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Detroit Lions training camp battle preview: Establishing the EDGE

The EDGE: Where defensive ends become outside linebackers.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As we continue to inch our way closer to the Detroit Lions 2021 training camp, our preview series at Pride of Detroit continues to roll on. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can get caught up here:

Setting the table at EDGE

As mentioned in our interior defensive line piece in this series, Lions coaches have confirmed their base defense will be a 3-4 scheme and have indicated that their front-seven will be strongly influenced by the Los Angeles Rams’ top-rated defense from 2020.

When projecting roles for players transitioning from the previous scheme, any player who played down defensive end (Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara) or JACK linebacker (Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant) in Matt Patricia’s scheme, will now be an outside linebacker in the new 2021 Lions’ scheme. These outside linebacker roles carry traditional linebacker labels (WILL and SAM) but make no mistake, they are EDGE rushers.

These EDGE rushers will see a shift in their pre-snap alignment and will be asked to expand their skill sets, but in the grand scheme of things, their assignments will still include two basic things all edge rushers do: Create pressure and set the edge.

Let’s take a closer look at how the pre-snap alignments will change.

The first picture below is of the Rams 2020 base defense, with three interior defensive linemen (red) and two EDGE rushers (blue), each labeled with the Lions 2021 projected starters:

The two big changes from the last scheme are that the EDGE rushers are attacking from a standing position and are set up wider along the line, typically shifting between the 5, 7, and 9-techniques.

The next picture highlights a subpackage look and the front is adjusted to a technical 2-4 look, even though it operates like a 4-2 with the EDGE players rushing from the line of scrimmage.

And yes, as many fans have asked, the Lions’ EDGE players will rush from a traditional hand in the dirt look in subpackages, further illustrating that it is indeed more of a 4-2 concept.

Roster construction

Like with the interior defensive linemen, we can look to the Rams’ 2020 roster construction as a model to project what GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell with their EDGE rushers. Last season the Rams kept five EDGE rushers on their initial roster and maintained that number for the majority of the season. Four of those players were used in pass-rushing roles on defense, while the fifth was used exclusively on special teams.

The Lions enter training camp with seven EDGE rushers, including four carryovers in Flowers, the Okwara brothers, and Bryant. Additionally, they signed Robert McCray to a futures contract in January, added former first-round pick Charles Harris in March, then signed Reggie Gilbert in June.

With the majority of special teams experts on the Lions roster being at off-the-ball linebacker and safety, it’s fair to assume that only four EDGE rushers will be kept on the 53-man roster from this position group.

Roster battles

Flowers and Romeo Okwara are locked in as the starters, immediately filling half of the available EDGE spots. Last year’s third-round pick Julian Okwara also seems like a very safe bet to make the roster, likely leaving just one spot in question heading into training camp.

Harris was given a one-year, fully-guaranteed $1.75 million deal in March and is probably the frontrunner for the last spot at this time. His biggest competition, based on pure talent, figures to be Bryant but he has been bit by the injury bug once again and missed the majority of spring camp—though he is expected to be fully healthy for training camp.

“He just had a minor, little injury last week,” Campbell said during minicamp. “No big deal. We’re just holding him to be smart about it. We expect him to be ready to go for training camp, full, no problem.”

McCray and Gilbert are on league minimum contracts and have been running with the third team, indicating they will have a lot of work ahead of them to get their names in the mix.

Erik’s Projection

Not a lot of drama in this group as Flowers, the Okwaras, and Harris all enter camp in good shape, making quick work of the top four spots.

Bryant should do well in this scheme as he needs to be standing off the ball in order to be effective as a pass rusher, but five injuries in the last two seasons have limited him to just 10 NFL games played and a minimal box score. If he misses out on the 53-man roster, he should be headed to the practice squad if he’s not claimed by another team.

There is an outside chance the Lions see Bryant’s upside and elect to keep five EDGE rushers, but he would need to grow his special teams resume, as it currently only features one blocked punt. Additionally, he might also have to beat out a core special teamer like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, which seems like a very daunting task.