.
*projected starters in italics
*likelihoods are probabilities that they wait until that day to fill that need
Roster Outlook: Average
The Lions have had the worst group of linebackers in the NFL for the last 2-3 years. Easily. So I write that word “average” with the most optimism I’ve had for this group in years. Jamie Collins is old and it’s likely that by the end of his deal, he will be bad. But right now, he’s still pretty solid. He’s also very familiar with Patricia’s scheme which is very demanding on linebackers. LBs have to have the mass to fight through blockers and spill outside runs, and they also need to have the length to stack and shed. They also need to be able to cover well in space as with the Lions heavy man coverage schemes, they will often get isolated on running backs and tight ends. Collins can handle all of these duties well and is our best linebacker since DeAndre Levy.
Tavai is not as good as Collins, especially int he passing game, but he’s a solid plugger in the run game. He also has experience in college as an edge player (in fact I thought his film showed him to be much better in that role) so if the ions need him to shift over to that group for depth, he can help out. He still was a colossal reach last year, but he can be a quality two-down piece for the Lions.
Jarrad Davis, in another scheme, probably is not THAT bad. But he’s been the worst starting linebacker in the NFL the last two years. I’m hoping that the additions of Tavai and Collins the last 2 years have pushed Davis into a sub-package blitzing role, where he has found success at the NFL level. I FEAR, that the Lions are planing on moving Collins or Tavai to Edge. Such a move would ensure that both Davis and the player they move are underwhelming and again make this unit bad. I am REALLY hoping this is not the case. But the inexplicable release of Devon Kennard weeks before the Draft makes me nervous.
Christian Jones just got an extension to return as a backup linebacker and be a core special teamer. That’s a good role for him. Starting was not. He was slightly better than Davis but that says almost nothing.
Likelihood of Day 1 Pick: 0% – No need and both the LBs with first round grades would be poor fits in our scheme.
Likelihood of Day 2 Pick: 5 % –
Likelihood of Day 3 Pick: 10 %
Lions should not be adding anything here. Similar to safety, there are a lot of spent resources here. Sadly, all those resources lead to an at-best average group, but such is life.
Jalen Reeves- Maybin
Roster Outlook: Mediocre
This group is a lot like cornerback, albeit not as deep. It does not look good at first look but that’s in part because it’s missing a starter. The Lions cut Devon Kennard for reasons I still don’t understand, as he was the second most productive pass rusher on an extremely anemic pass rush. Let me reiterate: We had the 31st ranked pass rush in the NFL according to DVOA, and we got rid of our second best pass rusher. Kennard also was solid in coverage and in setting the edge, and was not all that expensive, so I was left scratching my head over this move. I am hoping that this means the Lions are planning on addressing this position heavy in the Draft. But who knows.
There’s at least some talent here though. On the weakside, Flowers had a great season for us last year and is a real presence at DE, despite having little help. He sets the edge well in the running game, gets pressures on the QB and can provide both inside and outside pass rush. He’s not an elite player but he’s a very, very good one. His backup, last year’s 4th round pick Austin Bryant, only played 4 games last year, thanks to injury. But he is a solid prospect who excelled at stopping the run at Clemson, and has the length, frame and athleticism to develop into a pretty good pass rusher as well.
At SAM, it’s a little less rosy of a picture. Romeo Okwara is a solid backup, but currently is penciled in as the starter at SAM. He’s a good rotational piece to grab 15-20 snaps a game and nothing more, in order to maximize his efficiency. Reeves-Maybin is more of an awkward fit, and really doesn’t fit this position or the off-ball LB spot. He was a special teams contributor last year, and if they take multiple picks at this position in this draft, I don’t see him on the final roster.
Likelihood of Day 1 Pick: 10 % – If the Redskins inexplicably pass on Chase Young or the Lions trade up into the bottom of Round 1.
Likelihood of Day 2 Pick: 70 % – It’s a thin draft for edge rushers and most of the value is here.
Likelihood of Day 3 Pick: 70% – Yes this equals more than 100%. They need to add 2.
The Lions need both a SAM who can become a nickel pass rusher, and they need a pure nickel pass rusher who can add depth at both SAM and Weakside End in the base package.
Josh Uche (MICH) and Zack Baun (WISC) are two guys they should target early in Round 2. Uche has explosive pass rush capabilities, with great bend, surprising power, and an explosive first step. He also has experience dropping in coverage in Michigan’s scheme, and is not a liability in the run game. Baun is similar to Uche, although not quite as explosive of a pass rusher, but probably a bit better against the run. Both would be neat fits for the Lions and would fit in seamlessly. Baun did just have a diluted drug test sample at the combine though, which for taskmaster Quinn, may lead to a fall or removal from his draft board. Ideally, we are grabbing one of these two on Friday night.
If they elect to draft a SAM later, from a talent standpoint Terrell Lewis (BAMA) makes a ton of sense. Talent-wise, he’s a first round pick. However, Lewis missed most of the 2017 season and all of the 2018 season with various injuries. There are reports that half of the NFL has dropped him from their board because of his injury concerns. That means he probably falls to Day 3, but his talent is such that I would be all for gambling on him in the 4th round.
For nickel pass rusher, Jabari Zuniga (UF) is an exciting prospect that would greatly improve our pass rush. He only showed it in flashes, but he can win from the inside and outside with his rush, and has an elite NFL frame. He’s a boom or bust prospect and could be out the league in 2 years or he could be an All-Pro. He won’t make it out of the top 45 picks though so they will have to use a premium pick if they want him.
Julian Okwara (ND), the younger brother of Romeo, might make sense if the Lions wait until Day 3. He is another long, athletic player with the frame and speed to win on the outside. He can get run over in the run game though so he would be a pure nickel rusher only. The Lions can also have an inside look (albeit biased) on his character and work ethic by speaking with his brother.
Khalid Khareem (ND), Julian’s teammate, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s a stout run defender with a great frame, who needs to further develop his pass rushing acumen. He’s also a home town kid, hailing from Farmington. Khareem should be available on Day 3 and would be an interesting addition in the 5th round.
Overall, the Lions had better address this position hard. If not in the draft, they need to make a play for one of the edge player free agents on the market currently. They got worse in their biggest weakness by losing Kennard, so they should probably double up. I would probably use 2 of the 3 (4 if they trade down) Day 2 picks they have to address this issue. A haul of Uche and Zuniga would be fantastic albeit possibly unrealistic.
Roster Outlook: Poor
This is not a great group. Shelton is a good nose tackle, capable of one and two-gapping, as the Lions ask their nose tackle to do both – but he’s the only sure thing of this group. Hand had a really good 2018, particularly against the run, but then missed 13 games last season, and looked pretty mediocre in the 3 games he played. The Lions are hoping for a major bounce back season this year but it’s far from guaranteed. Strong, the primary backup for Hand and Williams, played OK in limited snaps last year and the Lions are really high on him, but he’s shown very little so far. Williams, the free agent pickup from the Bears, had a solid 2019, but he came out of nowhere to do so. Before that he was journeyman who bounced around the league. He is athletic though and offers potential to play all three positions on the defensive line, so he could be a good rotation piece. Atkins and Sagapolu are just mountains who don’t offer much but size to plug away in the middle. Sagapolu will likely head to the practice squad and Atkins will fend off any training camp challengers to be Danny Shelton’s understudy when we two-gap.
Likelihood of Day 1 Pick: 45%
Likelihood of Day 2 Pick: 45%
Likelihood of Day 3 Pick: 50%
Possible targets: This position is linked to corner in my eyes. They will take at least one interior DL with one of the premium picks and then I think it’s likely 50/50 they will add another one later. They absolutely have to add some talent here. That’s why I believe the recent chatter that Derrick Brown (AUB) is growing in popularity with the Lions staff for the pick. Brown is an absolutely disruptive force in the middle. His tape is phenomenal and he has annihilated the SEC for the last 2 seasons. He is huge, physical, explosive, and strong. He does fall down a lot more than you would think for a man that powerful. And he can be washed down the line when he lets his momentum get the better of him. But he re-sets the line of scrimmage and draws double and sometimes triple teams on a regular basis. He would be an excellent pick.
If the Lions go with Okudah early, then they can grab a DL in round 2.
Here is my draft board regardless of position at DT (note: I did not get a chance to watch tape on Rashad Lawrence (LSU) or Marlon Davidson (AUB) so I did not rank them.)
- Derrick Brown (AUB)
- Javon Kinlaw (USC-Gamecocks)
- Justin Madibuike (TAMU)
- Raekwon Davis (BAMA)
- Raequan Williams (MSU-Spartans)
- Jordan Elliot (MIZZ)
- Ross Blacklock (TCU)
- Neville Gallimore (OU)
- Leki Fotu (UTAH)
This how I believe the Lions would rank them:
Under Tackle/Strongside End:
Kinlaw probably won’t be an option as he should go mid Round 1. Madibuke is my 3rd ranked DT, but he likely would be ranked much lower on the Lions board, if at all. He’s a pass rushing DT with impressive explosion and disruption, but would not fit the archetype the Lions look for. He is only a one gap player and would not give the Lions the versatility they need. The same goes for Gallimore.
Davis is a guy I could definitely see them taking if they pass on Brown in Round 1. Davis almost exclusively two-gapped at Alabama, both as an end and and a nose, and also showed the ability to one-gap as well when asked to. He could play all 3 positions along the line for the Lions. Quinn may catch “deja-vu” with Davis as he has a very similar profile to former Bama player Ashawn Robinson, who the Lions have not yet re-signed (although he may be re-hitting the market). Williams has impressive film in his time with the Spartans, and I think will go much higher than many in the media think. He doesn’t cleanly fit the Lions scheme from what I saw on film, but he has the length and disruption to project at the under position.
Elliot I think will be high on their list if they pass on the versatility of Davis. He has some explosive tape and he two-gapped as an end at Mizzou, but you can see that he has one gap explosiveness when they let him pass rush from the interior. I also see them being relatively high on Blacklock. His film didn’t wow me, but he was solid and violent with his hands. He’s not the biggest guy in the world but he stood up well to double teams and I think the Lions could fit him into their scheme. Finally there is Fotu, who’s tape was very mediocre. But that likely is because Utah miscast him as a one gap, penetrating DT. However, one look at his truly massive frame and length and one an see a potential nose tackle in there. If the Lions wait until the 3rd or 4th round, Fotu might make sense.
The Lions are finally adequate at linebacker but they have big moves to make on the edge and in the trenches. They need to invest at least 3 picks shoring up these areas as they are the weak point of a very leaky defense. It won’t matter what talent they have in the secondary if they cannot stop the run or get to the quarterback.