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The Detroit Lions pass rush is their weakest unit

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Pass rusher was one of the Lions biggest offseason needs. With the season approaching, it still is.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

After landing in the top 10 for total sacks in 2015, the Lions saw their pass rushing fall off a cliff in 2016. They were just one sack away from having the least productive pass rush in the NFL and the team’s ability to generate pressure was a problem all season. The team went into the offseason with pass rush as its biggest need, entered the draft with it as their second-biggest need and are now finishing OTAs with a pass rush that remains mostly unchanged from what it was months ago. The team signed some bottom-tier free agents and a couple of late-round picks, but will that be enough to change the 31st-ranked pass rushing unit into a reliable threat?

2016 Training Camp squad:

Ezekiel Ansah, Devin Taylor, Wallace Gilberry, Anthony Zettel, Brandon Copeland, Deonte Gibson, Quanterus Smith, Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, Caraun Reid, A’Shawn Robinson, Stefan Charles, Gabe Wright, Khyri Thornton, Kerry Hyder, Louis Palmer

Others:

Armonty Bryant

The 2016 pass rushing group consisted mainly of Ziggy Ansah, Haloti Ngata and a bunch of smoke. Caraun Reid was heralded as a breakout candidate but would ultimately not even make the team. Devin Taylor would end up starting every game but played poorly enough that he lasted all the way through the end of May before being signed this offseason. The biggest surprise of the year was Kerry Hyder, who would lead the team in sacks on the season. The largely unknown defensive end had converted from defensive tackle after losing a bunch of weight to become a pass rushing specialist in Detroit’s defense. As good as Hyder’s story is, he posted five sacks through the first four games of the season before a four-game stretch with little impact. He was a big part of the Lions Week 9 victory over the Vikings, but he spent the final seven regular season games, plus the playoff loss as one of the least productive defenders. Waiver wire acquisition Armonty Bryant looked good in his very limited action for the team, notching three sacks in five games before being shut down with an injury that he has not fully recovered from yet. Aside from Haloti Ngata playing okay and A’Shawn Robinson holding up well in run stopping duties, the Lions defensive tackle grouping was a real horror show of ineffectiveness. Even with Ngata and Robinson, the team rarely collapsed the pocket from the interior, and when they did, the defensive ends didn’t maintain their duties setting the edge.

2017 Pre-Training Camp Squad:

Returning: Ansah, Bryant, Copeland, Hyder, Zettel, Ngata
New: Alex Barrett, Jeremiah Valoaga, Cornelius Washington, Pat O’Connor, Jordan Hill, Nick James, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Akeem Spence, Maurice Swain

The Lions retained Ansah and Hyder, both no-brainers, and had no reason to part with Zettel. There were some rumors they might part ways with Ngata, but with as bare as the cupboards were in free agency and the draft, it’s not a surprise they kept him on. Bryant was brought back on the cheap as he rehabs his injury while Brandon Copeland returns to his DE/LB role.

The team spent some coin on Akeem Spence on the interior, and was signed to be an run defender, which is his strength inside pass rusher. They also signed Cornelius Washington to take over for Devin Taylor’s now vacant ‘superb-athlete-who-has-under-achieved-as-a-pro’ role. Going back to Georgia and through his NFL career, Washington has often been miscast in various roles, but will likely play closed end or kick inside on passing downs for the Lions. Both Bryant (if healed) and Washington will bring their combined two starts and five sacks from 2016 and hope they can not only replace but improve on Devin Taylor or Kerry Hyder.

Anthony Zettel will be in the mix as well, but considering how bad he was as a run defender last season, it’s going to take a pretty steep improvement to consider him beyond pass rushing duties. As it stands, the Lions really only have pass rushing specialists and no one who has shown they can fit an every down role on the left side. A dark horse at tackle to steal some reps is Jordan Hill, who the team signed as a pass rushing specialist on the interior. With all their run stuffers, they have to have somebody who can break through a line every now and again.

Guesswork final 53:

DE: Ezekiel Ansah, Kerry Hyder, Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel
DT: Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jordan Hill

Considering contracts and production, the only real locks here are Ansah, Hyder, Robinson and Spence. Haloti Ngata is probable given the lack of talent at the position, as is Washington. I went with Zettel as the last DE here, opting to keep his pass rushing promise over the risk that Armonty Bryant both stays healthy (he is still rehabbing his second knee injury in three seasons) and stays out of trouble. I wanted to keep Pat O’Connor as well, but feel the likelihood he passes through waivers is high enough to outweigh any value of keeping him on the active roster. The Lions defensive line is going to have a whole lot of role players and not a lot of star power no matter what way you build it with the present pieces.

Did the unit improve?

Quite the opposite. The unit was already one of the worst in 2016, but this 2017 group has more questions than answers. Can Ziggy Ansah stay healthy enough to be a force again? Will Ngata continue to decline? Can Robinson progress as a pass rusher without losing his run stopping ability? Will Kerry Hyder recapture his early 2016 magic or his late season disappearing act? Will any of the bottom rung free agent signings prove to be better in Detroit than they have been in their previous stops?

Ultimately, this group is likely to end up with all one-dimensional defensive tackles. Guys who can stop the run, guys who can rush the passer and not really anyone who can do both. Outside of Ziggy Ansah, the defensive ends fall into pretty much the same categories. The 2016 group was bad, so it’s easy to point to the current unit and say “they can’t possibly be worse!” In fact, that was many people’s response when I spoke of just how improved the linebacking corps was. In this case, it’s unlikely the team maintains their abysmal sack totals from a year prior, so the probability of some statistical improvement is high. Almost all of that hinges on three important words: Ziggy. Ansah. Healthy.

There is plenty to be confident about with the Detroit Lions roster going into the 2017 season, but with so much riding on just one player, the pass rushing unit as a whole doesn’t have a lot to fall back on. It’s the only unit I’ve looked at so far that I can say with relative confidence is worse off than it was in 2016.