2015 Detroit Lions Defensive Line: Asset or Liability

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Haloti Ngata vs Detroit’s 2010 First-Round Draft Pick

Sep 3, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (92) gives high fives to fans as he runs onto the field before a preseason NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field. Lions beat the Bills 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The most tantalizing headline to emerge out of the 2015 off-season involves the departure of Detroit’s 2010 first-round draft pick and the team’s quest to replace him. Fear of the unknown is what makes this issue so pervasive for Lions fans.

After all, we saw how well one player performed within the system. We have no clue how his replacement, Haloti Ngata will fare within the system. Another unknown involves the current status of Haloti Ngata. Is he still an elite player? Can he play the entire season and if so, how many snaps can he handle and remain productive.

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  • The answers to these questions call for a great deal of speculation. The front office and coaching staff have consistently avoided entertaining such discussion and I wouldn’t dare pretend to know more than they.

    What we know is players of varying talent levels become immensely productive in Austin’s scheme.

    Take Detroit’s 2010 First-Round Draft Pick for example. Earlier in this piece I compared Nick Fairley’s run stop rating with the team’s 2010 first-round draft pick. The latter was a huge liability against the run early in his career.

    Nov 11, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers Ring of Honor inductees Paul Gruber and Warren Sapp and Jimmie Giles pose during halftime against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    This drew the following criticism from former NFL Network Analyst Warren Sapp:

    “I am dumbfounded. You lead that defense and they are running the ball right at you?” Sapp said, via the Detroit News. “I want to see that game where they ran at Mean Joe Greene, where they ran at me or at any hog on that front line. You run away from us.

    “They run at him because he’s a blind dog in a meat house.”

    Upon hearing this droves of Lions fans were struck with ire for Sapp that persists unto this day. The inconvenient truth is Warren Sapp was right. Teams ran with success into the heart of the Lions defense. Despite investing two top 11 draft picks on the defensive line in successive years the Lions remained powerless to stop opposing rushing offenses.

    When Teryl Austin was installed as defensive coordinator he didn’t take it merely as an opportunity to showcase his scheme. No. While Austin is a superb tactician, it’s his ability to develop players within his scheme that gives the Lions a chance to be elite in 2015.

    For example, George Johnson came out of nowhere to become a productive pass rusher for the first time in his career.

    Andre Fluellen, the quintessential ‘journeyman’ flashed real playmaking ability at points in 2014. This was a peculiar occurrence many would never have anticipated as Fluellen had never proven himself a ‘playmaker’ at other junctures in his career.

    I expect Haloti Ngata to have an experience that is very similar to the player he replaces.

    Prior to Austin’s arrival, Detroit’s 2010 first-round pick was a liability in run defense, at least for three of his first four NFL seasons. To his credit, the draft pick became serviceable against the run in 2013.

    Austin helped that player transition from serviceable against the run in 2013 to dominant against it in 2014.

    Feb 22, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome speaks at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Haloti Ngata comes to the Lions having been one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL for the past 9 seasons. Run defense has been Ngata’s calling card, but Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome warns about underestimating Ngata as a pass rusher when he says:

    "“Don’t be fooled by numbers….Sometimes the impact comes with mere pressure….” “He’s a better pass rusher than most defensive tackles,” Newsome says. “You’ve had some really remarkable pass rushers from that position over the years — guys like Warren Sapp and John Randle— who had such outstanding quickness. But I don’t know if you’ve had a 340-pound guy bringing it like he does.”"

    If the past two off-seasons are any indication Haloti Ngata will thrive under Austin’s direction. He may not generate the same amount of sacks or pressures as his predecessor, but Ngata will be the bane of opposing offensive schemes throughout 2015.

    Final Disposition: Even

    Next: Conclusion