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Top 3 Detroit Lions needs: Defensive fits for Matt Patricia’s scheme

We try to predict what defensive players the Lions may pursue in the draft by checking what Matt Patricia worked with in New England.

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Detroit Lions Rookie Camp Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Building the Patricia-Pasqualoni defense

While we do not know how many players of each position type will be needed to run the Lions’ new defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and head coach Matt Patricia (or even what it is), we can get a sense of where they are heading from what Patricia used in New England. Here are the most recent rosters taken into Week 1 by the Patriots from posts at SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit for the 2017 53-man roster, 2016 53-man roster, and 2015 53-man roster (all snap counts from Pro Football Reference):

New England 53-man Rosters 2015-2017

Defensive Totals 2015 Defensive Snaps 2016 Defensive Snaps 2017 Defensive Snaps
Defensive Totals 2015 Defensive Snaps 2016 Defensive Snaps 2017 Defensive Snaps
All Positions 25 1092 23 (plus Ninkovich) 1043 26 1060
DE Trey Flowers 4 Trey Flowers 563 Trey Flowers 802
Jabaal Sheard 557 Jabaal Sheard 579 Deatrich Wise 543
Chandler Jones 861 Chris Long 677 Adam Butler 473
Rob Ninkovich 888 Rob Ninkovich 462 Cassius Marsh 266
Geneo Grissom 130
Rufus Johnson 13
DT Malcolm Brown 508 Malcolm Brown 596 Malcolm Brown 537
Alan Branch 432 Alan Branch 626 Alan Branch 274
Dominique Easley 273 Vincent Valentine 288 Vincent Valentine 0
Sealver Siliga 252 Anthony Johnson 74 Lawrence Guy 582
LB Donta Hightower 593 Donta Hightower 708 Donta Hightower 237
Jerod Mayo 394 Shea McClellin 380 Shea McClellin 0
Jamie Collins 775 Jamie Collins 438 Kyle Van Noy 710
Jonathan Freeny 389 Jonathan Freeny 97 David Harris 181
Eric Martin 0 Elandon Roberts 271 Elandon Roberts 558
Barkevious Mingo 47 Marquis Flowers 283
Harvey Langi 6
CB Logan Ryan 976 Logan Ryan 897 Stephon Gilmore 816
Malcolm Butler 1080 Malcolm Butler 1008 Malcolm Butler 1037
Tarell Brown 162 Cyrus Jones 147 Eric Rowe 259
Bradley Fletcher 68 Jonathan Jones 64 Jonathan Jones 439
Justin Coleman 227 Johnson Bademosi 214
S Devin McCourty 925 Devin McCourty 1022 Devin McCourty 1029
Patrick Chung 885 Patrick Chung 1006 Patrick Chung 928
Duron Harmon 601 Duron Harmon 506 Duron Harmon 702
Jordan Richards 238 Jordan Richards 18 Jordan Richards 272
Nate Ebner 45 Nate Ebner 18 Nate Ebner 0
Tavon Wilson 83 Brandon King 0

A couple of interesting notes before we break down what is going on in this table. First, in 2016 the total number of defensive players officially carried into the start of the season was only 23 but in reality should have been 24 since Rob Ninkovich was suspended for four games in September of that year. Also interesting is that some players called edge defenders or defensive ends by Pats Pulpit like Eric Martin in 2015 could be considered linebackers. Other players listed both ways in various places include Geneo Grissom, Barkevious Mingo, and Ninkovich, so the distinction between the defensive end group and the linebacker group is blurry.

In the past under former defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the closed end spot at left defensive end was often held down by a player who could swing inside as a defensive tackle like Jason Jones or Kerry Hyder. Instead of that mish-mash between tackle and end on the line, the concept is closer to the swing role Brandon Copeland had moving between outside linebacker and end.

Now that we have that out of the way, what can we guess about the defensive personnel composition general manager Bob Quinn and the coaching staff are likely to target going into the regular season?

  • The total number of defensive players will probably be 25. The three years surveyed had one instance each of 24, 25, and 26 players, so taking the average we can expect to be either at or within one roster spot of 25.
  • Expect the defensive end position to make heavy use of four players in the rotation. On the current roster, that would be Ezekiel Ansah, Kerry Hyder, Anthony Zettel, and Cornelius Washington. In the New England style scheme where linemen could be sliding all over the front as pass rushers or run stoppers, defensive ends that can play like defensive tackles are quite useful. That is exactly what the Lions have in Zettel (a former DT at Penn State) and Hyder (also a converted defensive tackle).
  • The interior defensive line will involve three or four contributors, which will mostly be focused around two run stuffing defensive tackles who can two gap if asked to. In New England, that was Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. The two tackles on roster who will fill this role will be newly signed free agent Sylvester Williams and the deceptively young man A’Shawn Robinson. Rotational snaps can be filled out by veteran Akeem Spence and second-year man Jeremiah Ledbetter.
  • Expect as many as seven linebackers—depending on which players are called linebackers and which are called edge rushers—with perhaps two of them being hybrid 3-4 pass rushing outside linebackers. It starts with an aggressive and hard-hitting middle linebacker in the mold of Dont’a Hightower or Elandon Roberts (who stepped in as the so-called “Green Dot” last year), and the Detroit Lions have a thumper like that named Jarrad Davis. Speedy, athletic rushers like Jalen Reeves-Maybin and new free agent arrival Devon Kennard can play the outside with veteran backup arrival Jonathan Freeny (formerly of the Patriots) to keep it steady.
  • The secondary will be safety-heavy, and the three-safety packages employed heavily by the Patriots could become a familiar look to Lions fans in a hurry. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty have been the top two safeties in New England for quite some time, but Duron Harmon also played more than half of all defensive snaps for each of the past three seasons. In Detroit this flexible secondary would currently equate to Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, and Miles Killebrew in a three-safety package, but the stellar performance of Quandre Diggs late last year as a safety gives defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni some options. Over opposing receivers, we should expect the Lions to use a clear pair of top outside cornerbacks with two quality backups and possibly a fifth young project player. In Detroit, this young project on defense happens to be an All-Pro punt returner. In any case, at least four safeties will probably see the field a lot, even if some do not play regular defense (see below).

Special teams aces

Fitting a pattern from early in Bob Quinn’s tenure as general manager, at least two or three defensive players will exclusively contribute on special teams. The obvious names standing out are Nate Ebner and Brandon King, who played zero defensive snaps in 2017. For the three year span covered in the table, Ebner played 369 special teams snaps in 2015, then 359 in 2016, and finally 172 last year. Similarly, King does not appear on the 2015 or 2016 initial rosters but was promoted from the practice squad each time to contribute immensely on special teams: 267 snaps in 2015, 299 snaps in 2016, and 236 snaps in 2017. Jordan Richards was featured in much the same way, playing 238 special teams snaps in 2015, 151 in 2016, and 272 in 2017 despite only ever appearing in 18 total defensive snaps over the entire period.

In the past, this was Johnson Bademosi (traded to the Patriots) and Don Carey (signed as free agent with the Jaguars) as punt gunner aces. On the current roster, punt return miracle of the 2017 draft Jamal Agnew would certainly qualify. Another player who might make the team in this kind of role could be Steve Longa, who led the team in special teams tackles on 302 snaps in the kicking game last season. Former Chicago linebacker Christian Jones could give new value on special teams while providing the kind of veteran depth the Lions got from Paul Worrilow. Part-time fullback Nick Bellore, who was in the game for 308 special teams snaps last year, is also in this category.

The players who tend to fill these special teams-specific needs will usually be safeties or linebackers, since the coaches are really going for a particular body type infused with toughness and intensity. They need to be big enough to provide solid blocking in kick and punt protection, strong enough to fight off large blockers when they are on kick blocking duty, and speedy enough to get down their lane and make open field tackles in coverage. That means players who are not too big (linemen), not too small (running backs), but just in the middle: fullbacks, linebackers, safeties, and possibly tight ends.

Where are the remaining defensive holes in the roster?

Let us now compare the current mix of players to the types of players often found on New England 53-man rosters. The spots where we cannot identify good comparables give us an idea of the places the team still needs to consider adding a rookie in the upcoming draft or a late free agent.

Early 25-man Detroit defense

Position Group Hypothetical Role Player Name
Position Group Hypothetical Role Player Name
DE Right Defensive End Ezekiel Ansah
Stand-up Rush DE VACANT
Inside/Outside DE Kerry Hyder
Rotational Rush DE Anthony Zettel
DT War Daddy Sylvester Williams
War Daddy A'Shawn Robinson
3-tech Starter Akeem Spence
Rotational DT Jeremiah Ledbetter
LB Mike Thumper Jarrad Davis
Rush Sam Devon Kennard
Coverage Will Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Swing Mike/OLB backup Christian Jones
Backup Sam VACANT
Special Teams Steve Longa
CB Outside Corner Darius Slay
Outside Corner DeShawn Shead
Nickel Quandre Diggs
Depth Corner Nevin Lawson
Depth Corner Teez Tabor
Punt Returner Jamal Agnew
S Free Safety Glover Quin
Strong Safety Tavon Wilson
Three-package Safety Miles Killebrew
Backup Deep FS VACANT
Special Teams Charles Washington

The important holes in the roster with no obvious answers are related to Detroit’s sad lack of a pass rush. This is why I agree with the clamor among Lions fans to get Harold Landry in the first round if he is available. Aside from the familiarity factor with coach Pasqualoni, Landry would plug immediately into a critical role on the defensive line. The other role with no obvious candidate would be a young complement to Landry coming from the linebacker side of the personnel mix. While the Lions have Devon Kennard to play that hybrid role, it would be nice to have proper succession planning in place.

Two decisions that were made in constructing this possible 25-man defense that may raise eyebrows. First, we have Quandre Diggs back in the slot as the primary nickel corner. Although Diggs played very well as a safety, he is the best and most obvious choice for any packages in which the Lions need a quick cover man in the slot. Even if he is classified as a cornerback, Diggs could very well be used in specific three-safety looks as a safety anyway.

The second sort-of interesting roster move is to cut Cornelius Washington entirely. He is a big fellow who has done all the 3-4 tasks that Detroit will need from its defensive tackles, but the rush potential and financial advantages of Zettel and Hyder win out. Cutting Washington would save more than $2.7 million in cap space and leave the team with just $750,000 in dead money.

An interesting suggestion from our own Jeremy Reisman was to cut Akeem Spence instead and upgrade at the 3-tech defensive tackle position on the line. The staff could choose to keep Washington and cut Spence for $2.5 million in cap space, eating the same $750,000 in dead money that would occur with cutting Washington. Or, they could cut both and use the more than $5.2 million in freed space to pick up some other team’s cap casualty as a 3-tech upgrade; the defensive line situation is actually pretty fluid past the top four or five players.

Other ways Quinn might upgrade the defensive talent fit with his front office’s approach to churning at the bottom of the roster. This projection does not have Freeny on the final list because the squad lacks safety depth for how we might expect Patricia and Pasqualoni to operate. Nabbing a mid-to-late round rookie or promising undrafted free agent who could give the team special teams value while learning the ways of Glover Quin would be nice value. Can Charles Washington be that guy? Is it going to be Quandre Diggs? Do the Lions keep Longa, Bellore, or Freeny—or do they sign someone else not yet on the team for that linebacker spot?

Given the personnel assembled to play in former defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense, Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia have already filled in many of the roster’s schematic gaps. Adding Sylvester Williams to clog the middle of the line, Belichick-style multi-role veteran linebackers (Jones, Kennard, Freeny), and more competition at outside corner in DeShawn Shead lets the new coaching staff go all multiple all the time. What are some acquisitions to watch for in the next two weeks? If I had to bet, based on the current roster, it would be these:

  1. Edge rusher defensive end (Read: Harold Landry).
  2. Another athletic outside linebacker with pass rush ability (e.g. Gernard Avery).
  3. Backup deep safety that might play on special teams this year (e.g. Dominick Sanders).

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