After taking a deep dive into how the offensive players fared in 2017, we’re going to give the same critical treatment to Teryl Austin’s defense. Coming off a 2016 where the team struggled mightily to defend passes over the middle of the field, and a blunted pass rush, expectations were not super high for this unit. Sadly, it wasn’t easy to pull a bottom-ranked defensive unit into the top of the NFL in any category.
The Lions still struggled to generate any sort of a pass rush after their free agent signings largely fizzled, and while they did better covering tight ends, they added an infuriating tendency to simply allow touchdowns on play action or on the ground whenever the team was backed into the end zone. Still, the unit had some surprises both good and bad in 2017.
Defensive Players Stock Up
Jamal Agnew, CB - Agnew finds himself here by the narrowest of margins mostly due to the expected increase in opportunities in 2018. After barely seeing the field on defense, this special teams ace may face little opposition for nickel duties with Quandre Diggs moving to safety and both Nevin Lawson and DJ Hayden facing free agency.
Alex Barrett, DE - Barrett had a strong preseason and nearly made the final roster in 2017. He lasted all year on the practice squad and will get a very long look in camp.
Jarrad Davis, LB - The Lions first-round pick in 2017 saw many rookie struggles, but saw improvement as the year went on. Though he had issues with coverage assignments in particular, he showed the range and play-making ability that will make him a sure asset in 2018 and beyond as he learns the pro game.
Quandre Diggs, SS - A surprise move to safety late in the season saw Diggs become the playmaker he hadn’t been for his entire pro career. If the move is permanent, we should see his more pronounced issues on the back end subside with experience and expect his hard hitting style of play make for a dangerous tandem with Glover Quin.
Toby Johnson, DT - Johnson isn’t new in the league and while I’m not a big fan of his prospects he did manage to land on an NFL team with a futures contract to close out the year which means he’s likely in camp 2018.
Desmond Lawrence, CB - Lawrence landed on the practice squad and was there all season. It’s usually a promising sign for a practice squadder if they last.
Jeremiah Ledbetter, DT - Starting off the season hot is good for any player, but even better for a late-round rookie in a deep rotation. Ledbetter had to put on a bunch of weight so we probably haven’t seen his ceiling, but he was solid in rotation and may be in line for a bigger role in 2018.
Stefan McClure, SS - McClure was brought back with a futures contract which means he’ll probably make it to camp. Good way to close out the season.
Rolan Milligan, FS - Milligan is an athletic safety prospect who showed some playmaking ability to land on the practice squad. The team is bringing him back on a futures deal, so he’ll get a shot to take a reserve spot next year.
Glover Quin, FS - 2017 cemented Quin as one of the best playmaking safeties in the NFL, but he also expanded his repertoire for taking down runners at or behind the line of scrimmage. A Pro Bowl snub this season, Quin should come into 2018 with a chip on his shoulder.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB - Missed tackles were a huge issue for JRM in college and they followed him into the pros. He had many rookie struggles, but he beat out Nick Bellore and Paul Worrilow to become a starter by the end of the season. He will likely start camp as a starter alongside Jarrad Davis. Not bad for a mid-round pick.
Haloti Ngata, DT - Ngata had a good season on the field and proved many fans wrong who thought that he was past playing. Still, his injury not only finished his season but possibly his career and almost certainly his time in Detroit.
Darius Slay, CB - Big Play Slay lived up to his moniker in 2017 by going to his first Pro Bowl and nabbing the title for most picks on the season with 8. Not much to add, the future is bright.
Teez Tabor, CB - Tabor’s 2017 was not good. He missed most of the season as a healthy scratch while rookie corners around the league were making big impacts to their teams. When he finally did play, it was underwhelming and he would finish the year with only 11 tackles and not a single pass defended. Still, rookie years are often rough for corners, and with Lawson and Hayden likely gone, we’re probably going to see him starting out of the gate in 2018. His injury in the finale would have pushed him in the stock down category if it were serious (more time rehabbing and less time working towards the next season), but it looks like it isn’t a big deal so far.
Jeremiah Valoaga, DE - Valoaga made the 2017 roster but finished on the practice squad. That may seem like a downgrade, but he’s coming into camp with NFL experience and as a known quantity in 2018. He’ll get a real shot to reclaim his roster spot if he develops in his first NFL offseason after being one of Bob Quinn’s prize UDFA additions in 2017.
Charles Washington, FS - Washington came in as an expected camp body but found himself on the final roster and getting playing time. He was alright, nothing flashy, but with Carey likely out the door and Killebrew struggling he’s primed for more opportunity next season.
Tahir Whitehead, LB - Whitehead gets a lot of grief from fans, but he mostly played well whenever he wasn’t expected to cover in 2017. He’s earned the chance to come back and start for the Lions in 2018, but if that doesn’t happen he earned some money on the free agent market.
Tavon Wilson, SS - Tavon Wilson had ups and downs in 2016 and the same was true in 2017. Injuries were something we’ve become accustomed to, however, and with his 2017 season ending like it has with Quandre Diggs and others waiting in the wings it’s tough to see a return next year.
Anthony Zettel, DE - Expected to be a situational pass rusher to start the year, Zettel came out of the gate swinging and was, for a while, one of the top-rated pass rushers in the NFL. He ended the year rated very highly by most analytics sites and BR’s NFL 1000 list, but I worry his late-season regression carries over. If it doesn’t, we might be talking about who to pair with Zettel in 2019 rather than who fits alongside Ansah.
Defensive Players Stock Down
Nick Bellore, LB - Many were surprised even made the final roster in 2017 with 2016 draft pick Antwione Williams being shown the door. His special teams contributions were alright, but he was a liability any time he saw defensive snaps.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE - It may seem wrong on the surface to think of Ansah as being a stock down guy on the season after managing double digit sacks, but his play was very disappointing on the year with nearly all of those sacks coming against backups in three games. Ansah was even rated below fellow disappointment Cornelius Washington on Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000. While I disagree with that particular assessment, it speaks volumes to how poor his season was viewed nationally despite the numbers.
In the most misleading stat of the season, Ziggy Ansah now has double-digit sacks for the second time in his career— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 31, 2017
Adairius Barnes, CB - While it’s good news generally for a practice squadder to last all year and sign a futures contract, this actually marked a step back for Barnes who made the final roster in 2016. He’ll get a long look in camp.
Brandon Chubb, LB - Chubb was making headway to getting more playing time before being lost for the season injured. It’s going to be a crowded camp at LB next year.
Brandon Copeland, LB - Copeland was having a hard time standing out positively before going down injured and his versatility may be a hard sell to keep his roster spot in 2018.
Don Carey, FS - Carey is likely on his way out due to injuries, but since we’re looking at defense and not special teams contributions its worth noting that Carey saw very little action on D due to younger players all performing better.
Rodney Coe, DT - Coe was one of the players brought in late as injuries piled up and did nothing to warrant being brought back in 2018.
Dwight Freeney, DE - Not that we’d expect to see him back or anything anyway, but Freeney did very little in his time in Detroit to think it was even going to be seriously considered.
DJ Hayden, CB - Hayden was passable for the Lions in 2017 with plenty of ups and downs. He’s likely to be able to continue his career, but I’d be hard pressed to find many reasons to bring him back to Detroit now that his one-year deal is up.
Jordan Hill, DT - Hill showed some strong pass rushing ability that made fans excited he could make an impact in 2017. Injuries, as has been the case in his career, derailed any chance of that and his career may be close to over at this point.
Kerry Hyder, DE - A promising stand-out in 2016, Hyder tore his Achilles early this season and he landed on IR. It’s a tough injury to come back from in any case, at any position, but as a pass rusher prized for his explosiveness at the line it’s going to be very tough to see a comeback on the horizon. He’s overcome a lot in his feel-good-story NFL career, but this is a mountain.
Miles Killebrew, SS - Killebrew was a monster in limited duty as a rookie, and his 2017 started that same way. As the season wore on, however, it seemed too big for him and he was never able to overtake Tavon Wilson for a starting role. When Wilson went down with injury, Quandre Diggs passed Killebrew for the job and made enough plays to put a huge obstacle in his path for 2018.
Miles Killebrew last Sunday: "We gotta tackle better. That's what it came down to, we missed a lot of tackles."— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) October 15, 2017
Update: still happening
Nevin Lawson, CB - Lawson was underappreciated for the past couple of seasons in Detroit, but in a contract year he failed to impress. He was eventually sharing time with Hayden, if not being overtaken completely. With Teez Tabor expected to take on a larger role next season, we’ve probably seen the last of Lawson in Detroit unless he can’t find a market.
Steve Longa, LB - Longa was a sleeper coming into the season, but despite solid special teams play and poor linebacking, he was unable to crack the defensive lineup.
Christian Ringo, DT - Brought in late, the only time you heard his number called were negative plays. I expect he’s given a shot in camp next year, but it’d require a huge jump to see the regular roster again.
A’Shawn Robinson, DT - Robinson came into the year with high expectations and for a long time seemed like he was keeping up his end of the bargain, showcasing run-stopping ability the Lions lacked. As the season wore on, his inability to collapse a pocket became a liability and his run-stopping skills were tested more and more. I’m hopeful for a bounce back, but being pushed down in the rotation is a real possibility for the former second-round pick.
Akeem Spence, DT - Brought in to add some push to the line, this mid-tier free agent ended up a starter by default after Haloti Ngata went down injured. He had a few flashes, but was mostly disappointing as one of the big free agent additions on the year. He’ll likely be back in 2018, but he’ll be fending off young and hungry players for time.
Thank God, it's a deep interior defensive line class for 2018. First thing first: Akeem Spence (#97) slow off the ball - gets washed and doesn't work his hands/fight pressure. LB's go to the same gap. Joe Mixon could have attached a boat to his back on this run. #OnePride pic.twitter.com/5DXtEvxurk— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) December 27, 2017
Cornelius Washington, DE - The ‘big name’ brought in to help the Lions get some pass rush managed a sack in only two of his games as a Lion. Though he managed a career high this year, that’s only 2.5 sacks which just won’t cut it. His run defense was also mediocre to poor, and he’ll be fighting in camp with a hobbled Kerry Hyder and the same undrafted free agent who nearly beat him out this year just to make the roster again.
Paul Worrilow, LB - Expectations were low for the former lowest-rated-PFF-linebacker, but he somehow managed to not even meet those low expectations. Missed tackles were as common as missed assignments and he was eventually beaten out by a mid-round rookie for his starting job.