Allen Park — While many in the Detroit Lions’ facility are anticipating a breakout season from second-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill, it appears those expectations go beyond the field.
Defensive line coach Todd Wash said at the close of minicamp that he’s seeing a “transition” from the man they call “Mac.”
“He’s one of the leaders in the room. He’s definitely the biggest guy in the room, but he’s one of the leaders in the room, he and (veteran Michael Brockers),” Wash said. “And you’re seeing a transition of him, of taking the room over, which is what we want.”
McNeill, drafted in the third round of the 2021 draft out of N.C. State, played nearly 40% of available snaps in his rookie season, but he didn’t make as big of an impact from the nose tackle position that some — including himself — had hoped. He recorded 39 total tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
But a lot has changed since the close of last season and heading into McNeill’s second year. For starters, he said, he’s begun taking steps to become more of a “professional.” That includes working with the wife of former Lions defensive lineman Nick Williams who’s a nutritionist and helped McNeill learn how to get “the right calories, the right food in me.”
“Rookie year, everything is thrown at you so fast, it’s kind of hard to soak everything up,” McNeill said earlier this month. “So I helped myself this offseason by becoming more of a professional, taking things more serious — my eating habits, sleep, all that type of stuff. That’s helped me progress to where I am now. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but we’re getting there.”
Apparently, it has made all the difference. McNeill said he recognized the difference in how he feels on the second day of OTAs.
“Day 2, I was like, ‘OK, now I feel a lot different,'” he said. “I was really explosive, I’m hydrated, very attentive out there. I definitely feel a lot different.”
Wash said that he expects McNeill to put his athleticism on display and become a bigger factor in the pass rush in 2022.
“Obviously, he can do a lot of different things. But this is really going to get him one-on-one with some centers, you’re going to be able to seem more athleticism,” Wash said.
“He has really good play strength. We’ve seen that. He doesn’t get knocked off the ball. We want to see him continue to develop as a pass rusher. When some turns and protections, where he gets one-on-one, this scheme allows him to be on an edge and show his athleticism. So I think the pass rush is really what we’re going to see out of Mac.”
By “on an edge,” Wash means edge of the center. The new rush scheme this season, which features more four-man fronts, is sure to benefit McNeill’s speed off the ball.
McNeill said that the last time he played on a four-man front, in his freshman season at N.C. State, he was “able to get off the ball at the 3-tech and the 1-tech and beat guys with speed.”
“When I was in the zero (directly across from the center) last year, you have to stay on that center. You can’t really just sideswipe him and let him go, can’t let him get up to the backers and stuff. With this, I’m just able to get off the ball and do what I do,” McNeill said. “Obviously, this is the NFL — everybody is fast and strong — but just to be able to have that little bit of advantage to play on the edge, it’s gonna work out great.”
There are many ways that McNeill figures to be a different player in his second NFL season. He definitely missed the late-night snacking at first, but in 2022, he wants to prove that he’s a difference-maker on the field and that he’s serious about the process of getting there.
“If I want to do what I want to do, I gotta sacrifice for now,” he said. “I can eat all the Doritos when I’m done.”
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.