It’s no secret that D.J. Reader is my free agency crush for the Detroit Lions. Given the Lions’ need for at least three interior defenders this offseason, Reader is a guy that would immediately become a starter in Detroit and is exactly the kind of guy I know this coaching staff would adore.
But rather than point to stats or PFF grades, I wanted to show you on tape what makes Reader such a special player and such a unique fit in Detroit. So I broke down his 2019 film with the Houston Texans to highlight both his strengths and his limitations.
Note: I watched three games of Reader’s to get a full breakdown: His highest-graded PFF game (Falcons), his lowest-graded game (Chiefs—playoffs) and an average-graded game (Colts).
How the Texans used him
Reader wouldn’t be the Damon Harrison Sr. replacement that some may be expecting of him. He rarely played nose tackle—only about 20 percent of his total snaps—ceding those responsibilities to Brandon Dunn. However, Reader could absolutely be the player that the Lions were hoping A’Shawn Robinson would be.
Taking the majority of his snaps at 1- or 3-tech, Reader was in for most early downs due to his ability to stuff the run and occasionally offer some pass rush, too. However, on obvious passing downs, the Texans mostly took Reader off the field, opting to put more explosive pass rushers on the field instead.
That’s almost certainly how the Lions would use him, too. While Reader could probably play more nose than he did in Houston, his ability to rush the passer may be a little more valuable at the other defensive tackle position. Depending on who the Lions add this offseason, Reader could see some third-down play, but it’s more likely they utilize their NASCAR package, which features their more traditional pass rushers like Da’Shawn Hand, Jarrad Davis, Trey Flowers, etc.
What Reader brings to the table
Top-tier run defense
I could run through Reader’s PFF’s run defense grade—which has steadily increased in each of his four seasons—but why not show you instead?
Reader is incredibly tough to move off the line. Doesn’t matter if he’s up against someone bigger than him. Doesn’t matter if he’s double teamed.
Lined up between the center and the left guard, Reader takes on a double team and doesn’t even give more than a yard in depth. Despite 600 pounds worth of men in his face, he’s able to keep his head up, identify the runner, force him to cut back, and even make a solid tackling attempt that probably should have drawn a holding penalty.
How about holding up against one of the best guards in the league, Colts’ left guard Quenton Nelson?
Take a look at this ferocious battle:
Nelson initially has the leverage and pushes Reader out of the way, but look at the way the Texans defensive tackle sticks his left foot in the ground, re-anchors, and just manhandles Nelson with one hand, shoving him right back into the running lane.
Nelson and Reader went toe-to-toe this game (Week 7) with both getting their fair share of wins. Nelson won the battle when it came to pass protection, but Reader had the edge in the running game. Another example came late in the game, when the Texans needed a stop for a chance at a game-tying drive:
It may not seem like much, but at the last minute, Reader pushed Nelson back and to the left, causing the running back to stop his momentum and make a hard cut outside. That slows him just enough for another player to make the stop.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you Reader brings an Aaron Donald-level pass rush. He doesn’t. Frankly, it’s nowhere close. There’s a reason Houston took Reader off the field for most third downs. His arsenal of pass rushing moves isn’t very big, but he does have some short-area quickness and he absolutely knows how to use his strength to his benefit.
Let’s again go back to his epic battle against Nelson.
Reader’s initial punch knocks Nelson way off balance, and if this weren’t a three-step drop from the Colts, either Reader or the nose tackle would have gotten to the quarterback and provided pressure.
As for that twitchiness, here’s a pretty good example:
If you’re looking to Reader to step in and replace Damon Harrison Sr., you’re probably going to be a little let down. Don’t get me wrong, Reader may be the best run defender free agency is going to offer, but he is best used as a 1- or 3-tech, not a nose tackle.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not of value in Detroit. Reader is the prototype of player the Lions would want in A’Shawn Robinson’s role. He’ll give you incredibly consistent play on first and second down, while even giving you the occasional pass rush.
The question the Lions must face is simply: how valuable is that to Detroit? This isn’t a guy that’s going to get a lot of sacks, as you’ll probably want him off the field on third down. But he’s as stout against the run as you’ll get.
The asking price for Reader seems to be in the $11-13 million range, and that’s admittedly quite pricey for a guy with limited value in the passing game. But Detroit has shelled out that kind of money before for a pure run defender, and it wouldn’t completely surprise me if they did it again.