In the leadup to the Detroit Lions preseason, we are breaking down the current and future statuses of the roster by position. Today we continue with the Lions’ defensive tackles.
(The final year of each player’s contract is listed in parentheses.)
Starters: A’Shawn Robinson (2019), Haloti Ngata (2017)
Backups: Akeem Spence (2019), Jordan Hill (2017)
On the bubble: Khyri Thornton (2018), Jeremiah Ledbetter (2020), Bruce Gaston (2018), Ego Ferguson (2017)
The Lions defensive tackle starters are pretty much set for 2017, but not much is clear beyond that. You may notice that I didn’t place any players under “long-shot,” because Detroit’s depth is tenuous at best and alarming at worst.
Akeem Spence is likely the most safe out of all the non-starters, but his 2016 play doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. He only managed 19 tackles and 1.0 sacks, while earning the fourth-worst grade among interior defenders according to Pro Football Focus.
There is a little more reason for optimism with Jordan Hill. Hill has shown flashes of being an excellent rotational defender with the Seahawks, but injuries have plagued his four-year career. From our interview with Field Gulls earlier in the year:
His time overall was disappointing but only because he could have been so good. If he remains healthy, he's got a Geno Atkins type ceiling, I do believe that
That’s obviously an extremely high ceiling, but Hill remains much more potential than actual results at this point.
The rest of the Lions crew are all question marks. Khyri Thornton played at a mediocre level with the Lions last year, but his six-game suspension makes him more expendable than ever. Jeremiah Ledbetter is an intriguing option, but as a sixth-round rookie, expectations should be very low, even if he does end up making the final 53-man roster.
Both Bruce Gaston and Ego Ferguson were late additions to the team, but both bring a little bit of experience with them. Gaston is the definition of an NFL journeyman. Since going undrafted in 2014, Gaston has spent time on 10 NFL rosters before landing in Detroit. Throughout that time, however, he has only made nine game appearances. Ferguson has a little more tread on him. A former 2014 second-round pick, Ferguson played in all 16 games of his rookie season, making 23 tackles and 2.0 sacks along the way. However, Ferguson suffered injuries to his knee and shoulder over the next two years, resulting in just four games played since 2015.
Need going forward?
There’s absolutely no doubt that the Lions need more proven depth at this position. The Lions like to rotate their defensive linemen early and often, and right now it’s not clear if they have the personnel to accommodate those needs.
Even more concerning, however, is that the Lions currently don’t have two starting defensive tackles for the future. Robinson looked impressive in his rookie year, but Ngata, 33, has shown clear signs of decline and is in the final year of his contract. If Detroit decides to part ways with Ngata after the season, defensive tackle may become their highest priority in the 2018 offseason.