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2023 NFL Combine preview: 10 defensive tackles the Lions should be watching

Identifying who and what to watch on the interior defensive line during the 2023 NFL Combine.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 SEC Championship - LSU vs Georgia Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2023 NFL Combine begins on Monday, February 27, with prospects arriving in their positional groups. Over the first few days, players will get medical checks, meet with NFL teams, and take the podium to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the league will start four days of televised coverage of on-field drills.

This is the latest in a series of articles that will explore the participants at this year’s combine that the Detroit Lions should be keeping a close eye on during positional activities. If you missed any of our previous installments, check them out here: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and offensive linemen.

Next up: Interior defensive linemen

Team need

One of, if not the biggest need entering the offseason, the Lions should be scouting every available interior defensive lineman. The Lions have a legitimate starter in Alim McNeill, and his ability to play the 3-technique and the nose tackle spot gives Detroit a huge luxury, as they have a larger pool of players to choose from, instead of being locked into one position.

What to watch for

The Lions will fluctuate between 1- and 2-gapping styles of play, but their primary approach is to find players who can penetrate and disrupt. When watching the interior defensive line players run through drills, the top things to watch for are balance through the hips, hand placement (especially evident with bag work), and if they play with their head up. Additionally, keep an eye on players' feet. Do they keep their weight over them? Are they quick? How is their lateral movement?

Now, on to the prospects.

The superstar

Jalen Carter, 3T, Georgia, 6-foot-3, 310

The No. 1 overall player on Dane Brugler's (The Athletic), Daniel Jeremiah's (NFL.com), and Lance Zierlein’s (NFL.com) Big Boards, Carter is a monster at defeating blocks and disrupting the backfield. Blessed with a rare combination of traits, Carter is explosive, quick, powerful, positionally flexible, and has technique other tackles dream about.

Nose Tackles

If the Lions want to keep McNeill at the 3-technique—where he thrived most of last season—these are the top options to earn a starting role next to him.

Mazi Smith, NT, Michigan, 6-foot-3, 335

With intense power and sneaky athleticism—he was the No. 1 player on The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List—Smith is a plug-and-play starting nose tackle, who when combined with McNeill, would give the Lions 670 pounds on interior bulk. If he shows out at the Combine, as expected, he may not make it to pick No. 48 in the second round.

Siaki Ika, NT, Baylor, 6-foot-4, 354

A massive run-stuffer, Ika is incredibly powerful at the point of attack and holds his ground with an impressive anchor. The Lions need to show marked improvement in defending the run and Ika would be a difference-maker in that regard. He’s a bit limited as a pass rusher, but his above-average athleticism and quick first step will force offensive linemen to account for him.

Keeanu Benton, NT, Wisconsin, 6-foot-3, 315

Productive and athletic, Benton is a four-year starter who fights through the whistle on every play. He’s not as physically gifted as Smith or Ika, but he holds his own in the middle of the line, and more often than not, wins the heavyweight battle.

Cameron Young, Mississippi State, 6-foot-3, 304

Despite being undersized for the nose, Young is long, strong, and a natural for the position. He’s not a 3-down nose—like Isaiah Buggs, who is of similar size—but he can be a developing weapon against the run. His ability to clog gaps and open up pass rush lanes for his teammates is a valuable trait.

3/4/5-techniques

With McNeill's positional flexibility, these players could present value options as potential starters next to him or possible rotational players.

Brian Bresee, 4i/3T, Clemson, 6-foot-5, 316

With length, athleticism, and positional versatility, Bresee has a lot of the physical traits that get interior disruptors drafted in the first round. But after injuries (ACL) and the passing of his younger sister Ella to brain cancer, Bresee saw his production dip the last two seasons and his stock is a bit mixed at the moment. Some analysts believe the first-round traits he showed as a freshman are still there and worth a top-32 pick, while others are not sold and believe he could slide into Day 2. A good Combine could help him solidify a spot as the second-best interior defender in this class.

Calijah Kancey, 3/5T, Pittsburgh, 6-foot-0, 280

Challenging Bresee for the DT2 designation is Kancey, who is significantly undersized, but incredibly explosive off the ball. Kancey is plenty strong but his size will limit him as a run defender. To overcome that, Kancey disrupts in other ways, most notably by collapsing the pocket and forcing the offensive line to adapt.

Gervon Dexter, 3T, Florida, 6-foot-6, 315

More of a traits player right now, Dexter didn’t have huge production numbers at Florida, but his power and ability to leverage offensive linemen are impressive. His penetration skills need work, but his ability to stack and shed makes him a player that can stay on the field in 3- and 4-man fronts.

Jaquelin Roy, 3T, LSU, 6-foot-4, 315

Roy is still developing his skill set but he is solid against the run and has the physical traits/athleticism to be a productive pass rusher. He moves well up and down the line of scrimmage and never stops fighting his battles. Roy’s traits are appealing and his mindset fits the Lions mentality, making him a potential option late on Day 2 or early on Day 3.

Zacch Pickens, South Carolina, 6-foot-4, 305

Like Roy, Pickens’ skills lend him to be a contributor against the pass and the run. But while Roy’s best traits are against the run, Pickens best skills are as a pass rusher. With a long frame and a quick first step, there are a lot of traits to like about Pickens and he could be worth a look on Day 3.

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