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Making sense of the situation at defensive tackle

If only one of them could play defensive end.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Drafting A'Shawn Robinson in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft meant the Detroit Lions increased the number of defensive tackles under contract to seven. Going into the 2015 regular season, the Lions kept just four defensive tackles on the 53-man roster, but quickly signed Jermelle Cudjo two days after the final cut down to 53 when Alex Carter was placed on short-term injured reserve.

This suggests at least two defensive tackles will eventually be cut, but which ones? Let's review how we got to this point by tracing the personnel moves at the position since 2014.

2014 Preseason to 2015 Free Agency: The Suh and Fairley Drama

Following a heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the 2014 Wild Card round, the Lions finally had to come to grips with expiring rookie contracts for its two high profile defensive tackles. The team declined to pick up the fifth-year option in Nick Fairley's rookie deal, accelerating the former first-round pick's entry into free agency by a year. At the same time, 2014 was Ndamukong Suh's option year, so he entered free agency as well.

The constant delays in working out a long-term extension with Suh ahead of time was regarded by many as a major failure of the Mayhew regime. Salary cap juggling via contract restructures (including Suh's contract in 2013) left the team with few options heading into the 2015 offseason. One of those options, putting the franchise tag on Suh, was left unused. Even without Suh under contract in 2015, he still ended up counting for $10 million in dead money towards the Detroit Lions' cap number after leaving for the Miami Dolphins.

Not long after Suh took the big payday from Miami, Nick Fairley decided to sign with the St. Louis Rams. The team was not completely depleted after losing Suh and Fairley, though. General manager Martin Mayhew managed a trade sandwiched between the Suh departure and Fairley departure that brought Haloti Ngata to Detroit from Baltimore.

2015 Draft to 2015 Kickoff: A Wild Ngata Appears!

Somewhat blunting the pain of losing Suh and Fairley, Mayhew took Haloti Ngata off of Ozzie Newsome's hands for (more or less) a pair of mid-round draft picks. Ngata immediately provided a veteran presence on the defensive line and a real option for the nose tackle spot.

For the second vacated starting spot Mayhew signed Tyrunn Walker, an underutilized DT from the New Orleans Saints. Ngata and Walker looked to be the starters coming out of preseason with 2014 fifth-round pick Caraun Reid and 2015 fourth-round pick Gabe Wright as the backups on the 53-man roster.

2015 Regular Season: The Brief Return of Flu Season

The following table shows defensive snap counts from Pro Football Reference and inactive status from the NFL Inactives page for the Detroit Lions. Data have been transcribed by hand and are subject to human error (i.e. I may have screwed up).

IR = On Injured Reserve
INA = Inactive but not reported injured
INJ = Inactive and confirmed injured
PS = On Practice Squad

Note: Total snaps played by DT/NT specified players may not add to two times the number of defensive snaps because defensive ends like Jason Jones may have lined up as defensive tackles in some formations or the team may have been in an odd front using only a single DT.

TOTAL DEFENSIVE SNAPS 75 65 64 65 46 80 75 65 87 51 59 67 55 77 62 52
Haloti Ngata 50 50 39 20 INJ INA 45 39 61 35 29 42 40 54 48 44
Tyrunn Walker 56 47 38 35 IR IR IR IR IR IR IR IR IR IR IR IR
Caraun Reid INJ INJ 28 38 31 48 41 41 39 26 34 36 33 52 49 37
Gabe Wright 13 10 11 30 24 22 INA INA 24 INA INA INA INA INA INA INA
Jermelle Cudjo 25 21 INA INA 15 18 22 16 INA INA INA INA INA INA INA 10
Khyri Thornton INA INA INA 16 22 19 13 18 14 INA
CJ Wilson 22 14 22 21 12 13 15 13
Andre Fluellen 15 40 32 25 IR IR IR IR
Ishmaa'ily Kitchen INA 15

Detroit began the year with Caraun Reid on the injury list with a preseason high ankle sprain, so the primary backups to Walker and Ngata were Wright and Cudjo. Cudjo went to the inactives list once Reid returned in Week 3 against Denver, but everything blew up on Monday Night Football against Seattle in Week 4.

Haloti Ngata left the game with a calf injury and would miss Weeks 5 and 6 to recover. Tyrunn Walker sustained a much more serious injury against Seattle due to a technically legal chop block and went to IR for season-ending surgery on a broken fibula. That made Caraun Reid and Gabe Wright the de facto starters against Arizona in Week 5 as newly re-re-re-re-signed 54th man on the roster Andre Fluellen was worked back into the lineup. Cudjo came back off the inactives list to provide rotational depth again.

By Week 6, Flu took back over as a starter next to Reid, with Wright moving back to rotational backup with Cudjo. This shuffled again after Ngata came back on line in Week 7, to set the starters as Ngata and Reid. Wright and Cudjo would go back and forth as the rotational guys alongside Flu until the tragic end of Flu season against the Chefs in Week 8.

Stop and recall the general situation at the halfway point in the season: Lombardi, Washburn, and Heffernan were out and the Lions were floundering at 1-6. Then Week 8 and the Kansas City blowout followed by the ousting of Mayhew and Lewand.

For the second half of the year, the defensive line was likewise in tatters: Ngata and Reid starting with midseason acquisitions CJ Wilson and Khyri Thornton as rotational backups. I am still not sure why Gabe Wright and Jermelle Cudjo were held out as healthy scratches so much down the stretch, but even in Week 16 when we needed another body on the field at DT the Lions decided to... deactivate Khyri Thornton and promote Kerry Hyder for 2 snaps of game time?

Interlude: Who Does What? Who Goes Where?

Looking at that snap and status table, it is natural to wonder if there are reasons why seemingly "better" players might have been kept off the gameday actives in some situations. Are there reasons tied to the roles each player is intended to fill in the scheme? What is our scheme, anyway, and how does that affect our defensive tackles?

Generally speaking, whether Teryl Austin has our front in a 4-3 Under, a 4-3 Over, some kind of weird overload front, or whatever other multiple variant, we operate almost every down with a 4-3 base featuring a 1-technique and a 3-technique in the middle (emphasis added):

"We can morph and adjust," Caldwell said. "We're obviously based out of the 4-3 -- that's without question what our personnel dictates -- but within that context, you can also have a variety of different looks.

"There may be some odd looks out of that -- some overs, some unders and all those kinds of things. When I'm talking about multiple, that's what I'm talking about. You're not limited to the fact you call yourself this or that."

As Papa Jim mentions there, the personnel dictates the options Austin has. The versatility of our two designated starters Ngata and Walker allow the design to keep flipping the 1-technique and 3-technique assignments from snap to snap even within the same drive:

Walker played every position along New Orleans’ front in 2014, and Ngata’s roamed anywhere from the nose tackle to the three-technique in Detroit. "We’re very, very multiple in what we do and we try to adjust according to guys strengths to put them in the best position to be successful for us," Caldwell said.

While Walker was a guy who might be able to come in and provide some inside pass rush, he was also targeted for being able to shift to take on double-teams and the run from the nose:

But for now, he's penciled in to start next to Haloti Ngata in what Lions coach Jim Caldwell called "an unusual combination."

"I think those guys are going to be able to give you some things that maybe you hadn't seen in awhile, the combination of the two, particularly because of Walker's versatility all across the board," Caldwell said. "And Haloti, I think all you have to do is look at film of him. Just take a look."

When looking to the next pair of defensive tackles on the early season depth chart, you see the same kind of assignment trading when, say, Caraun Reid and Gabe Wright are on the field.

Consider the following formations all from the same drive at the end of the first half against the Seahawks in Week 4:

2015 at SEA, 2Q (5:12). First-and-10 at the Seattle 21.

Normally we think of Walker as being the 3-tech starter next to Ngata as a 1-tech, but here we have Walker as a 3-tech next to Reid as a 1-tech. This is unusual since Reid is also generally thought of as a 3-tech DT, but Austin is willing to move Reid around.

2015 at SEA, 2Q (4:03). First-and-10 at the Seattle 36.

Two plays later, Reid is in his more natural 3-tech spot while Walker has been moved all the way over the shoulder of the Center as a Nose Tackle. This is what versatility and ability to line up anywhere along the interior can do: Austin is free to change the attack angle to pretty much anything for any player that gets mixed and matched inside.

2015 at SEA, 2Q (3:38). First-and-10 at the Detroit 49.

The very next play, Walker is again further to the inside but now over the inside shoulder of the Left Guard as a 1-technique DT. Reid again lines up as a standard 3-technique DT on the outside shoulder of the Right Guard.

2015 at SEA, 2Q (2:29). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

This is two plays later on the snap right before the two-minute warning. Now Haloti Ngata and Gabe Wright are in the game, but in positions opposite of what might be expected: Ngata is the 3-tech and Wright is the 1-tech.

Remember, all four of these alignments were from not just the same game, but the same drive. This is what Teryl Austin and Jim Caldwell are talking about when they say the front will be multiple even if it retains the general structure of a 4-3 defense.

2016 Offseason to the 2016 Draft: Where are we now?

Prior to the start of free agency, new GM Bob Quinn re-signed Tyrunn Walker to a new one-year deal and tendered a contract to Khyri Thornton (which he signed in April). On the first day of free agency, the Lions brought back Haloti Ngata on a two-year deal.

Although the Lions decided not to bring back hybrid player Jason Jones, two other acquired players ensure any DT snaps he may have provided will be covered. On the second day of free agency, Detroit signed former Bills DT Stefan Charles to a one-year deal. Then in the NFL Draft, the team selected A'Shawn Robinson in the second round.

What is interesting about these moves is the offseason plan appears to have been to re-sign everyone and keep the unit intact (Walker, Ngata, Thornton) with guys Austin likes, then bolster competition by adding natural 1-tech players. Both Charles and Robinson are considered big space eaters strong against the run. When Charles was with the Bills, their DC at the time Jim Schwartz (yes, that guy) had this to say about the "up-and-comer":

Charles’ broad and thick frame is tailor made for run stuffing inside, something the Bills could use more of in light of their issues with run defense last season.

"I think it’s just a matter of attitude and technique," said Schwartz. "He’s very strong, he’s hard to block and that can contribute to pass rush also. You don’t have to be nifty and quick to be a good pass rusher. You can be a guy who collapses the pocket.

Similarly, Robinson is regarded as a big bodied run stuffer with lots of tools. Here's SB's James Brady:

There are questions about what kind of player he should actually be going forward given his lack of specialty in college. Robinson isn't quite a pass rusher, with some suggesting he doesn't have much ability on that front. Some think he's a two-down run stuffer, while others think he can be both a nose tackle and a three-tech defensive lineman.

Now look back up at those screenshots against Seattle. That perfectly describes what Austin wants to do. It's no wonder that Detroit jumped at the chance to draft Robinson in the second round.

Most of the other defensive tackles on the roster can play both ways -- we've seen Ngata, Wright, Reid, and Walker all lining up in a 1-technique or 0-technique over the center as well as playing the gap shooter role from the 3-technique -- but most of them are natural 3-tech DTs. Haloti Ngata, once called "one of the great power players in the NFL" and a versatile guy who "can line up in virtually any position" is really "a natural 3-tech DT" who can benefit from being next to someone else playing the nose. Obviously, Wright and Reid make a lot more sense as 3-tech players as well due to their size and speed. Even Walker slimmed down before arriving in Detroit, and seems less of a people mover than an attacker.

It's in this context that I believe Bob Quinn's offseason moves make sense -- we are keeping the versatility of the existing DTs hand-picked for their ability to play all over the place (even Khyri Thornton) in Austin's multiple interior but adding a big mauler to the mix. My guess is we're looking at something like a McDonald's Combo Meal Bag where you pick from each list:

  1. The 1-tech Run stuffers: A'Shawn Robinson, Stefan Charles

  2. The 3-tech Gap attackers: Caraun Reid, Tyrunn Walker, Gabe Wright, Khyri Thornton

  3. The "Haloti Ngatas": Haloti Ngata

As quality a guy that Khyri Thornton is, I can't see him making the 53-man roster against that competition. Surely A'Shawn Robinson is as much a lock for the 53-man roster as Ngata because we spent a second-round pick on him two weeks ago, but beyond that it's unclear. Keep the veterans Charles and Walker? Then you have to cut either Wright or Reid, and both show potential.

What would Morgado do? I think you check how well Walker's leg recovered and whether he can be a pile mover inside during camp and preseason. Then gauge how ready Robinson is to take on heavy snap counts. If Austin and Kocurek are sold on Walker's ability to play the run and Robinson's readiness, cut Charles and keep the young guys along with Walker.

I know that seems odd since Quinn made a point of nabbing Charles really early in FA (and therefore presumably really wanted him), but my guess is the Lions did not expect to be able to get Robinson in the second round. The plan was most likely to go with Ngata, Walker, Reid, Wright, and Charles.

Then this absolute beast was sitting there at pick 46. Remember how fast the Lions got those early picks to the podium?


Keeping Ngata, Walker, Reid, Wright, and Robinson lets Austin go with Ngata and Robinson as the "primary 1-techs" and attack with Walker, Reid, and Wright as the "primary 3-techs." Some change-ups would be heavy sets with Robinson and Ngata on the field at the same time or speed sets with Walker and Reid on the field at the same time. Wright would serve as a balanced depth guy bouncing between playing the 1-tech and 3-tech like he did in 2015, but really everyone except Robinson could be expected to align anywhere along the interior at any time.

Why the other guys over Charles? First, Walker should(?) be the better pass rusher, and a problem with the D-line last year was getting pressure from anyone in the middle. We got spoiled by Suh. Second, although Charles can be a nice player and we just signed him, he costs a goodly amount more than any of the other DTs not named Haloti Ngata. Both Reid and Wright have multiple cheap years remaining on their rookie deals, so Charles is unfortunately the worst of the good values.

Finally, I'm not quite sure what to make of Charles since by itself the incentive conversion that Kyle Williams took in March could have covered re-signing Charles for the Bills had they kept negotiating (or tendered him an RFA deal) -- but they chose not to. That Detroit paid him more than the RFA tender but a Buffalo team getting an older starter (Williams) back from season-ending knee injury thought he wasn't worth even offering makes me wonder.

Of course, maybe it was just scheme mismatch with Ryan's defense. It could turn out that Charles impresses the hell out of everyone at camp and becomes the new starter opposite Ngata. This excessive depth at DT is a good problem to have considering what the organization went through at the end of the 2014 season with the position. DT Survivor is the upcoming training camp battle I am most looking forward to seeing play out, and I expect the competition to be more intense than even the fights for the starting center, slot receiver, or strong safety jobs.