This week’s focus is on how the Detroit Lions can correct a recurring issue with the second level of their defense: Gap discipline. Whether it’s the linebackers or the safeties coming up to fill holes, the team can’t seem to control the gaps at the first level of the defense with their second-level players. Now, certainly, this starts up front with the team facing way too many instances when the linebackers are forced to deal with a line that simply can’t get it done. But even when the big guys are doing their job, the team struggles to keep containment both in the middle and on the edge of their defense.
Today we’re going to take a look at some players in the earlier rounds of the draft who may be able to help with this issue. This isn’t a deep dive, but we’re going to float some of the names we’ve heard, watched, and think might be able to help with a specific problem with the Lions.
Devin White, LB, LSU
In any fairly strong linebacker class, it’s always tough to find a consensus No. 1 prospect. The 2019 class is fairly loaded at the position, and the most common name I see at the top is LSU’s Devin White. It’s not hard to see why, either. The guy explodes off the screen, going from a complete standstill before the snap to full speed in, at most, a step and a half. His athleticism looks top notch, and if he’s not the fastest linebacker in the class, he’ll definitely be in contention for it.
It’s not just athleticism, as White has shown a keen understanding of gaps both in the passing game and the run game, navigating through traffic when needed and expertly working stunts as a blitzer. His tackling is the best I’ve seen in the class so far, as his hands are violent, bringing back memories of when Ndamukong Suh grabbed a running back with one hand and tossed him to the dirt.
Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
I’m going to make a quick comparison, but I want to preface it with the fact that I’m talking about this comparison as a prospect, not a pro. Devin Bush reminds me a lot of Jarrad Davis.
Groan, grumble, scroll to the next player.
What I mean with this comparison is that, like Davis, Bush explodes out of his stance like a rocket in the run game and as a blitzer. Granted, he’s shooting through the gaps created by one of the best defensive lines in college football, but it’s more than just taking advantage of what’s given to him. When acting as a spy or playing off the ball, Bush seems to have a great understanding of what his responsibilities, are and he rarely wavers from them. Whether he’s getting his hands dirty in a scrum with offensive lineman in the middle or rounding the defensive line on a delayed blitz, Bush can mix it up.
As a negative, and part of what’s likely keeping him later in the first or early second round, he has a tendency to lead with his shoulder and forget that he should also be using his arms to drag runners down. It doesn’t creep up all the time, but it can be a concern. What I’d love to see is a defense with a player like Bush and Davis in the same corps, simply to see the types of blitzes and pressure that could be created with two players like that.
Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama
Evaluating Alabama linebackers can occasionally be difficult. Due to the monsters up front, their off-ball players tend to appear tentative, waiting for plays to happen rather than attacking like the two guys I’ve listed above. My early impressions of Mack Wilson haven’t been as positive as the other linebackers I’ve covered, but that may change with more tape.
What’s important for the topic at hand, gap discipline, is Wilson (commonly listed somewhere between LB1 and LB4) can count that as a strength. What Wilson has going for him is that I rarely see him in the wrong gap. He follows the RB easily and can almost always get to where he needs to be to make a play. Where he has fallen flat for me in the games I’ve watched (Georgia, Mississippi) is that too often he’s in a position to make a play only to watch the rusher run right past him. It’s frustrating to see a player right in a position to play watch the play go right past him. It’s a coachable issue, though, and if he shows athletic upside at the NFL Combine, he’s a guy to watch since the Lions have been so active scouting Alabama games.
Taylor Rapp, SS, Washington
Quandre Diggs is a favorite of many Lions fans and with his recent contract extension, he’s probably not going anywhere in 2019. Likewise, despite Glover Quin’s visible decline, we have seen a strong start to the career of third-round rookie Tracy Walker. With the entire CB room in potential flux outside of Darius Slay, we could see more and more of those slot snaps going back to Diggs, however, and the team could be looking for someone else who can cover some ground and close some holes from the secondary.
Like Tracy Walker, Rapp has some serious wheels, but he’s also incredibly explosive like Slay when he plays deep. Rapp can cover a ton of ground, so you can play him near the line and know he can drop if you need him, or you can play him off and still count on him to cover your gaps in the run game when he’s needed.
Rapp is a versatile player that is a perfect fit for a defense that likes to move people around. He’s a dark-horse player to watch if the Lions go a different route than addressing their front seven to address this need.
Te’Von Coney, LB, Notre Dame
If you’re looking for a player who can diagnose where the play is going quickly, identify which gap is going to be his responsibility, and fill that gap, then Coney is going to be an attractive option. If you’re also looking for someone who combines stellar tackling with strong balance and power to keep his footing and navigate through traffic against both the run and the pass, he’s a great option.
Where it starts to get a little fuzzy is that Coney appears to lack in the athletic department. He isn’t fast, especially when compared to the other folks I’ve covered so far, but he also doesn’t appear to be very explosive or agile. The Combine will be a huge deal for Coney, who will have to show that he has the wheels to hang in the NFL against the best rushers the league has to offer. Athletic concerns aside, Coney fits both what the Lions need for their defense and their tendencies. He’d immediately address their gap issues, even if he lacks the high-end upside some of the others in this class possess.