When it comes to any list of Detroit Lions needs for the 2018 offseason, edge rushers will be near or at the top of the list. It’s easy to see why. The Lions had the 20th-most sacks in 2017, and their leading sack-getter, Ezekiel Ansah, could very well be with another team next season.
There’s no doubt the Lions defense needed more of a pass rush in 2017, so it makes complete sense to think Detroit could go with an edge rusher early in the draft, or they could make an aggressive move in free agency, should the right player be available.
But don’t be too sure.
The New England Patriots have commonly found themselves in similar situations. Every year, the Patriots seem to be in the market for a pass rusher, yet they have very seldomly actually gone out and made it a huge priority. Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal explains:
It’s a spring tradition unlike any other in New England.
The Patriots fail to win the Super Bowl (gasp!), the defense can’t get off the field, and the primordial call is blasted all over the region: Bill Belichick has to go get a dominant pass rusher.
Happened in 2010, ‘11, ‘12, ‘13 ... Super Bowl No. 4, ‘15 was the offensive line, Super Bowl No. 5 ... and now here we are again after the Patriots couldn’t momentarily pause Nick Foles and the Eagles in the 41-33 loss in Super Bowl LII.
Bedard then goes on to give examples of all the moves the Patriots have made to acquire a pass rusher, and aside from drafting Chandler Jones 21st overall in 2012, New England didn’t make pass rusher an extreme priority in the past. The Patriots are much more likely to make an unassuming free agent signing like Rob Ninkovich or Chris Long than to blow all of their cap money on a free agent or make a first-day selection on draft day.
While in New England, Matt Patricia made a living out of churning out good defenses with minimal edge rushing help. He has almost never had a star pass rusher. Since the 2012 season, the Patriots have only had one player that has reached 10+ sacks in a season (Chandler Jones, twice). Yet, in three of those six seasons, the Patriots have finished among the top 10 in overall sacks, and in all six they finished in the top half of the league. Patricia gets sack production despite the lack of top-tier edge rushing talent.
The key is, according to Bedard, Belichick’s philosophy of controlling the edge. While many defensive coaches urge getting immediately upfield on the edges, the Patriots simply want to be in control on the edge. And he and Patricia have been able to do that with more versatile edge players that aren’t all about pass-rushing and therefore, aren’t the flashiest free agents or draft prospects.
But we’re talking about the Detroit Lions here, not the New England Patriots. And as team president Rod Wood said last week the Lions “are not trying to replicate the Patriots.”
Matt Patricia, too, tried to distance himself from The Patriot Way in his introductory presser. “There’s only one Coach Belichick, that’s it. He’s amazing,” Patricia said. “He’s in New England. I’m Matt Patricia. I’m kind of my own person. I’m my own guy. I’ve got my own style.”
But even ignoring Patricia’s proficiency in dealing without a star edge rusher, there’s reason to believe the Lions may not grab a pass rusher as early as fans may want. All you have to do is go back to last offseason.
Defensive end was just as big of a need for general manager Bob Quinn last offseason, and the Lions essentially ignored it. They could have gone after Calais Campbell in free agency. They didn’t. They had a chance at Charles Harris or Taco Charlton in the first round, but passed on both. Derek Rivers, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Chris Wormley were all overlooked in the later rounds.
Instead of making a huge splash, Detroit settled for more modest signings, like Cornelius Washington and a few undrafted free agent additions in Jeremiah Valoaga and Alex Barrett. We could be in for more of the same this year.
It didn’t work out well for the Lions in 2017, but with head coach who has dealt with minimal edge rushing talent for nearly all of his defensive coordinating career, Detroit could be looking at much different results in 2018.