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Grading the Detroit Lions’ defensive line depth at each position

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With the acquisition of Pro Bowler Mike Daniels, the Lions have a loaded defensive line. How do they stack up at each position?

Detroit Lions Training Camp Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Lions made a splash signing this past weekend with the acquisition of former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels, with whom the Packers parted ways last week in an effort to gain some cap space.

Since then, there has been a lot of talk about how much raw talent the Lions defensive line suddenly has. The narrative most of the offseason has been that they are as loaded as ever when it comes to stopping the run, but lack some home run pass rushing power.

The signing of Daniels, who is just a year removed from a Pro Bowl season, quickly flipped that narrative on its head. Daniels adds some serious pass-rushing moxie for a defensive lineman along the interior, which should complement the edges well and allow fellow offseason acquisition Trey Flowers to flourish.

For those who have been keeping up with our Next Man Up article series this offseason, you’ll know that I try to redo each positional breakdown if things are shaken up. This is a shakeup if I’ve ever seen it, and with real football on the horizon, we formally conclude this offseason’s Next Man Up series with a breakdown of the entire Lions defensive line. Be sure to be on the lookout for the Bold Prediction of the Week and Unsung Hero of the Week series, which both return with real football games next week.

Now, for the good stuff:

JACK/Outside Linebacker

Starter: Devon Kennard

Next Man Up: Eric Lee / Austin Bryant

This is arguably the weakest position along the defensive line with Kennard starting and Lee at backup, and that says a lot considering they’re both formidable OLBs. Eric Lee isn’t a very big name, but what should come as a surprise to no one is that he came to the Lions in 2018 from... you guessed it, the New England Patriots.

Lee played in six regular season games with the Patriots in 2017, starting five, in which he racked up 3.5 sacks, an interception, and two passes defended. His playing time dwindled in his nine games with the Lions last year, as he didn’t have any starts and only had six tackles to show for on the season.

Austin Bryant, the Lions’ fourth-round draft pick, is still a wild card when it comes to what role he’ll play and where he lies on the depth chart. After being activated from the NFI list on Tuesday, Bryant suffered an upper body injury that may or may not be related to the torn pectoral that landed him on NFI to begin with.

Injury aside, I think it’s a matter of when, not if, Bryant takes over the backup role, and in the long run, a strong 2019 campaign could even make Devon Kennard expendable in 2020.

Eric Lee is a solid option for depth, but probably not someone you’d want to rely on for more than a couple games at a time. Bryant has promise and is expected to be an upgrade, but with very little to be seen from him thus far, it’s very hard to say with any level of certainty that he can be a reliable contributor.

I’m very much on the Austin Bryant hype train and would like to grade this higher, but from an objective standpoint it’s clear this is the weakest link along the defensive line when it comes to depth and it couldn’t hurt for the Lions to try and bolster it.

Grade: C+

3-Tech / 5-Tech

Starter: Mike Daniels

Next Man Up: Da’Shawn Hand / A’Shawn Robinson

The Lions are in a very good position here, and bolstering a position that already featured two guys who are viable, above-average starters is quite promising.

For our intents and purposes, Mike Daniels is the presumed starter considering the Lions are paying him $8 million. In reality, however, the Lions have three studs on the roster here and are expected to rotate all three by game situation and to keep them fresh.

Hand is looking to improve on a surprisingly strong rookie year, and quietly grew into a very strong interior pass rusher as the season went on. Robinson is the beefiest of the three and completes a run-stuffing wall alongside Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison, who we’ll get to next.

The Lions are sitting pretty, with three guys who would be more than viable starters at the position on their roster.

Grade: A+

0-Tech / 3-Tech / Nose Tackle

Starter: Damon “Snacks” Harrison

Next Man Up: P.J. Johnson

We all know (and love) Snacks. He seemingly single-handedly morphed the Lions defense into a run-stopping machine after the Lions traded for him during the 2018 season. With the rest of the defense occasionally struggling, he didn’t always get the recognition he deserved and Lions fans are always sure to bring that up when Snacks is mentioned.

Behind the wall of run-stuffing Honolulu Blue and silver, however, there are a lot of questions. Just as easily as Snacks’ arrival fixed the middle of the Lions’ defense, his departure (no matter the reason) could create a gaping hole.

The Lions tried to address that in the draft with the selection of P.J. Johnson in the seventh round, but a seventh rounder isn’t much to compensate. They also have John Atkins, who appeared in two games with the Lions in 2018 and has two tackles to show for it. Between the two, there’s very little experience and even less certainty about what to do if something happened to Snacks.

That brings us full circle to the most obvious solution, and that is sliding A’Shawn Robinson over to nose tackle. With Daniels and Hand at the 5-technique, it would make more sense to offer up some snaps to the 320-pound Robinson at nose tackle as well, especially considering his experience over the other choices.

The Lions have an All-Pro caliber player in Snacks, and Robinson is a good insurance policy, but it would be a lot more reassuring if we saw some development from P.J. Johnson as the season goes on.

Grade: B if you include A’Shawn, D+ if you don’t

Defensive End

Starter: Trey Flowers

Next Man Up: Romeo Okwara

There were a lot of question marks from outside the Lions fanbase this offseason when the Lions signed Flowers to a $90 million deal. After all, his best season featured only 7.5 sacks, and that has never warranted that much money.

The Lions signed him for much more than that, however, as they’re built to stop the run first as we’ve seen from the rest of their beefy line. Flowers sets the edge very well, and much like we saw from Okwara in 2018, Flowers does a great job getting sacks in cleanup duty.

The two have very similar styles of play, but Flowers is stronger and more consistent in setting the edge, and that’s what got him his payday. Okwara surprised many by performing as a formidable edge presence after being snagged off waivers prior to the 2018 season, so having him in a backup role now means he’ll be fresh and a very good backup plan.

Beyond Okwara, defensive end Mitchell Loewen has been turning heads thus far in training camp and could stick around on the 53-man roster, meaning the Lions would be three-deep with serviceable players at the position. Not a bad position to be in.

Grade: B+

So where does that leave the Lions?

Quite frankly, sitting pretty. General manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia have made it a clear-cut priority to address the defensive line since Patricia’s arrival last offseason, and they’ve succeeded. The two have completely overhauled the starting line and built an absolute force that will be a nightmare to run against this coming season.

The development of Hand as a pass rusher as well as the addition of Mike Daniels in the middle are bonuses that will allow the Lions a lot more rotation and dynamic formations that are dictated by game situation. Think a la Jim Schwartz’s defensive lines, where six to seven (or even more) defensive linemen were regularly rotating in with fresh legs.

While the grades I handed out weren’t all A’s, it’s important to remember that those were for depth, and if they were all A’s then the Lions’ backups would be the caliber of an all-star defensive line, and nobody has that. With the raw versatility of so many of their linemen, however, the Lions are as close to that as any team in the league.

To add a little spice, the linemen won’t be the only ones terrorizing opposing backfield this season. All signs are pointing to Jarrad Davis taking on a larger pass-rushing role this coming season, and reports out of training camp have confirmed it thus far.

Bob Quinn said when he got here he wanted to build this team in the trenches first and foremost, and Matt Patricia’s defensive philosophy has always centered around stopping the run. The two of them have hit the nail on the head over the last year with great players, versatile players, and promising young players, and they should reap the rewards on the field this season.