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2017 NFL free agency: Top 5 defensive needs for the Detroit Lions

A look at the Detroit Lions’ top defensive needs heading into free agency.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we broke down the Detroit Lionsbiggest needs on the offensive side of the ball. Now let’s turn our attention to the defense, where the situation is a bit more dire. The Lions finished the 2016 season dead last in defensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders. They were also giving up the third-most yards per drive and the seventh-most points per drive. By almost every measure, this Lions defense was a bottom ten unit with bottom five talent.

Here’s a look at Detroit’s current roster, including players that are signed through the 2017 and exclusive rights and restricted free agents:

DE: Ezekiel Ansah | Kerry Hyder (ERFA)
DT: Haloti Ngata | Khyri Thornton (RFA)
DT: A’Shawn Robinson
DE: Brandon Copeland (ERFA) | Anthony Zettel
OLB: DeAndre Levy | Antwione Williams | Thurston Armbrister | Brandon Chubb
MLB: Tahir Whitehead | Steve Longa
CB: Darius Slay | Alex Carter | Johnson Bademosi | Ian Wells
CB: Nevin Lawson | Quandre Diggs | Adairius Barnes
SS: Tavon Wilson | Miles Killebrew | Rolan Milligan
FS: Glover Quin | Don Carey | Charles Washington

Key free agents:

  • DE Armonty Bryant
  • DE Devin Taylor
  • DT Stefan Charles
  • DT Tyrunn Walker
  • LB Jonathan Bostic
  • LB Josh Bynes
  • S Rafael Bush

Five biggest needs (in order of priority):

Defensive end - Detroit has almost no depth behind Ezekiel Ansah at defensive end. Kerry Hyder had an impressive 2016 outing, but he still has a long ways to go to earn himself a starting position on the roster. Detroit faces a tough decision with Armonty Bryant, who looked pretty good whenever he was able to avoid suspensions and/or injury and actually see the field. Bryant had three sacks in five games last season. But regardless of whether the Lions re-sign Bryant or not, you can pretty much guarantee they’ll add a player either via free agency or early in the draft or both.

Defensive tackle - The Lions only have two defensive tackles currently signed on for the 2017 season, and they’re likely Detroit’s two starters: A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata. But Detroit is a team that relies heavily on rotation for their defensive line, and that means they have some work to do this offseason. Stefan Charles could be brought back for cheap, but it doesn’t seem like Tyrunn Walker has a future with Detroit. The Lions need to add several defensive tackles this offseason, including (preferably) the successor to Ngata, who just turned 33.

Linebacker - The Lions’ primary two starting linebackers from 2016—DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead—cannot be trusted next year for very different reasons. Levy has battled through injuries the past two seasons and Detroit can’t be sure he’ll ever rebound to become his 2014 self. Whitehead, on the other hand, just hasn’t proven himself to be an adequate starter. Though he started all 16 games in 2016 and tallied the ninth-most tackles in the NFL, he struggled in coverage and constantly found himself out of place. Detroit could take a risk and roll with these two in 2017, but they need to have a backup plan in the waiting. Perhaps a healthy Jonathan Bostic could help.

Nickel cornerback - Quandre Diggs struggled in his sophomore season, and when he was placed on injured reserve, the team struggled even more. The Lions had several failed experiments at nickel corner after Diggs went down and none of them were even moderately successful. The Lions apparently see this as a glaring need, as they brought in cornerback K’Waun Williams for a workout this week.

No. 2 cornerback - While Nevin Lawson’s play wasn’t exactly deplorable, the Lions could always use a tune-up. Despite solid play from Darius Slay in the No. 1 spot, the Lions secondary still allowed an NFL record 72.7 percent of passes completed. Lawson needs some competition and it looks like Alex Carter is not going to give it to him. Detroit could really use a veteran presence a la Rashean Mathis in the secondary.