One of the priorities entering Dan Campbell’s second year as Detroit Lions coach was to drastically improve the defensive line.
Notably, the Lions took star Michigan football edge and 2021 Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson with the No. 2 pick in April’s draft — a move Campbell called the “best culture fit” and should provide Detroit an immediate boost up front. The return of Romeo Okwara, who let the team in sacks (10) in 2020 before tearing his Achillies early in the 2021 season should help as well.
In the middle, Pro Football Focus thinks the Lions will greatly benefit from another season of Alim McNeill, the No. 72 pick in 2021. The former NC State standout tallied 35 tackles, two sacks and a pass deflection in his rookie year.
PFF ranked McNeill as the No. 10-most likely second-year player to breakout in 2022, per an ESPN article. He’s one of two defensive tackles included in the 15-player list.
“McNeill was another very young draft pick coming out of NC State and didn’t turn 21 until a couple of weeks after he was drafted,” Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner wrote. “That isn’t a minor detail for the rigors of holding up to double teams in the NFL. Even so, McNeill still held his own for a 60.1 overall grade on 422 snaps as a rookie.”
NFL sophomores ranked higher on the breakout list include San Francisco quarterback Trey Lance at No. 8, Indianapolis edge Kwity Paye at No. 6, New England defensive tackle Christian Barmore at No. 2 and Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1.
Paye, who played for U-M from 2017-20, recorded 32 tackles, four sacks, a pass deflection, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries that season. Rrenner wrote the Guinea native entered his first season as a project and as the “kind of player who is not supposed to make an early impact in the NFL until he gains pass-rushing experience at that level.”
But Paye provided doubters wrong and led all rookie edge rushers with a 71.3 pass-rushing grade.
“And he did it all while playing three-quarters of his snaps lined up over left tackles — the more difficult side to rush the passer from in the NFL, given the talent disparity between left and right tackles,” Brenner wrote. “With his size and skill, it seems like only a matter of time before Paye is in the Pro Bowl conversation.”
While McNeill was with the Wolfpack from 2018-20, he had 77 tackles, 10 sacks and a pick-six. Heading into his sophomore season, McNeill told reporters in June he’s focused on his diet — noting he worked with nutritionist Amy Migdalia, wife of former Lions defensive tackle Nick Williams, on eating, hydrating and sleeping better.
McNeill hopes his offseason prep will allow for him to make a bigger impact next season.
“His inclusion comes primarily from what he put on tape in Weeks 17 and 18 last season,” Renner wrote. “McNeill earned two of his three highest single-game grades of the year in those contests (75.8 and 79.5 overall) while playing 65 snaps between the two.
“Despite being two years younger and drafted a round later than Levi Onwuzurike, whom Detroit selected at No. 41, McNeill considerably out-graded his defensive tackle counterpart. That means he should be getting every opportunity to break out in 2022 on a much-improved Lions defensive line.”
Chandler Engelbrecht is a reporting intern at Free Press and can be reached at CEngelbrecht@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctengelbrecht.