Lions training camp preview: Is there a DT depth problem?

Pride of Detroit

After wrapping up our previews of the Detroit Lions training camp battles on the offensive side of the ball, we are now exploring the defensive side of the ball, starting with the interior defensive line. If you missed any of our previous installments in the series, be sure to check out:

Setting the table

Last offseason, the Detroit Lions heavily attacked the position. General manager Brad Holmes traded for veteran Michael Brockers, then added two Day 2 talents in the draft with Levi Onwuzurike in the second round and Alim McNeill in the third. They initially kept seven defensive tackles on the 53-man roster, but quickly narrowed it to six when they placed Da’Shawn Hand on injured reserve.

The Lions enjoyed relatively good health at the position last season, with McNeill, Brockers, Nick Williams, and John Penisini all playing at least 16 games in 2021.

That said, the Lions lost Kevin Strong to an injury early in the season, Hand managed to only play in three games, and Levi Onwuzurike dealt with a lingering back injury that was so bad at one point that he had trouble sitting down in meetings. By the end of the season, the Lions had released both Strong and Hand.

Bruce Hector was temporarily elevated from the practice squad on three different occasions and saw a limited amount of action on defense. Jashon Cornell barely saw the field due to an early-season suspension, and a non-football illness that lasted several weeks.

For the majority of last season, the Lions’ defensive tackle group consisted of starters Williams and Brockers, with McNeill, Penisini, and Onwuzurike providing rotational snaps for the group. In fact, that group of five accounted for 2,339 of the unit’s total 2,507—or 93.9 percent of the playing time.

Of those five, though, only three return. Williams was not renewed in free agency and Penisini suddenly retired last month. Cornell and Hector also remain.

Roster construction

While the Lions often kept six or seven defensive tackles on the active gameday roster last season, that is likely to drastically change in 2022. As of right now, they only have six interior defensive linemen on their roster with their only offseason addition being undrafted rookie Demetrius Taylor.

The reasoning for the dramatic shift is twofold. For one, the Lions are moving to a more four-man front base defense, meaning there will be more shifting along the defensive front from all players. Instead of deploying three interior defensive linemen shadowed by two edge defenders/outside linebackers, the Lions will be utilizing two base interior defensive linemen, who could often be replaced by defensive ends.

And that fits how the Lions added players on the edge this offseason. Both Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal are capable of sliding inside, as is waiver claim John Cominsky and last year’s late-season defensive line addition Eric Banks.

That leaves predicting how many interior defenders the Lions will carry a bit of a guessing game. As always, we can look at the Saints and Rams—Detroit’s biggest defensive influences—as guidance. In 2020, with Aaron Glenn on staff, the Saints carried five defensive tackles on their initial roster. The Rams are a tough case to crack, since they deployed 3-4 defense up until last year.

Four seems likely the likely minimum the Lions keep with a fifth player optional and a sixth unlikely.

The Battleground

Onwuzurike and McNeill are locks for the roster and major roles after having very different rookie seasons last year. McNeill took on the big task of being Detroit’s nose tackle, eating up double teams, hoping to free up other defenders while two-gapping a lot of the time. He took on the job valiantly and flashed occasional signs of elite talent.

Going into Year 2, the Lions are hoping the schematic change—with McNeill playing more one and three-tech—will help him reach his full potential. Not only will the Lions be utilizing more four-man fronts, highlighting McNeill’s versatility, but their more aggressive philosophy could also play to McNeill’s strengths, specifically using his quick first step.

“I think some of the things that we are doing defensively a little bit more of this attack, we’re going serve him well because he’s got a quick first step,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “He’s got good feet and he is powerful.”

Onwuzurike, too, hopes to benefit from the schematic change, but much of his offseason has been aimed towards getting healthier and stronger after a rough rookie season. He has stayed around the Detroit area for much of the offseason, which has impressed Campbell.

“I know he’s of the right mindset,” Campbell said. “Even just talking to him when he left. First of all, he wasn’t going to leave. He was going to stick around here for a while, which he did. He’s been working. Went back home for a little bit and he’s come back up. He’s put his money where his mouth is. I know that from a training standpoint, he’s got enough pride and he knows what he needs to do.”

Brockers likely won’t be going anywhere either, as he’s the veteran leader of the group, and with nearly $7 million in guaranteed money still left in his contract, there’s no financial reason to get rid of him. He will, however, have to improve from last year to maintain a hold on a starting job. Brockers finished 2021 with a 40.6 PFF grade, which ranked 124 out of 131 defensive tackles.

Out of the reserves, Jashon Cornell has made the biggest impression this offseason. Getting some early time with the first-team defense, Cornell made several plays during OTAs and minicamp. Defensive line coach Todd Wash even called Cornell the next potential Charles Harris, referring to Harris’ breakout last year.

“Jashon flashed this spring but right now we’re still in gym class,” Wash said. “We’re not running the football and that’s the area we have got to get better in once we start training camp. But Jashon is a guy that is under the radar right now.”

Hector didn’t make the team’s initial 53-man roster, but he popped in the preseason, leading him to stick around on the practice squad and eventually get his opportunities late in the year. His versatility will give him the opportunity to compete at several positions and will likely be Cornell’s biggest challenger.

Demetrius Taylor comes to Detroit after five years of production at Appalachian State—including 20 total sacks in his final three seasons. He, too, has the versatility to play anywhere from nose to five-tech. But with only $15,000 guaranteed on his contract, he’ll have some work to do to crack the 53-man roster.

Discussion/Projection

Jeremy: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we only kept four defensive tackles: Brockers, McNeill, Onwuzurike, and Cornell.

Before we get into that fourth (and fifth?) defensive tackle spot, I wanted to talk about your confidence in the overall position. Outside of linebacker, defensive tackle is the position I hear most concern from fans, and with good reason. Detroit seems to be depending on scheme change and young player development—rather than talent additions—to improve the unit. What’s your concern level for this group overall?

Erik: Not as high as at linebacker because of the investment they’ve made at the position, the adjustment to an attacking front, and the EDGE players’ versatility to contribute inside. Over half the EDGE players can kick inside on passing downs, which will add plenty of speed up front, but I do expect there to be a learning curve early in the season, especially against the run. And that’s really where my biggest concern is. They should be able to rush the passer—which will be huge—but have they done enough to increase their ability to stop the run? That I’m uncertain of.

So, do you expect them to award the DT4 job to the best run defender or simply stick with their best player approach here?

Jeremy: That’s a good question, because I share your concern in the run game—especially with a linebacking corps behind them that has a lot to prove. But knowing this coaching staff, they are going to keep the most well-rounded players. If you can only do one thing well, you better do it at an elite level and I don’t see an elite run defender among the reserves. So is the best reserve beyond the top three Cornell? Is it even close right now?

Erik: I think Cornell is the clear leader for the job, but as you pointed out when you “set the table” there is an injury history that needs monitoring and that’s why I’m not yet ready to say the role is 100 percent his just yet. Bruce Hector does a lot of the same things Cornell does, maybe not as well, but the Lions protected him on the practice squad all year because they believe in him. This battle is not yet over.

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