Lions Positional Breakdown: Defensive End
Continuing on from Matt Urben’s positional breakdown I am going to take a look at the defensive end position for the Lions.
POSITIONAL ANALYSIS: DEFENSIVE END
Players in the mix: Ezekiel Ansah, Devin Taylor, Wallace Gilberry, Brandon Copeland, Deonte Gibson, James DeLoach and Anthony Zettel.
Heading into the off season the Lions were very thin at defensive end with only Ansah and Taylor returning from last season. Veterans Jason Jones, C.J Wilson and Darryl Tapp all found themselves leaving Detroit at the end of the season while Brandon Copeland is a strange fit. Usually mentioned as a linebacker the Lions official site has him listed as a defensive end but he hasn’t made any significant contributions at either position as of yet. Bob Quinn started to address the need for defensive ends in free agency signing Wallace Gilberry. He then proceeded to draft DE/DT Anthony Zettel in the draft and then immediately following the draft signed undrafted free agents DeLoach and Gibson.
It seems like a foregone conclusion that Ansah will be starting at one of the defensive end spots, barring injury. He is easily the best pass rusher on their defense and possibly the best player on the team. He finished with 14.5 sacks last season. That was good enough for 3rd in the league and only slightly behind other star players Khalil Mack (15.0 sacks) and J.J. Watt (17.5 sacks). He also added 47 tackles, 4 forced fumbles and a pass deflection. If he continues his upward trend he could finish as the leagues sack leader in a contract year.
Taylor excelled last year for the Lions, racking up a career high 7.0 sacks along with 35 tackles a forced fumble and a pass deflection. He is definitely a talented player and has shown his talents in a rotational role and as a limited starter, but it remains to be seen if he can play at a high level consistently as a starter in the NFL. Of the rest of the group fighting for the other starting job he has the best immediate base to work on after a strong 2015. Whether he can clinch and maintain the spot remains to be seen.
Verdict: Possibly a rotational role with more snaps than the others.
Gilberry is the most experienced of the defensive end group having been in the league since 2008 after going undrafted. He’s had playing time for both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals while also having spells at the Giants and Buccaneers. His career stats to date include 31.5 sacks, 167 tackles and 7 forced fumbles. The 2014 season was the only time Gilberry was a full time starter in his career. This makes his stat line quite impressive by non starter standards. He brings a wealth of knowledge from his long NFL career which will be of benefit to the rookies of this group. He’s likely to benefit the most if Taylor doesn’t show enough consistency
Verdict: Backup/Rotational role.
Copeland has been in the league since 2013 with practice squad stints in Baltimore and Tennessee as well as time in the Arena Football League (where he didn’t play) . Usually listed as a linebacker, Copeland played in 16 games last season recording 14 tackles a half a sack. He’s still a young player and the Lions might not yet be sure what they want from him…or even if they want him. If they can see him playing at both linebacker and defensive end then his versatility may just earn him a roster spot.
Verdict: Makes the team because he can backup defensive end and linebacker. Won’t start at either position.
Zettel straight away offers the Lions versatility on the defensive line with the ability to play defensive end and tackle. He showed more at defensive end than he did at tackle but with the Lions lacking at both positions going into the off-season the addition of Zettel is a big help as it could potentially free up another roster spot. His college career ended with 119 tackles, (38 for a loss) 20 sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 14 pass deflections which amounts to an impressive stat line for a defensive lineman.
Most seem him as a closed end type player in a 4-3 defense which helps this defense as it is the type of player that is needed to help shut down the run. His 20 sacks show an impressive ability to get after the quarterback which is something Teryl Austin has instilled in this defensive line and will like with Anthony Zettel.
Verdict: Makes the 53 man squad as a backup/rotational player
From what I’ve heard and read on Gibson he projects better as an outside linebacker at NFL level than at defensive end. He isn’t tall enough and is underweight for a defensive end. He has great speed, running a 4.68 40 yard time and has pass rushing instincts finishing his time at Northwestern with 15 sacks, 9 of which came in his last season at NU. He is an intriguing talent. I don’t see him in play for the defensive end position, but if he shows his talent at camp he could be signed to the practiced squad and developed as a linebacker.
Verdict: Makes the practice squad.
Injuries and off the field trouble plagued DeLoach’s college career. He finished with only 39 tackles and half a sack. Not the best stat line for him and his slow 40 (5.01) and unimpressive bench (18 reps 225 lbs) don’t show an amazing future for DeLoach with the Lions.
Verdict: Gets cut before the season starts.
If these situations played out the Lions would be left with Ansah and Taylor as starters with Gilberry and Zettel as backups and Copeland chipping in when needed. The Lions also have a plethora of defensive tackles. With not enough jobs available for all of them, it may be a possibility that the Lions start working some of them out as defensive ends to see if its a possible solution but it seems unlikely.
What would be even more unlikely is the Lions trying Kyle Van Noy out at defensive end. He’s better suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and hasn’t been overly impressive in his career thus far. He could potentially make one last ditch effort by trying to play defensive end if things still do not work at linebacker.
There are still a handful of capable 4-3 defensive ends available in free agency. Former Lion Darryl Tapp is an option, as well as long time Atlanta Falcon Kroy Biermann. They have invaluable experience and can still perform at a high enough level to be bit part contributors on the Lions defensive line.
The Lions either need some more additions at defensive end or need Taylor to maintain the level we saw him play at last season to be an effective unit. Zettel has an outside shot at winning the starting job but I see him as more of a situational player for at least his rookie season.