Last year, the Detroit Lions went into the season with two clear-cut starters at defensive end in Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones. What wasn't as clear was who would occupy the No. 3 spot at defensive end, and it turned out that George Johnson got the third-most reps at the position. In fact, he was on the field for nearly as many snaps as Darryl Tapp and Devin Taylor combined in 2014.
This year, with Johnson now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the third spot at defensive end is once again up for grabs. From a depth chart standpoint, there are obviously going to be two main backups for the two starters (Ansah and Jones), but based on the rotation last year, it's clear that the No. 3 defensive end will be poised for a lot more playing time than the other backups at the position (especially if Jones misses some time after having a procedure this offseason).
Let's start with the two backups who actually played last season and are still on the team: Tapp and Taylor. Tapp was brought back this offseason as the veteran presence among the backups at defensive end. He recorded 17 tackles and 0.5 sacks last season, which are pretty similar numbers to Taylor's 15 tackles and 1.0 sack. Neither player showed a whole lot in the pass-rushing department, but perhaps that will change this year if they get a bigger role on passing downs.
Larry Webster is also back from last season, but he didn't actually play as a rookie in 2014. His action was limited to the preseason, and he did show some flashes along the way. Although he wasn't able to crack the rotation last year, he has received a lot of hype this offseason, and he might be positioned to take on that Johnson type of role where he comes out of nowhere for a 6.0-sack season or something like that.
The other players in the mix at defensive end are Corey Wootton and Phillip Hunt. Wootton has experience at both end and tackle, but he may not even make the 53-man roster. Hunt also may not make the 53-man roster, but given his comparisons to Johnson, I suppose it would be foolish to completely ignore him after what Johnson did during training camp a year ago.
Who has the edge right now?
This is a tough call. The safe choice would be a player like Tapp or Taylor given where they were on the depth chart a year ago. You know they're going to get their reps, and they could see additional playing time by sliding inside in certain looks. On the flip side, a player like Webster is still a relative unknown after not playing at all during the regular season last year, but he seemingly has the potential to do more as a pass rusher than both Tapp and Taylor. And then there's another veteran in Wootton and another sort of unknown in Hunt.
If I have to pick, I guess I'll go with Webster simply for his upside. Tapp and Taylor weren't all that impressive as pass rushers in 2014, and the Lions need someone to step up and replace the 6.0 sacks that Johnson accounted for last year. Perhaps Ansah will do that by taking his game to another level, but from the standpoint of who has the most potential beyond the two starters, I'm going with Webster.