Finding success in the NFL is all about seizing opportunities when they present themselves and no player on the Detroit Lions 2020 roster exemplified that more than sixth-round pick, nose tackle John Penisini.
This is the seventh installment in a series of articles at Pride of Detroit where we will examine the snap counts for the Lions’ rookies during the 2020 season. You can read the previous articles in this series here: Jeff Okudah, D’Andre Swift, Julian Okwara, Jonah Jackson, Logan Stenberg, and Quintez Cephus.
John Penisini, DT: Round 6, Pick 197
After moving on from Damon Harrison in the offseason, the Lions signed Danny Shelton as their next starting nose tackle. His backup was expected to be John Atkins, a player who Harrison believed was the most underrated player on the Lions roster. But teams need bodies for training camp and most bring in enough players to training camp so they can roll at least three lines through drills and that meant the Lions needed another nose tackle.
Former general manager Bob Quinn elected to fill this opening by drafting Penisini for depth and the early thoughts were that he could challenge Atkins for the reserve job. But the reserve nose tackle competition was over began, as Atkins decided to opt-out of the 2020 season due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic—Penisini was now the front runner for a job in the two-deep rotation.
Penisini would easily beat out the other defensive tackles for a reserve role in training camp and he entered the season as DT4 and a chance to see a few snaps a game, especially in short distance situations.
Penisini’s 2020 snap counts
In the chart below, you can see the snap counts from Penisini’s entire rookie season. They are broken down by defensive snaps, percentage of defensive snaps, special teams snaps, and percentage of special teams snaps.
Penisini only saw single-digit snaps once during the entire season and that came in Week 1 when the defensive line was healthy and intact. Nick Williams was injured in Week 2, Penisini saw his snaps double, and coaches realized they had a capable player in the rookie.
Over the next month, Penisini’s snaps leveled off around 20 per game with a healthy defensive line. But post-bye week, the Lions began incorporating defensive fronts that featured both Shelton and Penisini on the field at the same time as a way of slowing down their opponent’s running game.
While Penisini was benefiting from more snaps due to a philosophical defensive strategy, injuries on the defensive line also began to pile up, affording him even more opportunities to see the field. In Week 10, Williams was injured and missed the game. Da’Shawn Hand was out Weeks 11, 12, and 13, then landed on injured reserve in Week 15 and would not return. But when Shelton was injured in Week 12, and was placed on injured reserve in Week 13 (he also would not return), that left Penisini as the only remaining nose tackle on the roster and he would start the remainder of the season.
As the only original defensive linemen to remain healthy for the entire season, Penisini saw considerably more defensive snaps than what was anticipated when the season began. Among the entire NFL rookie class, the only defensive tackle to out-snap Penisini was No. 7 overall pick, Derrick Brown:
Most Defensive Snaps played by Rookie DI in 2020:— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) June 11, 2021
1. CAR Derrick Brown (No. 7 pick) - 742
2. DET John Penisini (No. 197 pick) - 576
3. SF Javon Kinlaw (No. 14 pick) - 547
4. MIA Raekwon Davis (56 pick) - 538
The DI room is full of young, promising talent for 2021#OnePride pic.twitter.com/NVNBKR4qZ5
With a new coaching staff in Detroit, Penisini likely won’t be able to pick up where he left off as the scheme has changed, shifting away from the 2-gapping scheme to a more attacking 1-gapping approach.
The Lions’ new 3-4 scheme will need a nose tackle capable of plugging holes, but he will also have to be capable of rushing the passer. Plugging holes is right up Penisini’s alley, but the pass-rushing part of his game is still developing.
The roster has seen an overhaul at nose tackle because of these changes in philosophy. Shelton and Atkins were both released, and the Lions spent a third-round pick on Alim McNeill, who is a highly capable run stuffer and pass rusher, and is projected to be the clear starter. The team also added veteran Brian Price to push Penisini for the reserve nose tackle role. For now, Penisini appears likely to beat out Price as the top reserve—but he needs to show some potential as a pass rusher to earn that spot outright.
With six interior defensive linemen in the two-deep of the new scheme, the reserve nose tackle role is not as prominent as it was in the previous scheme. Even if Penisini wins the job, he may only see the field a handful of times a game. That being said, if Penisini can show growth, there is always a chance he can expand his role like he did last season.