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2020 Detroit Lions positional breakdown: Don’t be too sure DE is high on the needs list

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I know you want an edge rusher, but I’m not sure the Lions feel the same way.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions’ lack of a pass rusher stuck out like a sore thumb last year. Week after week, we saw charts like this pop up, suggesting that opposing quarterbacks had more time to throw against the Lions than any other opponent.

So it comes as no surprise that Lions fans are clamoring for a top-tier edge rusher this offseason, whether it’s in the draft or via free agency. This team needs someone that can get to the quarterback, and everyone knows it.

However, don’t be too sure the Lions are circling defensive end as a position of high priority this offseason. Why? Well, let’s take a closer look.

Previous positional breakdowns: QB, RB, TE, WR, OT, G/C

Edge defenders

(Final year under contract in parentheses)

Under contract: Trey Flowers (2023), Romeo Okwara (2020), Austin Bryant (2022), Devon Kennard (2020), Frank Herron (2020), Jonathan Wynn (2020),

Free agents: None

The Detroit Lions will be returning everyone back from last year, including the starters on both sides: Trey Flowers and Devon Kennard. Flowers is their pièce de résistance and hopeful cornerstone of the front seven for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the Lions are kind of set at backups, too. Romeo Okwara is back for another year, while 2019 fourth-round pick Austin Bryant is the hopeful heir to the Lions’ jack linebacker position behind Kennard.

That all being said, Detroit doesn’t have much of a long-term plan here. Only Flowers and Bryant are signed beyond this year, and while those two could be Detroit’s full-time starters by the end of next season, the Lions could certainly use some long-term depth at the position.

Level of need: 5/10

The Lions appear to already have their top four players at edge set for 2020, and while you may not like them, it certainly seems like Detroit does. Let’s go through each.

Trey Flowers - As mentioned, he’s signed long term, and the Lions view him as an essential piece. He also played pretty darn well once he was fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.

Devon Kennard - Was given a pretty significant contract to be here, and has developed into a leader (and captain) on the defense. His play isn’t spectacular, but he’s consistently good against the run, and we know the Lions value that. Obviously, his ability to rush the passer leaves a ton to desire, however.

Romeo Okwara - Dropped from 7.5 sacks in 2018 to just 1.5 sacks in 2019, but has already earned himself a contact extension once in Detroit. The Lions very clearly like him, as he’s solid at setting the edge, too. He’s also still just 24 years old, and in terms of a rotational piece, he’s not too bad.

Austin Bryant - His limited play during his rookie year makes him hard to evaluate for the future, but the Lions didn’t spend a fourth-round pick on him to move on after a year. He figures to be in the rotation in 2020, and if he shows a jump from his rookie season, he’ll certainly be in the mix to become this team’s long-term jack linebacker.

So when you consider that the Lions have their top four edge defenders signed for the 2020 season, and the coaching staff has shown a certain level of confidence in each, it’s easy to see how this team could shove this position down the priority list this offseason.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t personally feel this way. I feel you can never get too many pass rushers, and it’s one of the most valuable positions to draft on the first two days. I’m just not too sure the Lions feel the same way. Just look at general manager Bob Quinn’s answer to whether this team needs a dynamic pass rusher this offseason. It starts out promising, but...

“Obviously, the more pass-rushers the better, right? You want to get after the quarterback. But I think we always talk about: Is it pass rush, or if the coverage is a little better, will the pass rush get there? So it’s always a combination – then you throw in: How many times are you going to blitz per game? So to answer your question, yes, always like another pass-rusher, those are hard to come by. But I think it’s always a combination of those things when you really evaluate the whole body of work in terms of trying to get after the quarterback”

I often like to think about one of the first things I wrote about Matt Patricia when he came to Detroit. It’s an article almost identically titled to this one: “Don’t be so sure edge rusher is a high priority for the Detroit Lions.”

In it, I explain that New England’s focus was always “controlling the edge”—a phrase that you’ve undoubtedly heard over the past two years—over pass rush. But my theory has evolved a little beyond that now. We also have seen the Lions prioritize coverage over pass rush since Patricia came in. They’ve drafted safeties in the third round of back-to-back drafts. They signed a nickel corner to a record-breaking deal. They’ve tried to throw a ton of money at Richard Sherman and trade for Chris Harris Jr. And with the Lions’ No. 2 cornerback job just as open as ever—and Darius Slay’s future in Detroit very much in question—I think this team views the back end problems as much more urgent than their edge issues, and that could mean an underwhelming offseason at the defensive end position this year.