Over the next several days, leading up to the 2022 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 tackle.
► Current roster: Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike, Michael Brockers, John Penisini, Jashon Cornell, Bruce Hector, Eric Banks
► Short-term need: Five out of 10
► Long-term need: Eight out of 10
► Top prospects: Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, Travis Jones
► Day-2 options: Perrion Winfrey, DeMarvin Leal, Phidarian Mathis, Eyioma Uwazurike
► Late-round considerations: Eric Johnson, Kalia Davis
► Analysis: The Lions invested as much on the interior of their defensive line as any position last offseason, using Day 2 draft picks on McNeill and Onwuzurike, while swinging a trade to bring in Brockers from Los Angeles. But for all the resources committed to the unit, the team didn’t get the anticipated production.
Brockers unquestionably filled a role as a locker room leader, but his on-field performance was disappointing. After averaging more than 30 quarterback pressures the previous four seasons with the Rams, the veteran affected the pocket a paltry six times in 2021. Similarly, Onwuzurike failed to port over his ability to disrupt the quarterback from his time at the University of Washington. An offseason back injury led to a slow start and he never managed to find a rhythm, resulting in a dismal three pressures on nearly 200 pass-rush snaps.
Of those three additions, McNeill showed the most promise. The 6-foot-2, 330-pounder saw more than 400 defensive snaps and tallied 39 tackles and 2.0 sacks, flashing an ability to dominate, at times. He has the potential to be the anchor of Detroit’s run defense the next several seasons.
Recently, coach Dan Campbell praised Onwuzurike’s offseason approach and the team obviously remains high on the tandem they snagged in last year’s draft, but the rest of the room is largely a cast of replacement-level talent, leaving the door open to going back to the well in the draft again this year. Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly deep class at the position.
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The group is led by a pair of Georgia Bulldogs in Davis and Wyatt.
Davis, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound behemoth, already had the look of a dominant run-stuffer in the middle, but his jaw-dropping performance at the combine gives reason to believe he has more to offer rushing the passer, assuming he can quell concerns about his stamina.
On potential alone, Davis will likely come off the board during the first half of the first round. Wyatt, on the other hand, could potentially linger to Detroit’s No. 32 pick and would merit strong consideration at that spot. His burst off the line of scrimmage would be a welcomed asset for the Lions.
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Most of the middle-round options in this class are better against the run, which is an unquestionably valuable trait, but isn’t likely to be a point of emphasis for the Lions. Of that next tier, Leal carries the most intrigue. Often projected as a first-round pick in early mock drafts, his inconsistent production has anchored his stock. If he lingers on the board into the third round, it’s worth taking a shot on the talent, counting on the coaching staff to maximize the skill set.
And the end of the third round wouldn’t be too early to consider Uwazurike. A local product who played collegiately at Iowa State, he’s an intrinsically motivated individual who showed steady improvement both on the field and in the classroom. He really took off as a fifth-year senior, registering 9.0 sacks, more than half of his career total.
At the back of the draft, it’s best to seek developable traits. Johnson, out of Missouri State, is blessed with good size and length for the position, headlined by his 34¼-inch arms and 10-inch hands. With some polish to his technique, he could be developed into a rotational piece in the middle.