Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2021 NFL draft. This is the seventh in an eight-part series.
The Lions have struggled to generate consistent pass rush in recent years, but with limited help available in the draft, they made two moves early this offseason: Trading for defensive tackle Michael Brockers and re-signing defensive end Romeo Okwara.
Brockers should give the Lions at least a modicum of interior pass rush presence, though he won’t have the benefit of playing next to Aaron Donald like he did in L.A. Okwara is coming off a career-high 10-sack season, and along with a healthy Trey Flowers gives the Lions two disruptive pieces on the edge.
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The Lions absolutely will be looking for upgrades in the draft, though their best bet for depth may be having some of their young pass rushers pan out. Austin Bryant and Julian Okwara, mid-round picks in 2019 and 2020, respectively, will have a chance to earn playing time this fall after injury riddled starts to their careers, and the Lions signed Charles Harris to add a veteran pass rushing presence in sub packages.
Inside, John Penisini was a sixth-round gem last season who should start at nose tackle this fall. Depth remains an issue, though, as Nick Williams and Da’Shawn Hand are coming off disappointing seasons and both are in the last season of their contracts.
On the roster: Edge: Romeo Okwara, Trey Flowers, Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, Charles Harris, Robert McCray. IDL: Michael Brockers, John Penisini, Da’Shawn Hand, Jashon Cornell, Nick Williams, Kevin Strong, John Atkins, Joel Heath.
Top 3 DL prospects: Edge-1. Kwity Paye, Michigan; 2. Jaelan Phillips, Miami; 3. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia. IDL-1. Christian Barmore, Alabama; 2. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington; 3. Daviyon Nixon, Iowa.
Other players with Michigan ties: Edge-Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame (Ann Arbor Skyline); Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Notre Dame (Walled Lake Central). IDL-Naquan Jones, Michigan State; Carlo Kemp, Michigan.
[ Kwity Paye escaped civil war. Now he stars for Michigan football ]
Day 3 sleeper: Edge-Patrick Johnson, Tulane. IDL-Tommy Togiai, Ohio State.
Recent Lions draft picks at DL: 2020-DE Julian Okwara (3rd round), DT John Penisini (6th round), DL Jashon Cornell (7th round). 2019-DE Austin Bryant (4th round), DT P.J. Johnson (7th round). 2018-DL Da’Shawn Hand (4th round). 2017-DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (6th round), DE Pat O’Connor (7th round). 2016-DT A’Shawn Robinson (2nd round), DE Anthony Zettel (6th round).
At least one edge rusher has gone in the top five of the past eight drafts. That streak is likely to end this year, when it’s possible one doesn’t come off the board until the bottom half of the first round. This is one of the thinnest defensive line groups in recent memory, albeit with a handful of boom-or-bust prospects that have Pro Bowl potential.
Paye is considered the safest defensive lineman in the draft despite totaling 11½ sacks in his four-year Michigan career. Phillips would challenge for top-five status in a normal year, but there are significant questions about his health and passion for the game. He started his college career at UCLA, retired after suffering multiple concussions and resurfaced at Miami last season, where he had eight sacks and 15½ tackles for loss in 10 games. Phillips is the best pure edge rusher available. His Miami teammate, Greg Rousseau, looked like a top-10 pick a season ago, after a monster 15½ sacks in 2019. But he’s a one-year-of-production guy and is best as an interior rusher.
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Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari is the top 3-4 outside linebacker available, while Penn State’s Jayson Oweh is an amazing physical specimen who ran a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash at his pro day at 6 feet 5 and 257 pounds. Oweh should go in the 25 to 50 range, as could pass rushers Washington’s Joe Tryon and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah called this “the worst defensive tackle group that I’ve seen,” and it’s possible not a single interior rusher goes in Round 1. Barmore and Onwuzurike might be the only top-60 picks at the position, though big men tend to get pushed up on draft day. Both Hayes and Ogundeji project as middle-round picks, and Jones should land somewhere on Day 3 as a space-eating interior presence.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.