Detroit Must Shift Focus to Finding a Defensive Difference-Maker
The Detroit Lions made great strides on offense this offseason. The franchise wisely focused on bolstering the offensive line by adding two big free agents: guard, TJ Lang, and tackle, Ricky Wagner. Detroit also added Darren Fells (tight end) and Keshawn Martin (wide receiver/kick returner) to the offensive arsenal. Longtime long snapper, Don Muhlbach, was recently re-signed as well.
While the team has signed a plethora of players on the defensive side of the ball this free agency period as well – Paul Worrilow, Akeem Spence, Cornelius Washington, DJ Hayden and Jordan Hill – not a single one of them was a full-time starter in 2016. In fact, there were only a combined nine starts between those five players last season. It is painfully evident that the Lions must find a difference-maker on defense this offseason, either through the draft or from the pool of remaining free agents.
Worrilow has the most starting experience of the bunch, with 43 career starts. He was the full-time starting middle linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons in 2014 and 2015, and also started 12 games as a rookie in 2013. Followed by Spence with 30 career starts, and Hayden with 25. Washington and Hill have just three combined career starts.
While none of those aforementioned players are guaranteed anything in 2017, Worrilow has the best chance to start with how depleted the linebacker position is. Spence has a shot to beat out A’Shawn Robinson at the starting defensive tackle spot, but that should be an interesting battle to watch in training camp. The rest of those players will likely be battling for rotational roles.
But that is the problem – none of these signees are true impact players. The Lions have so many needs on the defensive side of the football and haven’t done enough to remedy them. There are still some valuable free agents out there.
Zach Brown, an inside linebacker who just had a breakout year with the Buffalo Bills, is the best linebacker available. However, he may not be a great fit for Detroit’s 4-3 defense, as he thrived in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 system last season. Jonathan Hankins had 43 tackles and three sacks last year for the Giants. He plays well in a 4-3 defense, and while he’s not an explosive pass rusher, he closes gaps and eats up blocks. Hankins is actually a Detroit native. TJ McDonald, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, could be an upgrade at strong safety as well.
Point being, while most top-tier free agents have been signed, there are still plenty of good players left to choose from. With the release of DeAndre Levy, the team needs to stock up on linebackers. Adding at least two more would be wise. Cornerback and defensive end are also big concerns. The team needs to improve both its secondary and its pass rush.
Moving on to the draft, there are many ways the Lions may go, depending on how the dominoes fall. In the first round, the team needs to draft either a linebacker or a pass rusher. Taco Charlton, a defensive end from Michigan is a popular mock draft choice. Charles Harris from Missouri and Takkarist McKinley from UCLA make sense as well.
At linebacker, Temple’s Haason Reddick and Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham could be available at No. 21. Reddick is an explosive pass rusher, who can play either weak-side linebacker, or bulk up a bit and play off of the edge in a 4-3 system. Cunningham is a natural fit at either inside or weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 defense, but there are plenty of concerns from scouts about missed tackles.
Personally, I would like to see the Lions draft defense in the first three rounds – a hungry defensive end, an athletic linebacker and a rangy cornerback with great coverage skills. The Lions currently possess eight picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, including two picks in the sixth round. Detroit must use the majority of those picks on defensive players if it wants to improve on a lackluster defense that ranked 18th in total yards allowed and 30th in sacks in 2016.
While some of these offseason additions on defense – such as Worrilow or Spence – may contribute positively, Bob Quinn, Jim Caldwell and the rest of the decision-makers for the Lions must add a player who they know will absolutely help this defense improve in 2017. That simply has not happened yet.
Who do you want to see the Lions add in the draft or from the pool of available free agents? Let me know in the comments section below.
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