With the 2021 season upon us, beat writer Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions defense.
The Lions redesigned and rebuilt their pass rush after ranking at or near the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories last season. Edge rushers Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara are outside linebackers now but will play defensive end in sub packages, and the Lions brought in three new faces on their defensive front who should play significant roles this fall.
Michael Brockers was the biggest defensive acquisition of the offseason. Brockers had nine solid seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and is coming off a five-sack 2020, but wear and tear is an issue as he enters his age-31 season. Brockers and Nick Williams give the Lions two trustworthy veterans upfront, while rookie Alim McNeill is expected to start at nose tackle. McNeill is powerful and agile. He won’t put up big pass-rush numbers as a rookie, but the Lions believe he is more than a two-down run defender.
Rookie second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike projects as the Lions’ top backup interior lineman this fall, though he won’t have a big role initially after missing a large portion of training camp with a back injury. The Lions have depth beyond Onwuzurike in John Penisini, Kevin Strong and Da’Shawn Hand. Penisini played well as a rookie and is insurance for McNeill at the nose, Strong was the Lions’ second-most consistent lineman in camp (after McNeill) and Hand is a starting-caliber player whose biggest bugaboo is injuries.
Hand will miss at least the first three weeks of the regular season with a groin injury, and the Lions have a seventh interior lineman, Jashon Cornell, due back in October from suspension.
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Both Flowers and Okwara seem comfortable in their transition to linebacker. Neither will drop into coverage much, but rushing from stand-up, off-the-line position could help generate more sacks. Okwara is coming off a career-high 10-sack season, though the Lions finished 27th in sack percentage as a team last year, getting to opposing quarterbacks on just 4.3% of their dropbacks.
Flowers will rush from an interior line position on occasion, which should allow the Lions to get an extra pass rusher — one of Charles Harris, Julian Okwara or Austin Bryant — on the field. The younger Okwara might the most talented of the bunch, but Bryant has a nonstop motor and coaches were especially pleased with Harris’ transition from end to outside linebacker.
At inside linebacker, Alex Anzalone will handle the defensive signals and rarely come off the field, with Jamie Collins the other starter. The Lions need more playmaking out of that duo or it won’t be long before rookie fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes eats into their snaps. Barnes showed run-stopping and pass-rush ability in the preseason, and the Lions won’t lose anything in coverage by having him on the field.
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The Lions have the youngest cornerback corps in the NFL, with three rookies among their top six players — two of them undrafted — and starters Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye in their second and third NFL seasons, respectively. Okudah was a major disappointment as a rookie, when he struggled in pass coverage and dealt with injury most of the year. He looked like a different player in camp and will be the Lions’ No. 1 cover man this fall. Oruwariye had an even better camp and was solid in 2020, though the Lions need more takeaways from their secondary as a whole.
Rookie A.J. Parker is expected to man the slot cornerback position, and the Lions kept veteran Nickell Robey-Coleman on practice squad as insurance. Robey-Coleman is the only backup with any experience, as none of Bobby Price, Ifeatu Melifonwu or Jerry Jacobs has ever played a defensive snap. Price switched from safety to cornerback this summer and played only on special teams last season, while Melifonwu and Jacobs are rookies.
At safety, Tracy Walker and Will Harris are ticketed for starting duties and should have more playmaking opportunities as the Lions plan to deploy more split-safety looks. Walker seemed like an emerging star in 2019, but struggled last season. He is in a better place now after the Lions’ offseason coaching change. Harris has no interceptions in 32 career games, but Lions GM Brad Holmes praised him last week for his standout summer. Depth could be an issue as special teams stalwarts C.J. Moore and Dean Marlowe are the lone backups.
There’s plenty of good and some unknown about the Lions’ special teams units this fall. Jack Fox is a field position weapon and one of the best punters in the NFL. He is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he set a Lions record with a 44.8-yard net punting average. Fox has a hammer for a leg and the fortune to be flanked by good coverage units. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a special teams demon, and Bobby Price and new receiver addition KhaDarel Hodge should be four-phase contributors, too.
The kicking game is a much bigger question as the Lions already are on their fourth kicker of the summer. They cut Matthew Wright and free-agent addition Randy Bullock, waived Zane Gonzalez then brought him back to practice squad, and are rolling, for now, with Austin Seibert. Seibert has a big leg, but he’s missed six of 44 career extra-point attempts and was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago. The Lions will debut their new kicking operation in Sunday’s season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
First-year special teams coordinator Dave Fipp also has a new long snapper after Scott Daly unseated Don Muhlbach for the job, and the Lions likely will use No. 2 receiver Kalif Raymond as their primary return man. Raymond won a bigger role than expected on offense, so the Lions could use Trinity Benson or Tom Kennedy on kicks and punts if they want to take something off Raymond’s plate.