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Lions free agent profile: Cornelius Washington gives Detroit depth, athleticism up front

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Detroit added another lineman up front to their rotation, but was it worth the cost?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Late into Thursday afternoon’s business hours, the Lions made a couple of moves via free agency to improve their defensive line. Detroit’s defensive front is one area the team needs to upgrade both their starters and rotational players this offseason, and doing so is clearly a priority to GM Bob Quinn after nabbing two talents: Akeem Spence from Tampa Bay and Cornelius Washington from Chicago.

The latter addition should help Detroit achieve further competency at defensive end, but at $6 million dollars over two years, did the Lions overpay for a rather unproven commodity in Washington? It’s an unfair question to ask or answer less than 24 hours into any signing, but getting a better understanding of who Washington is as a player should provide some insight into what he can bring to the Lions in 2017.

Drafted in the sixth round—188 overall—of the 2013 NFL Draft

Originally viewed as a player on the fringe of even being drafted, Washington was a top performer at the NFL Combine and his eye-popping numbers helped him drum up enough intrigue for the Bears to take a chance on the former Georgia Bulldog:

While at Georgia, Washington played as both a five-technique 3-4 DE and OLB for the Bulldogs, but neither were considered to be his strong suit.

After being drafted to the Bears, Windy City Gridiron had a chat with Dawg Sports to find out more about the team’s late-round grab at the athletic Washington. Here’s what MaconDawg had to say:

MaconDawg - "CornWash" as he's affectionately known probably translates better to the 4-3, which makes sense given that he was actually recruited by Georgia's prior defensive staff which used the 4-3 as its base formation. In the 3-4 Washington is a little too big to play outside linebacker and smaller than ideal for the defensive end spot. However in the 4-3 his size/speed combo should allow him to play a great 5 or 7 technique.

In his rookie season, Washington didn’t see much of the field, playing in only two games and recording a single tackle. He took on a bigger rotational role in 2014, playing in 13 games as a pass rush specialist and recording six tackles and 1.0 sacks.

In 2015, the Bears switched to a 3-4 defense when the team hired John Fox as their head coach creating a similar problem to the way Washington fit schematically in college. However, Washington didn’t get the chance to contribute much in 2015, rupturing a quad tendon in the season opener and missing the remainder of the season. This past season, Washington had his most productive season, recovering from the injury that washed out his 2015 season and recording 14 tackles, 2.0 sacks and one pass defended in 15 games (two starts).

Signing with Detroit and how he fits

The Bears made the decision that Washington wasn’t a part of their plans moving forward, most likely due to an ill-fit in their 3-4 defense because they certainly had the cap space—even with reportedly giving Mike Glennon a three-year, $45 million deal. Detroit, on the other hand, will find a role for him immediately in their defensive end rotation after signing him the first day of free agency.

Washington wins with his hands and strength against former guard Larry Warford.

Last season, Washington earned a 63.3 grade from Pro Football Focus, ranking him 54th out of 127 qualifying players. As a pass rusher, Washington earned a grade of 74.3, placing him 26th out of 118 qualifying interior defenders—among edge rushers, that would have placed him t-47th. By comparison, Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit’s premier pass rushing talent, graded out at 75.2 in pass rush.

Washington could be utilized similarly to how Armonty Bryant was during his sporadic time here in Detroit last season. Bryant is a free agent and a player that came at little cost to Detroit last season, but in his limited snaps he was an effective presence off the edge. Washington is an upgrade over Bryant athletically, and his contract shows that Quinn values having a straight-line pass rusher.

Here’s what our friend Robert Zeglinski of Windy City Gridiron had to say about the signing:

"More of a depth defensive end, uses his size and length well, smart pass rusher. He's like a Willie Young lite if you will, but bigger. Still has a use, obviously not a core player but offers something."

This signing also seems like a very Quinn-like move. While Washington is at his best lined up as a DE in a 4-3 set, he’s also shown the ability to win from the inside as a three-tech with his strength, as seen in the clip above. Versatility is valuable, and Quinn has shown a propensity to really value a player who can work at a variety of positions—see: Hyder, Kerry. Washington fits that mold, but will ultimately earn his playing time rotating in as a pass rusher at defensive end.