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: Edge rushers.
► Current roster: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, Charles Harris, Joel Heath, Robert McCray
► Short-term need: Four out of 10
► Long-term need: Six out of 10
► Top prospects: Kwity Paye, Azeez Ojulari, Jaelan Phillips, Jayson Oweh, Greg Rousseau
► Mid-round options: Joe Tryon, Joseph Ossai, Carlos Basham, Payton Turner
► Late-round considerations: Shaka Toney, Elerson Smith
► Analysis: You never can have too much pass rush, but when talking about the Lions, league average would mark a significant improvement. The team ranked last in quarterback pressures and pressure rate a year ago, while their 24 sacks were tied for 27th.
In the midst of a roster purge this offseason, the one player Detroit committed notable resources to retaining was defensive end Romeo Okwara. It’s easy to understand why. He was responsible for more than 40% of the team’s sack production in 2020, and at 25 years old, he’s just entering his physical prime. If he can continue to produce at that level, his three-year, $37 million pact will look like a bargain.
Additionally, the Lions return Flowers. Last season was one to forget for the veteran leader of the defensive line. He missed the final nine games after fracturing his forearm, but even before the injury, he was struggling to disrupt the pocket at his previously established clip.
As for the team’s rotational depth, it’s largely young and unproven. Julian Okwara and Bryant, a pair of mid-round picks from the past two years, have combined to miss 32 of their regular-season games due to injury.
Detroit did add Harris, a former first-round pick, to the mix this offseason. He was known for his lethally effective spin move coming out of college, but has struggled to have an impact at this level. In 54 games, he’s managed to tally a paltry 6.5 sacks.
Combined with whatever blitz packages are incorporated by new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, will it be enough? Probably not. That said, it might be tough to find help in this draft class.
For one, there’s plenty of uncertainty about the prospects at the top of the draft.
Paye is athletic, fundamentally sound and plays with a high motor, but he peaked at 6.5 sacks at Michigan. Phillips has all the tools of a top talent, but there are lingering durability concerns. And Ojulari is an ascending talent also possessing rare athleticism, but there’s still plenty of projection involved with his development, as well.
Plus, for what it’s worth, where the Lions are picking in the first round, none of those prospects offer value.
While it’s far more difficult to hit on an edge rusher beyond the first round, the Lions will have little choice if they want to address the position in the draft. Tryon, who opted out of the 2020 season, has a prototypical frame, with long limbs and top-tier athletic traits. Like some of the first-round options, he has plenty of work to do with developing a more complete repertoire of rush moves and counters, but he has a high ceiling.
Basham, a big-bodied end who can handle setting the edge when defending the run, put together a nice, four-year stretch at Wake Forest, tallying 16 sacks across 20 games the past two years.
In the later rounds, teams have to weigh production against perceived flaws. Take Toney, for example. At 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, he’s undoubtedly undersized, limiting his usage exclusively to obvious passing situations. But with an explosive first step and a decent set of pass-rush moves in his tool set, you can justify the selection.
Smith, who spent most of his career working against lesser competition at Northern Iowa, also projects as a pure pass-rusher. At 6-foot-6, 252 pounds, he’s too slender to compete against offensive tackles in the ground game, but he’s got some juice when getting after the quarterback.