Detroit Lions Review and Offseason Plan: Defensive Ends


Photo Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Today we take a look at how the Detroit Lions defensive ends performed during the 2012 season with a little help from the fine folks at Pro Football Focus.

The radar chart below shows the Pro Football Focus grades for each Lions defensive end and compares them to the best, worst and league average ratings. PFF grades each player on each play to produce a massively useful tool for evaluating the totality of a player’s season compared to others at his position.

2012 Season Review
This was supposed to be the season Cliff Avril cemented his status as one of the league’s best defensive ends. At least, that’s what he was banking on when he turned down a three-year, $30 million deal from the Lions last offseason in favor of playing out the season on the franchise tag. But Avril’s fifth year in the league didn’t land where the trajectory set by his first four years would have predicted. Avril’s sack total fell from 11 to 9.5 and he forced two fumbles a year after forcing six. That earned him a -0.4 pass rush rating from Pro Football Focus. Add in a -9.9 against the run and Avril’s -11.6 overall PFF rating ranked him 55th out of 62 4-3 defensive ends that played at least 25% of his team’s snaps.

Throughout this series I have created position-specific radar charts like the one above and shown how the individual Lions performed against the league’s worst and best as rated by Pro Football Focus. A Lion hasn’t shown up as the best yet but now we see one showing up as the league’s worst in Kyle Vanden Bosch. His -31.2 overall rating was more than ten points worse than the next lowest rating and he got it by being amazingly negative rushing the passer and playing the run. It’s obvious KVB’s days as a Lion needed to come to an end, even considering his contributions to the locker room as one of the team’s most respected veteran leaders. The Lions have already made that move but I’m left wondering why KVB kept his starting job throughout the season. His play certainly didn’t warrant it so the “trying to win” line can’t be applied with a straight face. There is simply no reason why Vanden Bosch should have played 660 snaps compared to Lawrence Jackson‘s 401.

Speaking of Jackson, he finished as the only Lions defensive end with a solidly positive rating against the run with a +5.2, 17th best among all 4-3 defensive ends. He struggled rushing the passer (-5.8) but the Lions would have been better served with Jackson taking more snaps over Vanden Bosch.

Willie Young played the fewest snaps of the four-man rotation (337) and like Jackson, posted a positive rating against the run (albeit a modest one) at +0.5. Young took a big (-3.5) hit for penalties to finish with an overall -6.4 and while that doesn’t look great, I’m still left wanting to see what Young can do with more playing time. He finished with the same number of quarterback hurries (12) as Kyle Vanden Bosch despite playing about 51% as many snaps.

Offseason Plan
It was important for the Lions to move on from Kyle Vanden Bosch and they have already done just that. Step one, complete.

Step two is also an easy one – tendering Willie Young a contract. As a restricted free agent, Young is likely to be retained at a reasonable cost. That affords the Lions another year to see what Young’s ceiling might be. With KVB already out the door and an uncertain future with the team’s other defensive ends, there is no need to create another hole in the rotation when there is no need to do so.

What’s step three? That is going to be more complicated although I believe the right asnwer is re-signing Lawrence Jackson. He may have been on his way to earning the label of a first-round bust with the Seahawks but he doesn’t have that weight around his neck as a member of the Lions and he has performed reasonably well. Certainly well enough to stay in the Lions’ defensive end rotation and probably enough to be given the opportunity to compete for a starting job.

From there the Lions should at least stay in contact with Cliff Avril. If three-years, $30 million was the offer last offseason, I’m not sure why the Lions would up that following the 2012 season. Avril is still young (only 26) but the Lions can’t afford to build in any sort of upward projection into a contract offer. If someone else is willing to, so be it and good for Cliff, we wish him well.

Regardless of how the situations with Young, Jackson and Avril play out, the Lions best value play with the fifth overall pick in April is looking like a pass rusher. Damontre Moore and Bjoern Werner have already been prominently mentioned as possibilities by draftniks and mock drafters. Considering propsect grades, positional value, need and defensive philosophy, the early view suggests a perfect fit. The Lions have at least one starting job to fill and that could be two if Cliff Avril goes elsewhere. The draft will be the best possibility to close one of those holes immediately.

Previously: Wide Receivers, Offensive Tackles, Guards, Center, Tight Ends, Quarterback, Running Backs, Outside Linebackers, Inside Linebacker, Safeties, Cornerbacks

*Those that have been around the Detroit Lions blogosphere for a while may recognize the approach presented as similar to Ty Schalter’s ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ series on The Lions in Winter. Don’t worry, he’s cool with what I’m doing here and has assured me that he’ll be back with Old Mother Hubbard later in the offseason.