Adam’s ‘Best Case Scenario’ Offseason for Detroit’s Defense


What Could Bob Quinn Do To Improve The Defense This Offseason?


When reviewing the aftermath of the Lions 2016 season, it is quite clear that the defense became a liability when faced with a quality opponent. The unit as a whole has been devoid of depth for some time now, with the Lions being reliant on a few key defenders to make their stops.

The arrival of Bob Quinn to Detroit’s front office however, renewed a focus of building strength from depth and the team brought on numerous players that contributed small roles in a fairly effective manner. In year two, Quinn is now looking to take the next step and bring the defense up to a new level.

The main question fans have on their minds for the most part though is not whether to address defensive issues, but how. This will be a look on the best case scenario for how Detroit can improve their defense heading in to 2016:

Defensive Line

This year’s defensive line was not as formidable as people are typically used to seeing. Gone are the days where Detroit dominates its opponents up front with Suh and Fairley. To compound the issues they already faced, the Lions suffered through a whole ton of injuries that they had to contend with. Needless to say, production went down with no pass rush to speak of and an up and down performance in the run game.

The clear leader of the group Ziggy Ansah had a rough time coming back from a high ankle sprain but began to show a little of his old self late in the season. He should be expected to have a major rebound in 2017 while playing for a new contract. A’Shawn Robinson represents the future for the line as a very young solid nose tackle but still is a bit rough around the edges. After those guys though, there are a lot of decisions to make and mainly depth players that need to be combed through.

When regarding the defensive ends, Kerry Hyder is an easy decision to bring back after leading the team in sacks and having an explosive first year at 4-3 defensive end. He should develop even more going forward, potentially even into a starting quality talent, after getting more experience playing this brand new position. Add in the fact that he is an exclusive rights free agent (meaning that he can only play for Detroit next year if the team tenders him an offer) and it is a no brainer that he will return.

Rounding out the defensive end group I have Armonty Bryant, Anthony Zettel, and Brandon Copeland all returning as depth. Bryant was a very productive edge rusher in a limited amount of time in Detroit and should be resigned on a reasonable deal. The rookie Zettel came up big in several key moments during the win streak and still has room to grow as he adjusts his body to the NFL game.

Copeland was key to the Lions strong special teams play last season, something that Bob Quinn prides himself on. Devin Taylor is left as the odd man out in this scenario after a below average effort in his first season as a starter. While he did suffer an ankle sprain that nagged him through the year, he also illustrated the height of his ceiling as a player. With several players already rostered that are of similar quality coming off the bench at more agreeable prices, it makes the most sense to let him go of anyone.

With Devin Taylor leaving town, Detroit needs a starting quality DE to take the vacant slot across from Ansah. Andre Branch is by far the best potential value to fill that role. Coming off a bit of a revival season in Miami, the 27 year old Branch looked very good in limited action, rotating frequently with Mario Williams. He’s developed varied pass rush moves at this stage of his career helping his game immensely.

He’s gotten more patient in his run defense which is something Detroit’s defensive line uncharacteristically struggled with at times last year. Unlike other upper end free agent options at defensive line, Branch also comes with a rather reasonable price tag – most likely somewhere in the 5.5-6 million dollar range. He will be a little tough to pull away from Miami as the Dolphins are surely cutting ties with Mario this offseason.

That being said, Miami’s long history of looking to address needs through flashy free agents and their defensive coordinator leaving for a new job in Denver will both potentially impact whether they will prioritize his resigning. On a two to three year stop gap deal this would certainly be a case of Detroit potentially getting a guy a year or two before his stock reached its high point and provides at least a short term fix for the defensive end issues.

Looking at the defensive tackles after Robinson, unrestricted free agent Stefan Charles and restricted free agent Khyri Thornton should both be retained. They both had streaks of being quite effective run stuffers and are great rotational pieces in their proper roles as the DT3 (Charles) and DT5(Thornton). Tyrunn Walker has never seemed to fully recover from his leg injury and should not be retained as he lost a lot of his explosiveness.

As for current number one Ngata, while he has been a great help to Detroit since he arrived here, he has dropped off in his effectiveness of late and is simply not worth next year’s cap hit of $7.75 million dollars. With the Lions potentially saving $5.75 million upon his release they will have to look for a new defensive tackle option in the starting lineup and there’s one in particular who could end up being an absolute steal.

Bennie Logan is another bull rushing, run stuffer, but he’s a significant upgrade on Ngata at this stage. He’s a three tech as opposed to a nose but has versatility for both spots and projects at about a million less per year on this year’s Ngata cost. He can get plugged into the lineup immediately and eat up blocks while also displaying some slightly more refined pass rushing skills providing anything this team would really ask of him.

On top of this, the Eagles cannot afford to keep him with their current cap situation and players like Kawann Short and Dontari Poe pushing down Logan’s value slightly for a very lucky team. After that, Detroit would add a pass rush element for the three technique to round out their rotation, an element that was sorely lacking this year.

Luckily, Detroit’s best options for that can be found in the third round between players like Davon Godchaux and Charles Walker. The best option for the Lions though would be Jaron Jones who’s a really disruptive force in the middle of a defense. Those changes would best put the defensive line in a position to succeed for next year.

New depth chart: DE: Ansah, Branch, Hyder, Bryant, Zettel, Copeland  DT: Logan, Robinson, Charles, Jones, Thornton

Total investment: A third round pick, 6 million in new signings after Ngata’s release, roughly 5 million in resignings between 5 players.

Linebackers

Detroit’s linebackers are without question the unit most needing of talent on the team. After DeAndre Levy went down with yet another near season long injury, the Lions failed to even roll two effective linebackers out on the field for nickel sets. Now they must start to bring back talent to the position at every level, improving both the group’s cover skills and run defense.

This all starts however with a healthy DeAndre Levy. He’s the clear star at the position and having him back at full strength again will be a huge plus to the team. Continuing on with the rest of the roster, Tahir Whitehead struggled with the Mike position all year, outside of tackling he was substandard in almost every other category. Antwione Williams played well in spurts especially considering he’s a fifth round, developmental rookie from Division II. He could be ready for an expanded role moving forward.

Bynes filled in nicely when coming off his knee injury but still has limitations that make his place on Detroit’s roster unsafe, namely that he’s a borderline backup quality player who cannot play special teams and has a significant injury history. Armbrister was a roster filler and should be gone following training camp. While they can be decent in run coverage and are typically technically solid in their tackling, the group as a whole struggles the most in coverage as well as generating big plays. What this brief look at this position group shows is a need to upgrade the starter, as well as some lower depth positions on the team.

The best way to address team needs here comes with a first round pick. Zach Cunningham is the complete package which is exactly what is needed considering the amount that the Lions run packages with only two linebackers on the field. He’s a great fit for Detroit at 21 as he fills the team’s needs exceptionally well.

By a wide margin, he is the best cover linebacker in this draft, he blitz’s well should he be given the opportunity in Austin’s exotic schemes, and he’s got the great play recognition skills needed to help lead a defense. The one knock people find against him is they don’t like how he tackles high and uses his arms a lot. He was still top ten in tackles in Division I last year while playing in the SEC. He can be coached up on better tackling technique as Detroit has a great history of doing with it’s players.

Overall, this is a long time starter and a defensive anchor piece for the team to build around. After Cunningham, I have Detroit drafting another player with their second 6th round pick, Jalen Reeves-Maybin. While he has struggled with injuries throughout his career, Reeves-Maybin would fit in very well as a potential long view replacement for Levy, given some time to develop and build his body back up on special teams duty. He’s phenomenal at diagnosing plays, sheds blocks well, and is an aggressive blitzer off the edge. He doesn’t have ideal size which could hurt him trying to bring bigger players down at the next level but with a few years in an NFL weight room, it should get him to where he needs to be.

That should be enough for the linebacker unit to improve significantly headed into next season. Moving Whitehead to the third LB position should take enough pressure off of him that he can perform at a higher level. Josh Bynes in this scenario walks as Antwione Williams proved more than capable of filling the #4 LB role.

New Depth Chart: Levy, Cunningham, Whitehead, Williams, Reeves-Maybin

Total Investment: 1st and 6th round picks

Secondary

This position group arguably came into the season with fans having the most concern and it ended up being a fairly pleasant surprise. Despite continuing the team’s theme of injuries in this unit with slot corner Diggs lost to the IR and several other players missing extended periods, many players stepped up and showed that they deserve more time with the Lions as potentially key players going forward.

The unit is led by Darius Slay, who despite a slightly down season this year is still at bare minimum a top 10 corner in the league. Nevin Lawson showed up very nicely in coverage for Detroit, illustrating clear improvement over his last several years however, he also showcased physical limitations which prevent him from being highly effective regardless of his cover skills on the outside. Diggs had another solid effort as well prior to hitting the IR, so long as he was utilized against smaller slot targets.

While Johnson Bademosi performed slightly better than one would expect a team’s number 5 corner and special teams ace to perform in man coverage, it was not by much. Looking at the safeties, Glover Quin had another rock solid year patrolling the field. What he lacks in big play ability at times he more then makes up for with consistency and veteran leadership and he should have years left heading Detroit’s defensive backs.

Meanwhile, Tavon Wilson slowly took over the strong safety role across from Glover, illustrating nice hands, solid coverage skills for a more box-type safety, and a little bit of enforcer mentality that every Lions fan should want to see as the full fledged starter next year. Rafael Bush and Don Carey offered reasonably good rotational snaps and solid special teams ability as well, while Miles Killebrew became quite a stand out in third down situations, allowing the team to move to big nickel packages much earlier then they expected.

With all the promise that Detroit has at safety, little should be done with that unit. The key however should be on identifying an outside corner who can take over for Lawson and provide the ability to shut down larger receivers that currently have the opportunity to make plays over his head. This is a crucial need on the team, especially when playing in a division with Aaron Rodgers, and should be addressed as early as possible.

Based upon present draft boards, the best fitting corner that will be available around our pick in the second round would be Cordrea Tankersley. Tankersley has better size then anyone else in the second round range at 6’1, 200 lbs – which Terryl Austin loves, and he has shut down island corner credentials. While there may be other guys in that range that may be more pro ready at this point, none come near to being a better long term fit on the outside with Detroit.

The long and short is that he makes receiver’s nights miserable through aggressive play, locks on smooth technique, and great leaping ability. Playing across from Mackenzie Alexander last season, he’s also used to being thrown at as the #2 corner and has developed great ball skills that make him a dangerous, a big play player to put across from big play Slay. He needs to work on inside routes and shore up his tackling but those details can be coached up.

This allows Detroit to adjust its entire corner rotation from something that was a concern after just one injury last year, to an incredibly strong and deep group. Since the staff seems to really like him, Adarius Barnes can come back for another year as a 6th corner providing even further depth to the group as well as fairly strong special teams play. Four safeties should be fine considering Bademosi has experience sliding in there in a pinch.

New Depth Chart: Slay, Quin, Wilson, Tankersley, Lawson, Killebrew, Diggs, Bademosi, Carey, Barnes

Total Investment: a 2nd round pick, and $500,000 in resignings for Barnes

Summary

Long story short this is not a draft to take a defensive lineman early, especially when considering our clear needs at other positions. If we can fill our needs in that unit with reasonably priced and solid free agents, we can put our earlier draft picks to far better use on the linebacker and cornerback positions.

This new look defense builds upon the best parts of the existing team, helping to rectify key issues in the hopes that it will stop at least major exposures and force teams to beat Detroit in more difficult ways. You will no longer be able to easily toss the ball for an easy touchdown over 5’8 Nevin Lawson to a receiver over a half foot taller with Tankersley on the field.

You won’t be able to have your quarterback sit back without pressure for days with an assortment of veteran and explosive talent along the defensive line. You won’t have wide open tight ends running wild to lob it to for massive gains with Zach Cunningham back in coverage. The Lions will be a far more formidable team with this lineup.

Final Defensive Roster

LDE: Ansah, Hyder, Copeland
DT: Logan*, Charles, Thornton
DT: Robinson, Jones*
RDE: Branch*, Bryant, Zettel
WLB: Levy, Reeves-Maybin*
MLB: Cunningham*, Williams
SLB: Whitehead
LCB: Slay, Lawson, Bademosi
FS: Quin, Carey
SS: Wilson, Killebrew
RCB: Tankersley*, Diggs, Barnes

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About the Author

Adam Ostermeier
Adam Ostermeier is a staff writer for detroitlionspodcast.com. From Toronto, Ontario, Canada, he has been a fan of the Lions for close to a decade and has a wide range of knowledge and experience with numerous sports. Watch for him on the reddit or send him a tweet, he will answer any of your questions and try not to be smug to the best of his ability.