Lions 2021 draft preview: Detroit on prowl for pass-rush boost at defensive tackle

Detroit News

Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Defensive tackles.

► Current roster: Michael Brockers, Da’Shawn Hand, Nick Williams, John Penisini, John Atkins, Jashon Cornell, Kevin Strong

► Short-term need: Three out of 10

► Long-term need: Eight out of 10

► Top prospects: Christian Barmore, Levi Onwuzurike

► Mid-round options: Alim McNeill, Marvin Wilson, Daviyon Nixon

► Late-round considerations: Jonathan Marshall, Osa Odighizuwa

► Analysis: How many times have you heard it noted that the Lions have failed to field a reliable ground game since Barry Sanders’ abrupt retirement in 1999? Too many, we’re sure. But similarly, the franchise has struggled to find a consistent interior pass rush since Ndamukong Suh departed via free agency before the 2015 season. 

In Suh’s final season with the Lions in 2014, he recorded 63 quarterback pressures, according to data tracked by Pro Football Focus. In the six seasons since, the most pressures recorded by an interior defensive lineman in Detroit was Haloti Ngata’s 33 in 2015.

Last year, Williams led the Lions with 13. Yuck. 

This offseason, the team has made two changes that should change the outlook. First, there’s a schematic overhaul that will place a greater emphasis on attacking up front. And from a personnel standpoint, the Lions swung a deal for Brockers, a former first-round pick who has averaged 30 pressures across the past four seasons. 

Those two things alone don’t solve a problem, but it’s a decent start. 

In addition to Brockers coming aboard, the Lions return most of last year’s unit, sans nose tackle Danny Shelton, who was cut in a cap savings move. His role is effectively replaced by Penisini, a sixth-round pick from a year ago.

Plus, the Lions are in line to get some rotational reinforcements in the form of Atkins, who opted out of last season, and Cornell, who missed his rookie season after suffering an Achilles injury in training camp. 

But like every position on the roster, the draft should offer the Lions an opportunity to upgrade the group. 

Outside of Barmore, who is almost certain to be selected in the back half of the first round, the Lions could be in play for just about any other interior defender in this draft. It will simply be a matter of how their board falls. 

More: Lions players opt to skip voluntary workouts in face of ongoing pandemic

On Day 2, a strong case could be made for Onwuzurike or McNeill. Compared to positional prototypes, both would be considered undersized. Onwuzurike, at 6-foot-3, is the taller of the two, but he weighs 10 pounds south of 300. Still, both players possess extraordinary athleticism. 

Onwuzurike, who opted out of last season a year after earning first-team all-conference honors, is explosive, quick and powerful. Over his final two seasons at Washington, he tallied five sacks and 12½ tackles for a loss. 

McNeill, on top of providing some quality pass-rush productivity, is an exceptional run defender, putting his 320-pound frame to good use. His sack production tailed off last season, but in three years at North Carolina State, he managed to drop the quarterback 10 times. 

Speaking of a decline in production, Wilson, out of Florida State, is an interesting option. He looked every bit like a top-50 prospect when he returned to school instead of declaring for the draft in 2019. But instead of boosting his stock, he saw his production decline by more than half. If a team such as the Lions believe they can get his development back on track, there’s a potential bargain to be had. 

In the later rounds, Marshall and Odighizuwa are intriguing. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Marshall put together one of the best pro day performances of any position, but he’d be a project given his limited production in his lone season as a starter. 

Odighizuwa, at 280 pounds, is more of a tweener, but Lions GM Brad Holmes isn’t likely to be fixated on height and weight requirements having witnessed Aaron Donald destroy conventional thinking on the topic up close and personal during their time together with the Rams.

What matters is what Odighizuwa can do, and with his explosive first step, he brings value as a penetrator on passing downs.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

More coverage

Lions 2021 draft preview: Can’t rule out taking a quarterback in first round

Lions 2021 draft preview: Detroit could fill long-term need at LB in Round 2

Lions 2021 draft preview: Detroit should have plenty of options as it restocks WRs

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