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2020 Detroit Lions training camp preview: Defensive tackles

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There have been a ton of changes, but have there been any improvements?

NFL: Detroit Lions-Training Camp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line was one of the Detroit Lions’ biggest failures of 2019. Their ability to stop the opponent’s running game was lost from the previous season, while their inability to rush the passer remained.

While we tend to put more of the pass rushing failures on the edges, the interior was just as much to blame last season. So the Lions went out and made some wholesale changes on the interior defensive line, but it remains to be seen whether the moves were upgrades.

We’re just a couple weeks away from seeing if this reformed defensive interior can improve upon last year’s struggling unit. Here is your 2020 training camp preview of the defensive tackles.

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs, tight end, wide receivers, offensive tackles, offensive guard

Defensive tackle

Roster locks: Da’Shawn Hand, Danny Shelton, Nick Williams
On the bubble: Kevin Strong, John Penisini, John Atkins
Long shot: Olive Sagapolu, Jashon Cornell, Frank Herron,
Key departures: Damon Harrison Sr., A’Shawn Robinson, Mike Daniels

Will Da’Shawn Hand return to form?

Back in 2018, Hand put together a string of very impressive games in his rookie season that provided a ton of optimism for the rest of career. Unfortunately, his follow-up season was filled with injuries from the very beginning of training camp, and Hand’s three appearances in 2019 were completely forgettable.

Building upon a solid rookie seasons is no given, even without an injury. NFL teams will have tape on a player, and he will have to continue to grow and adapt to keep his production high.

So 2020 will be a huge prove-it year for Hand. Prove that he can stay healthy. Prove that his rookie season success wasn’t a fluke. And prove that the Lions can rely on him to provide a healthy pass rush from the interior—something this team has simply lacked since Ndamukong Suh.

Who will earn the reserve roles?

The Lions’ top three interior spots are pretty much set with Hand, Shelton and Williams, but the Lions like rotate pretty regularly on the interior. The backup nose tackle job will likely be won in training camp between John Penisini, John Atkins and Olive Sagapolu. Atkins may have the upper hand with his experience from the last two seasons in Detroit, but sixth-round rookie Penisini is definitely a player to watch. He was a force at Utah.

As for the other interior defensive line roles, Strong comes into 2020 as the most experienced of the reserves. He logged 172 defensive snaps last year before landing on injured reserve mid-November. While his performance wasn’t game-changing, earning that big of a role as an undrafted rookie speaks to the team’s comfort level in him. Sure, injuries abound helped his case, but the Lions never truly sought to replace him prior to his own injury.

Challenging Strong for a spot in the rotation are seventh-round rookie Jashon Cornell, who will be a little raw as he enters the NFL and Frank Herron, who saw his first NFL action in the final three weeks of the season after the Lions snagged him from the Dolphins’ practice squad.

Could this possibly be an upgrade from 2019?

Last year, many—myself very much included—went into training camp believing Detroit’s defensive tackles were the strength of the team. After all, Damon Harrison Sr. was coming off another fantastic season, A’Shawn Robinson showed some signs of life, Da’Shawn Hand was just starting to blossom, and the Lions’ late-season addition of Mike Daniels seemed like the final piece of the puzzle.

Unfortunately, every one of those pieces disappointed in 2019. The Lions’ responded by dropping three of those four defenders, but it’s hard to envision their replacements as significant upgrades, even with last year’s struggles. Shelton has been a modest starter his entire career. Williams only has one good season to his name. And Hand hasn’t proven to be reliable.

The Lions essentially need the exact inverse of 2019 to happen. If all of these players hit their potential, it could be solid crew, but it’s hard to see it all coming together that way.

Prediction:

Shelton and Williams are your starters. Hand gets considerably of playing time, too, though mostly on passing downs. Strong and Atkins are your top reserves. Draft picks Penisini and Cornell make it to the practice squad.