A young Detroit Lions defensive line could have multiple breakout candidates, but one that might be easy to forget has surfaced.
The Detroit Lions have been committed to building things up in the trenches. Their first three picks in the 2021 draft were lineman, with defensive lineman as the latter two. Two of their first three picks in this year’s draft were defensive lineman too.
If you were to mark candidates along the Lions’ defensive line as breakout candidates for this year, Aidan Hutchinson would be an obvious one as a rookie. Internal expectations would tab Levi Onwuzurike as another. Going a little deeper Julian Okwara might be one, as could Jashon Cornell.
Detroit Lions defensive line breakout candidate comes off as surprising
The Draft Network is rolling out the most likely breakout candidate for each NFL team. For the Lions, Justin Melo named defensive tackle Alim McNeill.
McNeill, a third-round pick (No. 72 overall) out of NC State in 2021, played in all 17 games as rookie last season with 39 total tackles (15 solo tackles, three tackles for loss) and two sacks from the nose tackle spot in Aaron Glenn’s 3-4 scheme. He played 37 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps (422 total snaps), so a bigger role should naturally be in store this year.
McNeill (330 pounds) is quicker and more athletic than you might think he’d be, and he flashed it at times during his rookie season. Entering his second season, consistency will be a clear key for him.
The Lions’ shift to more four-man defensive fronts this year should create chances for McNeill to be more than a space-eating, anchor type nose. Part of Melo’s evaluation points to the upside.
McNeill’s hands are technically refined and he wins by initiating first contact. He plays with terrific arm extension and when most effective, McNeill can control reps at the point of attack. His pass-rushing traits remain raw, but McNeill has flashed quick swim moves and the ability to slip into the gaps to penetrate and collapse the pocket.
The Lions’ defensive line will be better and deeper in 2022, as young players assert themselves and step into prominent roles. McNeill is lined up to benefit as much as anyone from the better circumstances.