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NFL free agency: Is Dontari Poe or Muhammad Wilkerson a better fit for the Detroit Lions?

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Two defensive line talents are hitting free agency. Should the Lions invest in either?

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions are a team that could certainly use more help in the middle of their defensive line. If they’re looking to make a free agency splash at that position, Wednesday was filled with good news.

First, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff notified media at the NFL Combine that two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe was likely not going to be re-signed before becoming a free agent. “We’re in a spot right now where there’s a very good chance that he’s going to go to free agency and land a very lucrative dea,” Dimitroff said on Wednesday.

Additionally, the Jets officially released defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson on Wednesday in a move that freed up $11 million in cap space. Though the move was expected, Wilkerson is a two-time, second-team All-Pro player and a former first-round pick.

With two seriously-talented players either on the market now or headed that way, the Detroit Lions could make an aggressive move to fix the weakest part of their team. But which would be the better fit? Is either choice realistic after handing Ezekiel Ansah the franchise tag? Let’s look at each option.

Dontari Poe

Poe has been a favorite potential target of mine since the Chiefs let him hit free agency in 2016. Going into the 2017 season, there was worry he wouldn’t fit in a 4-3 system after playing 3-4 nose tackle in Kansas City. However, Poe was solid with the Falcons last year, earning 39 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an impressive 81.5 Pro Football Focus grade.

Pros

  • As mentioned above, Poe has the versatility to be used as a nose tackle or a 4-3 defensive tackle. Considering the Lions are likely to run both systems, that versatility could be huge.
  • The Lions’ defense struggled to stop the run in 2017, and Poe is a run-stopping machine. Per PFF:

Before a down season in 2016, Poe had four straight seasons with at least 22 run stops, with a peak of 30 in 2013.

  • Would be a long-term replacement for Haloti Ngata.
  • Brings some pass rushing abilities, as well. Per PFF, Poe had a career-high 39 pressures in 2017.
  • Has only missed two games in his six-year career.

Cons

  • Will be very expensive as the best defensive tackle on the market.
  • Has a history of back problems; Had surgery back in 2015.
  • Turns 28 before the start of the season.

Overall, Poe has been doing it long enough to be somewhat confident in his abilities. He’s a fairly low-risk signing, but the price tag will be the biggest deterrent. He won’t pull Ndamukong Suh type of money ($19 million/year), but as the best defensive tackle on the market, he certainly won’t come cheap.

Muhammad Wilkerson

Wilkerson hits free agency with a much more accomplished statline. Wilkerson outmatches Poe in nearly every statistical category, and it’s not particularly close:

Career numbers:

Wilkerson (105 games): 405 tackles, 44.5 sacks, 28 passes defended
Poe (94 games): 239 tackles, 15.5 sacks, 14 passes defended

To be fair, Wilkerson plays a different role than Poe. He’s much more of a 3-4 defensive end or a 4-3 defensive tackle. He isn’t the space-eating, nose tackle that Poe is, but he brings his own set of skills that could be just as valuable to the Lions.

Pros:

  • One of the better interior pass rushers in the game (two seasons with more than 10.0 sacks)
  • Would be a nice complement to A’Shawn Robinson’s skillset
  • Low injury risk, has only missed four games due to injury in seven seasons
  • Could be more motivated after ugly divorce from Jets

Cons

  • Accused of low effort, especially after signing big contract in New York
  • Deactivated for final 3 games of 2017 for showing up late to meetings
  • Turns 29 this year

With Wilkerson, you know you’re getting a talented player, and those 10+ sack seasons have to be extremely hard to ignore for pass-rush needy teams like the Lions. However, it’s clear he comes with some serious risks. Though head coach Todd Bowles put on a happy face, things appeared to have gotten ugly with Wilkerson at the end of his career in New York.

If the Lions’ coaching staff thinks they can manage Wilkerson, they’d undoubtedly get a talented player—and probably one cheaper than Poe—but that’s a huge if.

Overall

I actually think Wilkerson is the better overall fit. Like Poe, he brings the 3-4, 4-3 versatility, but whereas the Lions already have a space eater like Poe in A’Shawn Robinson (and to a lesser extent, Akeem Spence), they don’t have a capable interior pass rusher anywhere near the level of Wilkerson.

However, Wilkerson is just too big of a red flag for me. Late arrivals to meetings aside, Wilkerson’s productivity took a huge hit after signing a five-year, $86 million deal after the 2015 season. He has just 8.0 sacks since—he had 12.0 in 2015—so the Jets moved on completely and never even attempted to restructure his contract. The Jets made it very clear, they wanted to move on.

And Poe is no consolation prize. He may not fit the bill of exactly what the Lions need, but he brings talent to the defensive line and that is ultimately what Matt Patricia is looking for. He’d be a huge help to the Lions’ ailing run defense and bring the occasional pass rush. He is a defensive line coach’s dream in his versatility and would fit nicely in multiple roles for Detroit. If the Lions are willing to dole out the cash, they could definitely do a lot worse than Poe.

Poll

Who would you like the Lions to pursue in free agency?

This poll is closed

  • 43%
    Dontari Poe
    (913 votes)
  • 27%
    Muhammad Wilkerson
    (574 votes)
  • 28%
    Neither
    (602 votes)
2089 votes total Vote Now