Open Ended: Detroit Lions Plans at Defensive End

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What the Detroit Lions Might be Planning Opposite Trey Flowers

The Detroit Lions are facing an identity crisis. Matt Patricia’s defense last year might have been the worst he ever coached. The Lions ranked 26th in points allowed per game as well as 31st in yards per game. That also included a league-worst 4551 passing yards allowed over the season. That’s not a good look for someone who got hired based on their merit as a defensive guru.

The pass rush was almost non-existent, allowing the coverage on the back end to unravel. Lions fans have been clamoring for an upgrade at the defensive end spot for what seems like forever. The Lions signed former Patriot Trey Flowers to a 5-year $90-million deal in 2019. Unfortunately, one guy wasn’t enough.

Opposite Flowers was second-year Lion Devon Kennard, Detroit’s full-time Jack linebacker in their base 3-3-5. Kennard sets a hard edge in the running game. However, he’s rarely offered much upside rushing the passer. The Lions cut Kennard, their Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, this offseason. While the Lions have added Jamie Collins in free agency to help fill in some of Kennard’s production, he’s not going to be the one to step in as a full-time Jack linebacker.

That leads me to wonder this: What are the Lions planning to do on the left side of their defensive line, considering Trey Flowers will be a full-time down defensive end on the right side? Here are three possibilities the Lions might explore. It all comes down to a wait-and-see approach to the first few picks in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Possibility One: Chase Young falls to the Lions at pick three

I know what you’re thinking. How is there any chance Chase Young falls to the Lions? It is indeed a possibility. The Redskins would be crazy to pass on Chase Young and pick a different player. However, considering both the Miami Dolphins and the Los Angeles Chargers are hungry for a quarterback and are sitting at five and six in the draft, they might trade up to pick two. In that case, Chase Young would fall right into the Lions’ laps at three. There’s (almost) no doubt in my mind they would sprint to the virtual podium to take him.

Getting Chase Young would be sort of awkward in the Lions current 3-3-5 hybrid front scheme. While he certainly can play in the Jack role, Young should be in a down defensive end spot at all times to take the best advantage of all the tools he possesses. He needs to be pressuring the quarterback to best help the team, not dropping into coverage. That would mean the Lions would probably switch to more of a traditional 4-man front with Flowers and Young. The Lions could also entertain shifting Flowers inside and putting Young outside of him.

Possibility Two: The Lions don’t get Chase Young and look to later in the Draft

The Lions have done a decent job adding scheme-versatile players that can play in either an odd or even front. Nick Williams came onto the scene with the Chicago Bears last season, netting six sacks for the year. Williams can act as a gap penetrator in Matt Patricia’s scheme. Danny Shelton is capable of playing as a 0-tech, 1-tech, and even a 3-tech in most schemes. Jamie Collins is a guy who can (and probably will) play any one of the Lions current linebacker positions. The Lions have likely been preparing to switch schemes to incorporate Young if they land him. However, Detroit can continue business as usual if they don’t.

The Lions still need to address the left edge of their defensive unit, though. The Lions could do that in a multitude of ways during the draft. A few guys who can fill that role with the Lions are A.J. Epenesa, Bradlee Anae, Zack Baun, Josh Uche, and Curtis Weaver.

A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

AJ Epenesa RAS
Credit to Kent Lee Platte (@Mathbomb on twitter) for Epenesa’s RAS card

Epenesa offers the inside-outside versatility that Matt Patricia covets. He can play as a big 5-tech like Cameron Jordan does for the Saints. He can also kick inside on passing downs, using his heavy hands and length to win against interior offensive linemen. Epenesa is one of my favorite fits for the Lions’ defense. But it would require him to fall out of round one and into the Lions’ laps at pick 35. Either that or the Lions would have to be proactive and trade up to nab him.

Bradlee Anae, Utah

Bradlee Anae RAS
Credit to Kent Lee Platte (@Mathbomb on twitter) for Anae’s RAS card

Bradlee Anae played on the Detroit Lions-coached North squad at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in January. He would be a hybrid edge capable of playing standing up or with a hand in the dirt. He’s got everything the Lions like in a defensive lineman, barring his arm length. At Utah, he won with technique and motor. He’s not the most athletic, but he can certainly fit what the Lions want at the position.

Zack Baun, Wisconsin and Josh Uche, Michigan

Zack Baun RAS
Credit to Kent Lee Platte (@Mathbomb on twitter) for Baun’s RAS card
(No RAS Card for Uche as he did not test at the combine)

Baun and Uche would both be able to offer scheme versatility at the linebacker position. This seems very important to the Lions as most of their recent linebacker additions have the same quality. Both of them can rush the passer situationally as they did in college. Uche and Baun will both be limited to playing as off-ball linebackers on non-passing downs due to their weight limitations. They’d both project to rotate at each linebacker position early in their careers for the Lions.

Curtis Weaver, Boise State

Curtis Weaver RAS
Credit to Kent Lee Platte (@Mathbomb on twitter) for Weaver’s RAS card

Weaver would undoubtedly be more of a full-time option as a Jack linebacker in the Lions’ scheme. He’s 265 pounds and plays a lot like Dont’a Hightower of the Patriots. He’s stocky and was incredibly productive at Boise State, putting up 34 career sacks and 47.5 tackles for loss in three seasons. He even intercepted the ball twice in coverage, which is very nice for a guy his size. He’d be able to replace Kennard’s production setting the edge in the run game. But it would come with a higher ceiling as a pass rusher.

With all of these options, it would be difficult for the Lions to not come away with their guy. The Lions could end up with multiple picks on day two from a trade down from pick three or could even double up on a player like Epenesa as well as Baun or Uche. A move like this would allow outside and inside pressure from the same side on passing downs.

Possibility 3: The Lions don’t add anyone to fill the spot in the draft

Not filling an edge player during the draft might seem like somewhat of a nightmare scenario for the Detroit Lions. However, Matt Patricia has preferred to have interior pressure from his defensive tackles as opposed to pressure around the edge. The Lions might be ok with just upgrading the interior pressure. Getting a player like Javon Kinlaw, Derrick Brown, or Ross Blacklock could go a long way towards improving the pass rush. The Lions can add a player via trade if they don’t draft a guy

Yannick Ngakoue is a popular name being thrown about in trade rumors. It’s not likely the Lions would be interested in adding him at the price the Jaguars are asking. The Lions probably leave him off the table, considering his contract demands as well.

One guy I’d speculate that might become available is Dont’a Hightower. He’s in the last year of a four-year deal with the Patriots, who seem to be already looking to offload pieces they don’t believe will be around for their long-term plans. He’s set to be 30 years old, and the Lions could target him as a one-year stopgap. In shipping out Hightower, the Patriots would save themselves just under $10-million in cap space for the upcoming season. The Lions might be able to trade for him using a late-round pick in 2021 if the Patriots are willing to move on from him. That said, its all speculation and might not be the most realistic option, but worth having the conversation.

Other possibilities that might be considered

The Lions could go the route of picking up a guy off the waiver wire following roster cuts like they did each of the last couple seasons with Romeo Okwara and J.D. McKissic. While it’s too early to predict who might be a target, it’s a definite possibility that the Lions go this route again.

Detroit also selected Austin Bryant in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL draft. He was the 4th-best defensive lineman on a fantastic d-line at Clemson that won the college football playoff. Bryant has struggled with staying healthy over the last couple of seasons. His senior year at Clemson, he tore his pectoral and played through the pain. During training camp, Bryant re-aggravated the injury and ended up on injured reserve. The Lions could be higher on him than most on the outside looking in. He just needs to remain healthy long enough to develop.

Summary

Overall, the Lions would be best served remaining open-ended (pun fully intended) at the left edge of their defense heading into the draft. Whether they come out of the draft with Chase Young or not, their best bet is to fill that spot sooner rather than later, preferably in the second round of this year’s draft. If they don’t, they better hope their coverage on the back end improves enough to allow the current personnel on the front-7 to hit home more often than they did last year.


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