The Detroit Lions clearly have a type in the 2021 draft.
After taking Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike in the second round, the team added a second interior defender with the No. 72 pick of the third round, snagging North Carolina State’s Alim McNeill.
Along with offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Detroit’s first-round pick, the team has added nearly a half ton of beef to the roster with their first three selections.
Relatively short for the position, the stout 6-foot-2, 320-pounder is surprisingly athletic for his build. At his pro day, he impressed scouts, running his 40-yard dash in five seconds flat, while posting above-average marks in the explosion and change-of-direction drills.
Actually, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Before he was tipping the scales above three bills, McNeill was a high school running back and outfielder for his high school baseball team.
“I love baseball,” McNeill said in a conference call Friday. “Baseball was actually my first sport and I didn’t see myself as a big guy in the outfield. I just see myself as an athlete out there, just making plays, tracking balls down. I was really just an athletic player with a good bat. I batted in the four-hole, I think I batted around .335 in my senior year. Then, obviously, started right field and that’s pretty much what I did my whole career.”
At first glance, McNeill looks every bit like a run-stuffer, and he is, but he also has the ability to disrupt the pocket as a pass-rusher. He tallied 10 sacks across three seasons, netting 5½ during the 2019 season.
McNeill’s sack total took a downturn last season, a symptom of opponent’s game planning for his ability to disrupt the pocket.
“My sophomore year (I) got more one-on-one blocks,” he said. “Going into junior season, I didn’t see any, I didn’t have any one-on-one blocks. It was more double- or triple-teams, with guards coming down. I believe that’s why.”
McNeill lined up almost exclusively as a nose tackle for the Wolfpack. One of the least appreciated positions on the field, he acknowledged it takes a certain type of mentality to handle the grind.
“The mindset you have to have in there is it’s not the most glorious position, stats-wise and stuff like that,” McNeill said. “You just really have to be a selfless person to play in there, somebody who is gritty and who is willing to put their body and their self on the line to be able to have guys around them eat and succeed.
“It’s a very key position, but you have to have the mindset that I’m here to plug gaps, I’m going to create havoc, I’m going to destroy blocks, I’m going to make plays in the backfield, while also doing my job the correct way.”