The Detroit Lions find themselves in a surprisingly enviable situation in the 2016 NFL draft as a position of need is ridiculously deep, filled with players that can make an impact to bolster their defense. The defensive tackle class is loaded in 2016 and the Lions could potentially walk away with two first-round graded players if they were to target the position in Round 1 and Round 2.
The Lions have holes to fill along their defensive line as last year’s starting tandem of Tyrunn Walker and Haloti Ngata are both free agents, and Walker’s injury situation puts his status even more in doubt. To complicate matters further, the general manager that brought both those players here is gone, and it’s unclear what new general manager Bob Quinn thinks of these players.
Left on the roster are Caraun Reid, Gabe Wright and some backup types. It’s clear that the Lions need to come away from free agency and the draft with more bodies to solidify the interior of the defensive line, but if there is a year to have needs at this position, this is absolutely the year. There is some relevance to the Carolina Panthers back in 2013 and where the Lions are today. It’s not a perfect match, but the scenario with each team is close enough that we can draw comparisons. After the 2012 season, the Panthers defense had edge rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman. What was missing was playmaking along the interior of the defensive line.
After the 2015 season, the Lions have edge rushers Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones and Devin Taylor, linebacker DeAndre Levy, cornerback Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin. The Lions need playmaking along the interior of the defensive line.
The Panthers approached the draft looking for help at defensive tackle and things couldn’t have fallen any better for them. In Round 1 they selected Utah’s Star Lotulelei and they hit the position again in the second round with Purdue defensive tackle Kawaan Short. Clearly it has worked out for the Panthers as the defensive interior is now formidable in Carolina. The Lions are in a position to turn their weakness into a strength too, and they can maximize the results they’ll render out of this draft if they use Carolina’s blueprint here. In a normal situation, it might seem unnecessary to attack the defensive tackle position back-to-back in Round 1 and 2 in the draft. However, there is significant value to be had as the Lions will have the chance to grab a player in Round 2 with a first-round type grade if here were in a different draft class.
It starts with identifying the types of players that are available in this draft. Some are players that will play in the Lions 4-3 defense lined up between the center and the guard, known as the 1-technique position. These players need to be stout at the point of attack and should command double teams to free up other defenders to easily flow to the ball. They also must have the ability to collapse the pocket and squeeze the quarterback into other Lions defenders.
Other players are going to play in the gap between the guard and the tackle, known as the 3-technique. These players need to play with more quickness and up-the-field penetration to disrupt plays in the backfield before they get started. The 3-technique is the player that you want to be productive both against the run and the pass.
There are players in this class that have the versatility to play in both alignments and they bring great versatility to their future NFL defenses. It isn’t absolutely necessary that players have the ability to play the 1 and the 3, but it certainly makes them more valuable if they can. It helps a rotation when a player can play multiple spots, and it allows for certain matchups to get exploited.
The beauty of this class is that there are at least 10 defensive tackles carrying Round 1 or Round 2 grades, and some of those carrying Round 1 grades are going to fall in the draft as players come off the board. Certainly those carrying Round 2 grades will get drafted later than they would in other drafts and they’ll bring tremendous value with them.
Also, looking ahead to next year, it’s easy to see that the defensive tackle class isn’t anywhere near what it is this year. Next year we’ll see defensive ends and outside linebackers like Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, LSU’s Lewis Neal and Missouri’s Charles Harris, but there aren’t impact-type defensive tackles next year like there are this year.
In Round 1 we’ll see Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, Baylor’s Andrew Billings, Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins and Mississippi’s Robert Nkemdiche get selected. That leaves players like Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler, UCLA’s Kenny Clark, Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington, Penn State’s Austin Johnson, Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day and possibly Mississippi State’s Chris Jones to potentially fall to the Lions in Round 2.
Many of these players bring great college production to the NFL, and they all possess traits that make them intriguing. However, there are two very attractive options that make sense for the Lions in the first round, and both bring some versatility to the table. There are many ways to go about this, but it would make sense to grab the best available defensive tackle in the first round, hopefully a player with some versatility to play either tackle position in the Lions 4-3 defense.
Baylor’s Andrew Billings would be a perfect candidate at No. 16 overall. He’d play the 1-technique position for the Lions but could kick out to play the 3-technique too. Billings is incredibly strong and stout at the point of attack, has good first-step quickness, can play the run and will also collapse the pocket to disrupt opposing offenses. If Billings is the pick, pairing him with a player like Clark or Washington would be a fantastic combination of power, quickness and versatility between the two players.
Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins would also be a very attractive option too, but he’d likely be more of a 3-technique with the ability (at times) to kick inside. Rankins is very quick and powerful, can quickly penetrate the gap between the guard and center with either his very quick first-step or his brute power. If Rankins is the pick for the Lions, you’d want to find a big stout interior defender to pair with him. Butler and Johnson would also make a wonderful combination of size, power and the ability to push the pocket to disrupt the interior of the offensive line.
The Lions will have to try to diagnose what will be left for them in Round 2, but maximizing value by walking away from rounds one and two with a combination of defensive tackles is a great start to getting this defense back on track.