Roster preview: Will a defensive tweak help Michael Brockers rebound?

Pride of Detroit

Michael Brockers was one of the more interesting additions for the Detroit Lions last year. For a team that was making a conscious effort to get younger, Brockers was a break from that strategy, but an understandable one.

Matt Patricia had left the team without a defensive identity and void of any true leaders on the team (Trey Flowers was possibly the lone exception). So Brockers not only brought the experience of a nine-year veteran, but as a former team captain, he could be a key member of the team to set an example and establish a culture.

So how did it all work out, and what will Brockers’ role be in 2022 and beyond? Let’s take a closer look.

Previously: RB Godwin Igwebuike, TE Brock Wright, WR Quintez Cephus, G Jonah Jackson, EDGE Charles Harris

Michael Brockers

Expectations heading into 2021

It didn’t cost a lot for the Lions to trade for Brockers, sending the Rams just a 2023 seventh-round pick for the veteran defensive tackle. However, Detroit immediately inked him to a new three-year, $24 million deal with $11 million guaranteed. While the contract didn’t break the Lions’ bank (cap hits of $3 million and $9 million in 2021 and 2022), the extension did signify that they expected a lot of Brockers on the field.

However, the immediate thought following the trade was that Brockers would be a culture setter for the rebuilding franchise. He was a captain for the Rams for three seasons and one of the hardest-working players for Los Angeles. That role became even more obvious after the Lions drafted two young interior defenders in Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike.

In short, Brockers was expected to bring solid, reliable play on the field, and provide the locker room with a prototype of the kind of player this team wants, hopefully influencing one of the youngest rosters in the league.

Actual role in 2021

2021 stats: 16 games (16 starts): 52 tackles, 1.0 sack
PFF grade: 40.6 (124th out of 131 qualifying DTs)

  • 48.0 pass rush grade (106th)
  • 42.7 run defense grade (128th)

To put it bluntly, 2021 was the worst year of Michael Brockers’ career. In his previous nine seasons with the Rams, he averaged 22.7 quarterback pressures per year (via PFF). In his one season in Detroit, he had six—by far his lowest output in a single season.

By some statistical measures, he was an even worse run defender. PFF credited him with just 21 run stops, the fewest he’s had since 2016. His seven missed tackles were also the most of his career, and his 42.7 PFF run defense grade was nearly 20 points worse than his lowest grade prior to arriving in Detroit.

Combined with the inefficiency of the Lions’ other veteran defensive tackle, Nick Williams, the Lions had one of the worst pass rushing interior threats in the NFL. Midway through December, the Lions quite literally had the two least efficient pass rushers in the league:

Brockers is not on the end-of-season graph, but William finished pretty much in the exact same spot. It’s reasonable to assume that because Walder increased the minimum of the y-axis, Brockers is actually so far down that he was cut off.

Of course, Brockers’ presence was important when it came to a mentorship role. Both rookie defensive tackles, Onwuzurike and McNeill, have credited him with helping them learn the ropes of the NFL.

“What do I pick up from Brock? A lot,” McNeill said. “Too much to name. Him as a professional, I watched him when he was back in LA, I used to watch him all the time, not knowing I’d be his teammate. But a lot of things off the field and on the field. He’s taught me a lot, though, just watching him and seeing how he goes about things.”

“Just being able to watch him—watching his film and then watching him in person—it helps us a lot,” Onwuzurike said. “It helps me. It helps Alim a lot. Just having him in that room and on top of that, he teaches you. (Even) if you don’t want to learn, he’s going to teach you. He’s going to force you to learn. That’s the type of vet he is.”

Outlook for 2022

Before looking at what’s ahead for 2022, we have to diagnose why Brockers struggled so much last year. Was it because he was in an entirely new defense and city? Is the 31-year-old simply reaching the twilight of his career? Is this just who Michael Brockers is when he doesn’t have human cheat code Aaron Donald working next to him?

It’s impossible to know for sure, and the answer is likely a mixture of all those things.

The good news for Detroit is that they are changing their defensive front philosophy to something Brockers is more comfortable with. Instead of taking on blocks, the Lions plan to attack offensive lines, hoping to play more on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage. That’s right in Brockers’ wheelhouse.

“Kinda reminds me of what we did in LA,” Brockers said. “You’ve got a 3-4 kind of feel to you, but it’s more attack than read and freeing up the linebackers. So it’s more about everybody has a gap, hit your gap, win your gap, and let’s go play some ball.”

Brockers later added, “I’m playing more the strong-side end, 4i, 3 (tech), stuff like that. So I think it plays well into what I do.”

Brockers won’t have the added benefit of someone like Donald again in 2022, but, ideally, improved play from Year 2 players, plus the addition of Aidan Hutchinson will potentially take some of the pressure off of him. In the graph above, you can see that Brockers took on more double teams than most, so it’s possible he’ll have more one-on-one opportunities this season. Will that be enough for Brockers to settle in and improve his play from last year? It’s hard to say right now.

Brockers has a lot of questions to answer at this point in his career. He’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and it’s quite possible his decline in play last year was simply a result of that.

Regardless, this season will be a pivotal year for his NFL future. Detroit doesn’t have as much of a need for Brockers the leader. Now they need Brockers the football player.

He’s due a significant pay increase next year to a salary of $10 million. However, because none of the salary is guaranteed, Brockers will have to prove this year he’s worth it because otherwise, he becomes a fairly straightforward cap casualty in 2023.

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