Coming into the 2021 season, it was thought that the Detroit Lions’ defensive line as a whole could be a potential strength. Or at the very least, not a complete liability. Unfortunately, like other facets of the year for the Detroit Lions, things did not go according to plan.
Veteran defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Nick Williams were brought in to be the steady, veteran leaders of the room. Then, general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell double dipped in the 2021 NFL draft, selecting Levi Onwuzurike at 41, followed by nose tackle Alim McNeill at 72. They still had another nose tackle in John Penisini, a holdover from the previous regime who played decent in 2020, considering everything going on around him.
Despite what looked like a formidable group on paper, this unit simply did not perform well enough in 2021. There were small stretches of play where it appeared that the front seven was sorting things out, only to show up another week and allow a team like the Philadelphia Eagles to run for 236 yards on 46 attempts. This wasn’t an isolated incident either, as there were a handful of weeks that the Lions could not defend the run in any capacity.
To be a more competitive team in 2022, the run defense issue needs resolving, and quickly. So where does that leave the Lions heading into free agency?
Essentially, only Williams and Joel Heath are unrestricted free agents. Everyone else is returning, and with the plethora of other areas on this roster that need addressing, the Lions’ front office isn’t in the position to break the bank on any single defensive tackle, especially when you consider they are counting on young players like McNeill and Onwuzurike to take steps in their sophomore seasons.
But as we all know, this is the NFL, and you need depth everywhere on your roster.
- 5 free agent quarterbacks to watch
- 5 free agent running backs to watch
- 5 free agent wide receivers to watch
- 5 free agent tight ends to watch
- 5 free agent offensive linemen to watch
While he likely won’t command the most money on the defensive line market, I think Hill might be one of the best available players from a value standpoint. Prior to the 2021 season, Hill was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals from the New York Giants. With more opportunities on defense, Hill thrived, setting career highs with 12 quarterback hits and 50 total tackles, while also matching his previous high of 5.5 sacks.
Essentially, Hill was everything for the Bengals that the Lions wanted Nick Williams to be. A dependable pass rusher who can collapse the pocket from the 3-technique.
Coming off the final year of his rookie contract, Hill will likely be looking to cash in after his breakout campaign.
Another young defensive tackle looking to test the waters of free agency, Jones also set career highs in 2021, posting 56 tackles and 10 tackles for loss for good measure. He started all 17 games for the San Francisco 49ers, and has likely set himself up for a nice payday.
This may be another case where the deal Jones is going to be looking for is a little too rich for the Lions at the moment. With what they have invested in McNeill and Onwuzurike, and the fact that Brockers carries nearly a $9 million cap hit in 2022, Holmes is going to have to be choosy with how he shores up the defensive line. There are just too many holes on this roster to overpay at a position that isn’t a dire need.
Going in a bit of a different direction here, Richardson would likely be a bit more affordable than the first two options.
Richardson has been around for a while now, having been drafted in 2013 by the New York Jets. After being cut by the Cleveland Browns due to salary cap constraints, he was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings, where he generated 37 quarterback pressures, according to PFF.
Signing Richardson to a one-year deal could potentially work well for both parties involved.
Jefferson started all 17 games for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021 and is another player who makes his money as an interior pass rush specialist.
He signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal last year, so he will likely be looking for a bump heading into 2022. Still, this puts him a tier or two below the top of the defensive line market. Jefferson is someone the Lions could sign for a year, or for a multi-year deal, without breaking the bank like they would have to with the first two choices on this list.
We know how much this coaching staff loves positional versatility. Look no further than William Gholston, who can line up just about everywhere on the defensive line. Coming off a career-high 4.5 sacks, Gholston could be another useful piece to add to Aaron Glenn’s front, and would serve as another mentor to the aforementioned 2021 draft picks.
Gholston’s best ability may be his availability, having not missed a single game in any of the past four seasons.