The Detroit Lions defensive line will look significantly different this year after a handful of offseason moves. Gone are Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Sammie Lee Hill, and Corey Williams, all key players on last years front four. A mix of youth and veteran players will surround what looks to be perhaps the most dynamic interior line in the NFL.
Who’s on the roster: Ezekiel Ansah, Braylon Broughton, Nick Fairley, Israel Idonije, Jason Jones, Ronnell Lewis, C.J. Mosley, Spencer Nealy, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Jimmy Sadler-McQueen, Ndamukong Suh, Devin Taylor, Willie Young
Martin Mayhew used back to back first round picks to select Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Auburn’s Nick Fairley, both defensive tackles. Since then, both have received headlines for all the wrong reasons. Suh has appeared on numerous “Most-hated lists” and while Fairley has been arrested on multiple occasions. All sources say, however, that Fairley has cleaned up his act and is in shape and ready to make an impact. I believe he’ll be an All-Pro player this year. I’m serious. Suh demands a double team nearly every time he’s on the field. While his run defense occasionally leaves something to be desired, he has continued to show improvement and these two will form the best defensive tackle duo in the league.
Another first round pick was used this past spring with the selection of BYU’s Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. He’ll be asked to start from day one. While extremely gifted physically, Ansah has limited exposure to the game and has a lot to learn. Reports are that he learned very quickly when coached by the Lions staff at the Senior Bowl, and that he responded just as well to coaching at OTAs. I’m very on the fence about Ansah’s performance this season. I don’t think he’ll be a bust; I think his floor is higher than many others. Playing next to Suh and Fairley in the wide 9, I could see Ansah reaching double-digit sacks. I could also see him struggle as he adjusts to the NFL game. Only time will tell.
The fourth starting spot seems to have already been given to Jason Jones, a free agent pick-up and former Eastern Michigan star. Jones has the versatility to play on the interior of the line as well. Israel Idonije was also signed this offseason and will be involved in the ever rotating defensive line. I like him a little better than Jones on the outside, but the coaching staff seems to like Jones and we’ll likely see him start week one.
In addition to Idonije, Willie Young and Ronnell Lewis will compete for playing time. Young was a popular pick by many last season as a breakout candidate while Lewis played primarily special teams in his rookie season. I like Young to beat out Lewis. In fact, I’m not convinced Lewis makes the 53-man roster. Yes, he was a fourth-round pick just a year ago. However, this offseason included an arrest. More importantly, we saw Martin Mayhew put an emphasis on acquiring tall, long defensive ends. That is not Lewis, who stands just 6’ 2”. He may be around as a special teamer and developmental player this season, but I don’t expect him to make an impact on the defensive line. Devin Taylor is my pick as the fifth defensive end on the roster.
C.J. Mosley comes Detroit from the Jacksonville Jaguars where he started 13 games last season. He’ll be the primary backup for Suh and Fairley, though expect less of the rotating defensive tackles we have grown accustomed to while watching the Lions. Saddler-McQueen is the frontrunner for the fourth defensive tackle spot on the depth chart.
Especially with the changes in the secondary, the defensive line will be relied upon heavily. In the middle, Suh and Fairley will command a double team. This leaves three other one-on-one matchups, giving the defensive ends every opportunity to get in the backfield and make plays. If this happens, teams will have to start using tight ends and running backs in pass protection, making the job easier for the linebackers and defensive backs. The key to Gunther Cunningham’s defensive system, I expect big things from the front four this season.