I am about to tell you that defensively, sacks help lead to victory. As a disclaimer, I am no rocket scientist. But I did interview at SpaceX once.
Similarly to how we looked sacks as they relate to protecting the quarterback, the defense should be just as focused on attacking the quarterback. Luckily the Detroit Lions have one of the best young pass rushers in the game in Ziggy Ansah flanking the right end position in their defense. However, outside of that the pantry is not under contract or full of mostly unproven hodgepodge.
Devin Taylor began to flash greatness toward the end of the season versus some lesser opponents and outside of that the ends pretty much end. Caraun Reid is not close to a finished product. CJ Wilson was just cut and Gabe Wright needs to get a lot stronger. Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, the penciled-in starters going into 2015, are now free agents so they may not be back. Just how important are sacks? Please take a look at the graph below which charts sacks and regular season wins.
As with most things affected by chaos, it’s not a perfect correlation, but the effect of getting after the quarterback on winning should be pursued in construction of a team. Of course, the Lions need to force teams into passing situations, which is in an indicator that balance is needed as I’ve been stressing. Along the defensive line, what can the Lions do to better the pass rush? Since the currently rostered players on the interior of the line are youthful and inexperienced, they do need a veteran presence on the interior, so I look for them to sign a free agent. Let’s keep in mind the importance of sacks as we run through – not necessarily directly attributed to the DT, either, if they can free up the edge rushers.
The top names on the market are the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison, and the Broncos’ Malik Jackson, and they will most likely command top dollar and/or be franchise tagged. With impending free agencies for Darius Slay and Ziggy Ansah, two of the Lions’ best defenders, it may bear fruit in time for the Lions to take a more middle of the road signing at defensive tackle, which is what I think they will do.
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Incumbent Haloti Ngata might be the best signing the Lions could make for the price he will come, but he probably only has one or two years left in the tank and didn’t impress much in the pass rush department last season. If the Patriots’ roster moves in recent years are any indication, Ngata actually fits the bill of someone they wouldd let go before the further decline of his play. However, since new GM Bob Quinn has not built depth behind him yet, I could see him coming back on a two to three year deal. Tyrunn Walker, also an unrestricted free agent, has shown promise at times but is still largely an unproven commodity who I could see coming back on another one year prove-it deal if healthy.
Outside of Ngata and Walker, there are a few more names the Lions could target in free agency. The Patriots’ Akiem Hicks is the name I’ve most often seen due to ties to the Patriots, and Hicks would provide starting experience alongside good but not great play. The 49ers’ Ian Williams is a defensive tackle who has not yet blossomed onto the stat sheet but graded out in the top 20 defensive tackles last year per ProFootballFocus, especially turning up his play after coach Jim Tomsula’s departure. Then we have the Chiefs’ Jaye Howard, who has trended up in the past couple of years and racked up 5.5 sacks last season while often playing 3-technique on pass downs. Hicks, Williams, and Howard are all 26 or 27 years old. This is the group of young, uptrending but still middle of the road players I would expect Bob Quinn to target.
Assuming they acquire one starting caliber tackle as just described, the Lions are in great position to supplement that acquisition with a first or second round pick in April’s draft. The draft is heavy with depth in this area for defensive tackles. That does not mean they should wait until later to draft one, rather it means their primary strategy for the defensive line this season should be partially built around them acquiring one of these players in rounds one or two.
The guy who is blossoming as perhaps the best potential fit for the Lions’ attacking defensive front is Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins. I am not certain he will be there when they make their first round selection, but his dominant explosiveness was on display in Mobile for the Senior Bowl and will likely be on display at the combine again this week. Rankins also possesses the versatility that we have heard the new management regime is looking for as he has lined up inside and out through his career.
The next choice for me would probably be Andrew Billings. While he has some development to do still on finishing plays, he is a stout force who should put up big time power numbers at this week’s combine. He has the raw tools to be one of the best as his lower body strength is unparalleled in this draft. If the Lions can coach him well on anticipation and playing with more balance and less lean, he can be the guy the Lions are missing on the interior.
If they miss out on those two, the Lions may be better suited trading down or waiting for a guy like Vernon Butler, Kenny Clark, or even Jonathan Bullard, all of whom I think may be better suited for getting after the quarterback than Alabama’s duo of A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. Trading down might not seem like an option right now since the Lions already have 10 picks but I could see them trading down and then using the wealth of picks in rounds 5-6 to trade back up from the 4th to the 3rd. As the Patriots have done, they might also trade for picks next year.
So, that solves the interior if the Lions draft a DT in rounds 1-2 and also sign an up and coming free agent. So what about the edge positions? Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor can be a great duo as Taylor really began to impress toward the end of last year. However, they would be wise to add a third player that would challenge Taylor to start and provide depth in the case of injury. I do not really expect Jason Jones to be back due to his combination of age, injury history, and inability to finish plays. His time with the Lions has been a lot of “almost,” and the Lions should prepare to move past him. Darryl Tapp is a strong locker room presence but hasn’t ever really been good for the Lions. So how else can the Lions fill the void?
Unfortunately, there are only a few options in free agency that look the part. Being that defensive end has become one of the premier paid positions in the league, those options probably would not come cheap. Miami’s Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake headline the list, and the latest news has the Dolphins trying to find a way to keep both of them. Robert Ayers had arguably his best season as a pro last year, putting up 9.5 sacks in just 12 games, but he’s only ever played one full season and is now 30 years old. Jason Pierre-Paul is a big name but is now a question mark due to the limited use of one of his hands. A more under-the-radar option could be Quinton Coples, who fell out of favor in the Jets’ transition to a 3-4 but is clearly more of a 4-3 end. Ultimately, there aren’t a lot of answers here which is one of the reasons I could see the flip side of Jason Jones returning, although that’s not what I would prefer.
Turning to the draft, there are a few options that could be presented to the Lions in the first round. DeForest Buckner, Joey Bosa, and Shaq Lawson could all be Pro Bowlers in the Lions’ scheme but it is possible that none of them are available. Shaq Lawson has long been one of my favorites to the Lions at 16 and the Lions could select him instead of one of the top DTs there. Bosa and Buckner will most likely be off the board, but they should not hesitate on selecting if either is not.
Outside of that, there are a few developmental options that the Lions could consider in late round 2 or round 3 such as Shilique Calhoun or Bronson Kaufusi. Calhoun shows a lot of rush ability but may not be ready to hold the end in the run game yet. Kaufusi on the other hand is a lot like Devin Taylor in that he’ll need to be work on his rushing craft to make up for his lack of bend. Players in this range still need development which means that Devin Taylor would be the starter at least early on.
My ideal setup would be something like Ansah, Jaye Howard as an up-and-coming free agent signee, Sheldon Rankins in round 1 of the draft, and Devin Taylor stepping up as a starter. Backing them up would be Caraun Reid, Gabe Wright, a later round defensive end such as Dean Lowry and a free agent defensive end signing like Coples or they could bring back Jason Jones. You could plug in some of the other options I mentioned, but that is pretty close to how I could see it playing out. The Lions have ample opportunity to field a better defensive line next year than this year and look for Bob Quinn to make his biggest impression on this position group.