On Monday, I went through the Detroit Lions’ roster that has a lot of promise, but unproven talent on offense. With a new offensive coordinator in town, all that potential could boom or bust depending just how quickly everyone is able to get on board.
Now let’s turn our attention to the defense, which has gone through drastic changes in the past two years. Change doesn’t always mean improvement, however, so let’s go through each position and give our grades for each.
Note: Because so many players will be playing multiple positions, I’ve narrowed down things into three simple categories: defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs. Again, I’m not including undrafted free agent signings, as those remain unofficial.
Starters: Trey Flowers, A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison Sr., Devon Kennard
Backups: Da’Shawn Hand, Romeo Okwara, Austin Bryant (R), Mitchell Loewen, Eric Lee, Jonathan Wynn, PJ Johnson (R), John Atkins
Starter grade: A-
Depth grade: A-
I’ve already heard a lot of people say this defense doesn’t have enough playmakers, and I don’t think I could disagree more. The Lions’ starting front four has two household names in Snacks Harrison and Trey Flowers. While A’Shawn Robinson and Devon Kennard (who I’m considering part of the defensive line as an EDGE defender) are both a step down in terms of play-making ability, they’re both perfect fits for this defense and have each shown signs of being very efficient. Add in that Robinson is on a contract year, and you may continue to see his play improve in 2019.
The depth is just as impressive. Da’Shawn Hand’s playing time in 2019 may look indistinguishable from a starter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a starting role by the end of the season. Okwara was an efficient player that the Lions made a priority to re-sign. Fourth-round rookie Austin Bryant brings potential and production from his long career with Clemson, and PJ Johnson could potentially slip into the final 53-man roster as a “Snacks” protege.
Starters: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones
Backups: Jahlani Tavai (R), Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Steve Longa, Garret Dooley, Tre Williams
Starter grade: C-
Depth grade: C
While linebackers aren’t considered all that important in this defense, the Lions’ situation is still a little precarious. It essentially all rides on the hopes of second-round rookie Jahlani Tavai. Davis and Jones have been, at best, adequate, and, at worst, a liability. Davis did seem to get his footing in Patricia’s defense towards the end of last season, especially when they used him in more of a pass rushing role. Jones has pretty much been an average player since coming to Detroit.
Tavai may eventually give Davis the freedom to roam around and do what he does best, but he’s a big gamble, especially in his rookie year. His tape is all over the place, and you never know how much of an impact Tavai can make right away, especially in an undefined role. If the gamble pays off, the Lions could be in great shape here, but there’s plenty of reason for caution right now.
Starters: Darius Slay, Rashaan Melvin, Justin Coleman, Quandre Diggs, Tracy Walker
Depth: Amani Oruwariye (R), Mike Ford, Jamal Agnew, Tavon Wilson, Will Harris (R), Andrew Adams, Charles Washington, Miles Killebrew, Teez Tabor, David Jones, Dee Virgin, Marcus Cooper, Andre Chachere
Starter grade: B+
With the addition of Justin Coleman and a larger potential role for Tracy Walker, there’s little doubt in my mind that the Lions’ secondary has improved from last year. The big question remains at that second outside corner spot. Melvin is coming off a troubling year with the Raiders, but looked legit in his previous seasons with the Colts. Melvin is no lock to be the team’s Week 1 starter, however, as the Lions grabbed Amani Oruwariye in the fifth round. Depending on his training camp performance, the rookie from Penn State could compete for that spot.
Depth-wise, the Lions have an embarrassment of riches. The aforementioned Oruwariye has starter potential, while Jamal Agnew brings plenty of special teams value. Additionally, the Lions re-signed Tavon Wilson to provide the room with experience and leadership. Andrew Adams is a nice under-the-radar signing with starter potential, and the Lions added third-round pick Will Harris to keep the unit young.
With so many options coming off the bench — each versatile enough to line up in multiple roles — the Lions have several solid backups at every secondary position. This will almost certainly allow the team to move on from players whose development has stalled (Tabor, Killebrew) unless they show tremendous improvement this offseason.
Overall defense grade: A-
It’s not hard to see just how much this defense has transformed in the vision of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia. Detroit now has a bunch of versatile options at nearly every position and, perhaps more importantly, the corresponding depth to go with it. By the season’s end, you are going to be so sick of the term “multiples” that it will probably trigger a Pavlovian gag reflex every time Patricia says it in a press conference.
From an outsider’s perspective, I can see how some would scan this defensive roster and not be blown away. There are a bunch of underappreciated players on this roster (Snacks, Diggs, Slay), and the depth is really where the unit shines. This roster has top-10 potential and if the stars align, we could be talking even better than that.