When building a strong defense, most would tell you to start with the trenches and work your way out from there. After all, at its most simplest form, the keys to shutting down an offense is to control the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback. Per Football Outsiders, the Detroit Lions ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in both Adjusted Line Yards versus the run, as well as Adjusted Sack Rate against the pass. In layman's terms, the Lions couldn’t bring down a ball carrier or sack a QB if their lives depended on it.
Don’t count on them being on the board
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
You can all but count on him being the first player selected in this year’s draft. Garrett has likely been preparing for the draft since he was in high school. The junior edge rusher is a freak of nature at the point of attack with elite athleticism. Have fun in Cleveland, Myles.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
Allen had a poor showing during Alabama’s loss in the National Championship Game, but this is why we look at a player’s full body of work, rather than one game. Allen could have easily gone in the first round had he declared last year, but decided to stay in school for his senior year instead, which turned out to be a smart decision, as he is currently CBS Sports’ No. 2 overall player on their big board.
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Consider me all in on the “Solomon Thomas to the Lions” hype train. The Lions desperately need someone opposite of Ezekiel Ansah to produce, and Devin Taylor wasn’t able to step up to the plate when named starter in 2016. Thomas (if he’s available) could prove to be an immediate upgrade as both a run defender and a pass rusher, and has the versatility to play all across the defensive line.
Thomas only just turned 21 years old in December, but has great instincts and looks like a savvy veteran at times. I really love that you can ask him to two-gap as a 5-tech or move inside and rush the passer as a 3-tech and he can do both at a high level. And you better not pull your center or guard when you see Solomon Thomas lined up in the 1-technique, because he’s got the explosiveness to blow a play up in the backfield before you even have the chance to slow him down.
As seen in the play above, Thomas has long arms and is incredibly strong at the point of attack. He’s able to move the right guard back and control him with ease using his superior natural strength. While keeping his eyes on the ball, he’s then able to disengage and stuff the ball carrier for a minimal gain.
As of now, CBS Sports has Solomon Thomas as their No. 3 overall prospect, but I’ve seen him go later than 21st overall in plenty of mock drafts as well. It will be interesting to see how things play out as we get closer to April.
Top talents that may not fit in Detroit
Here’s where things get a bit tricky. The Lions need someone who can rush the passer badly, but do you sacrifice a first-round pick for a top talent that could end up falling in your lap like the next two guys on this list? That’s why general managers get paid the big bucks.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
If it weren’t for Myles Garrett, Barnett would likely be considered the top weakside defensive end in this class, a position that is currently being held down by Ezekiel Ansah for the Lions. Barnett isn’t nearly as explosive as Ansah off the snap, but his flexibility and bend around the edge is very impressive.
Barnett may be strong enough and good enough against the run to consider drafting him as a closed end in Austin’s scheme, and he could still see significant snaps as a rookie if given snaps as a rotational pass rusher opposite of Kerry Hyder or Ezekiel Ansah on either side.
Tim Williams, OLB, Alabama
I hate when people use the term “one trick pony,” especially when referring to a pass rushing specialist. Williams is considered to be one, but he is damn good at that one trick and he might be the best pure pass rushing prospect in the draft.
Williams is versatile and can play in a three-point stance or with his hand in the dirt, but he was rarely ever put on the field for running downs at Alabama. His best play is going to be as a pass rushing OLB and would likely only see the field for about 10-25 percent of the Lions’ defensive snaps, if he were to start at SAM linebacker (the Lions play in a nickel base for about 3⁄4 of their snaps on defense).
Another major concern is Williams’ off-the-field issues. Back in September of 2016, Williams was arrested for carrying a pistol without a permit and was also found in the passenger seat of a vehicle with marijuana that allegedly belonged to someone else. Williams told police that he had a temporary license, but it wasn’t on him at the time.
Other Day 1 targets
Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
There are some extremely talented players coming out of Ann Arbor this year, and Taco Charlton is a personal favorite. Like Solomon Thomas, Charlton is a perfect fit at closed end for the Lions, playing most of his snaps on the left side, but is versatile enough to play weakside if needed.
After switching to a four-man front, Taco dominated as first-year starter with 10 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss in 11 games and saved his best for last, tallying at least a half a sack in his final five games of the season.
Taco has great size for the position (6-foot-5, 272 pounds) along with plus-athleticism. His first step and burst off the snap is just good enough, but he often makes up for any slow jumps with his long arms and low pad level to gain leverage and overpower his opponents. Despite his inconsistent timing of the snap, he is still able to occasionally beat slower tackles around the edge and he does exhibit impressive flexibility around the edge.
Taco has shown flashes of greatness with a few different pass rushing moves, but his go-to has to be his spin move. He was able to set it up perfectly and beat FSU’s RT with ease in the play above, but he also tends to overuse the spin, resulting in some wasted efforts.
If Taco can continue to develop and gain a better understanding of certain situations and when to use specific pass rushing techniques, along with improving his discipline in the run game, he can turn into a stud DE at the next level.
If nothing else, I’m really excited for the possibility of spamming the taco emoji after every splash play made. This is important.
Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
Harris is short and stocky for a DE (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) and relies mostly on his inside rush moves and power to overwhelm opposing offensive linemen. He put together some impressive numbers for the Tigers defense, tallying a combined 117 tackles (30.5 for a loss) and 16 sacks over his final two years before declaring as a junior.
He is a good, but not great run defender who will need to improve on his pad level consistency when attempting to shed blocks. As an edge rusher, Harris will “wow” you with the occasional speed rush sack after a well-timed jump, but is for the most part pretty stiff-hipped and unable to beat his man around the edge. Where he succeeds as a pass rusher is his wide variety of pass rushing moves that allow him to completely catch opposing tackles off-guard.
Harris is currently being mocked to the Lions by a couple different draft outlets. He could easily be an option for Bob Quinn at No. 21 overall.
Takkarist McKinley, OLB, UCLA
McKinley is another edge rushing prospect that is currently ranked as a late Day 1 prospect by most draft experts. His ability to rush the passer is at the upper echelon of this draft, but many believe that he may not have the natural strength to hold up as a defensive end.
However, Joe Marino of FanRag Sports made an interesting comparison to McKinley’s skillset:
His skills are reminiscent to that off former Lion Cliff Avril and his impact at the next level should be similar. McKinley is the spark the Lions’ defense needs to start generating pass rush.
The Lions are desperate to improve their pass rush, but I’m not so sure that McKinley, an edge rusher who lacks strength and may be a liability in the run game (an area where the Lions also struggled), would be the best fit for Detroit. It may be in their best interest to look elsewhere.