Originally drafted 72nd overall out of North Carolina State by the Detroit Lions in the 2021 NFL draft, Alim McNeill has been a contributor on defense since arriving in Allen Park. He has been active for every game through his first two years in the NFL, and has shown flashes of becoming a disruptive force on the interior of the Lions’ defense.
Nicknamed “the dancing bear” by coach Dan Campbell—McNeill possesses a unique skill set for someone who checks in at 6-foot-2, 325 pounds. People McNeill’s size are not supposed to be that athletic, and light on their feet.
Will the moves Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes made along the defensive line free up McNeill to make more plays on the inside? Let’s take a closer look at our next installment of our 2023 roster preview series.
Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, and Levi Onwuzurike.
Expectations heading into 2022
Coming off of a productive rookie year in 2021, many around the league were expecting a jump in productivity for McNeill in 2022. The Lions continued to pour assets into their front seven—drafting defensive end Aidan Hutchinson at second overall in the 2022 NFL draft, followed by University of Kentucky product Josh Paschal at 46. More talent along a defensive front means offensive lines will typically have a harder time consistently deploying double teams to stop a specific player. Good news for a player like McNeill.
Along with the added talent, the Lions were changing their defensive philosophy to an attacking front—which also played into McNeill’s strengths as a defender. When he first entered the league, most saw him as a one-technique/nose tackle. But because of the aforementioned athleticism, it’s easy to understand why the Lions’ coaching staff thinks there could be more to his game as a three-technique and pass rusher.
Actual role in 2022
17 games (17 starts): 779 snaps played
Stats: 1 sack, 6 QB hits, 22 QB hurries, 28 total tackles, per PFF
PFF defensive grade: 69.8 (33rd among 127 DTs with at least 200 snaps)
PFF run defense grade: 59.8 (54th of 127)
PFF pass rush grade: 70.7 (28th of 127)
Almost as soon as the 2022 season began, injuries and inconsistent play had the Lions’ defense reeling, and giving up yards at a near-cyclic rate. Lack of proper depth up front really hamstrung the Lions early on, forcing McNeill and fellow defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs to play extended snaps on the inside.
Per PFF, of McNeill’s 779 snaps, 681 of them came in the B-gap/three-technique, with Buggs eating up the Lions’ share of the one-technique reps. As mentioned before, Detroit’s defense had major issues early on in the season, but there were still bright spots here and there—like the play below from McNeill in Week 3 against the Minnesota Vikings. These reps won’t show up on the stat sheet, but it’s still excellent interior play from “sweet feet.”
a nice looking run-fit from Hutch and Alim to help break up your Tuesday pic.twitter.com/REtXr8wz7I— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) September 27, 2022
Alim and Rodrigo with the nice run fit to force a dallas field goal. takes all 11 guys to stop the run and when everything is working in harmony - run fits can be a pretty thing pic.twitter.com/rgCKgfw2mI— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) October 25, 2022
Later in the season, once the defense began to find their footing—there were portions of games where McNeill gave us glimpses of how good he can be. And in their Week 11 win over the New York Giants on the road, McNeill turned in a performance that likely had defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and the rest of his staff on cloud nine.
His stat line was something out of a Madden game played on rookie mode. One sack, two QB hits, seven hurries, and four stops according to PFF. It was as if McNeill had taken up residence in the New York backfield.
short week, so i am drinking coffee and getting into the all 22— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 22, 2022
1st series for the giants can be summed up with these words:
ALIM THE DREAM pic.twitter.com/v89cxZWisW
2nd defensive series: more helpings of pre-thanksgiving stuffing from Alim. dude was eating all day against the giants pic.twitter.com/HB250jiMlj— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 22, 2022
Alim taking 66 for a ride on his way to Jones' lap pic.twitter.com/zk2U0JP1bL— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 22, 2022
As the season progressed, McNeill seemed to become more comfortable at the three-technique. He began to develop some quick, violent hands to go along with his power and leverage as a pass rusher.
nasty hand swipe from Alim draws a holding penalty. he is starting to really put things together in year two. really excited about him at the 3-tech long term pic.twitter.com/JkKIyMcgvZ— morgan cannon (#freeJamo) (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
Outlook for 2023
Still just 23 years old, I would be willing to bet that there is still a significant chunk of McNeill’s game that has not yet been tapped into. Now that he has more experience under his belt outside of the traditional nose tackle position, there is reason to believe that his play should take another step in 2023.
On paper, the Lions’ defensive line has gotten deeper during the course of the offseason. Rookie nose tackle Brodric Martin should help by giving the Lions another rotational piece on the inside, which, in turn should lighten the load on the plates of McNeill and Buggs.
Can McNeill take the next step and become a more consistent interior defender—both against the run and the pass? He is taking things more seriously when it comes to his physique—down 13% body fat in an attempt to improve as a pass rusher.
“This is what the transformation was for, if I’m really being honest with you, is to be able to rush that passer like I want to,” McNeill said of the changes made to his body. “That’s really what the transformation was for. Just so I could be a better football player for the Lions, be able to do everything I need to do.”
If the Lions’ defense is truly going to turn a corner in 2023, one of the catalysts for that change may be McNeill’s development up front.