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Detroit Lions 2023 training camp battles: Sorting depth on the interior defensive line

The Lions utilized just three interior defensive linemen in 2022 but they’ve retained and added to the position group this offseason, setting up some difficult decisions.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is right around the corner, so we have been sorting through the roster and examining the potential battles for starting and depth roles. So far, we have concluded our preview of the offensive positions and are shifting to the defensive side of the ball.

If you missed any of the series, here’s what we have covered so far:

Next up, we examine the Lions' interior defensive line.

Setting the table

Not long into their 2022 training camp, Lions coaches realized they didn’t have the “bulk” to hang with their offensive line and quickly made a move to sign Isaiah Buggs. As camp rolled along, Buggs worked his way into the starting lineup and earned a spot next to Alim McNeill. The pair would remain the Lions starting duo for the majority of the season.

Levi Onwuzurike was expected to be one of the Lions’ starters last season but after re-injuring his back in training camp, he landed on injured reserve. To add depth to the unit, the Lions claimed Benito Jones off waivers from the Dolphins, and he would hold down the Lions' DT3 role.

After re-signing Buggs to a new 2-year contract this offseason, all four of the above players from 2022 return to the Lions in 2023 (McNeill, Onwuzurike, and Jones are still on their rookie contracts). In addition to the four returning defensive tackles, the Lions have added an additional four players to the competition this fall.

Brodric Martin enters the mix with high expectations after being selected in the third round of the draft, while veteran free agent Christian Covington was running with the starters in the spring. The Lions also added two undrafted free agents in Corey Durden (NC State) and Chris Smith (Notre Dame) to round out the position group.

Roster construction

In 2022, the Lions rostered four defensive tackles on their 53-man roster: McNeill, Buggs, Jones, and Michael Brockers. Additionally, Orwuzurike spent the season on injured reserve, while Bruce Hector, then Demetrius Taylor (who played in one NFL game) spent time on the practice squad.

While Brockers was on the roster the entire season (he cost more against the salary cap to cut than to keep rostered), he played in just six games and only registered 125 snaps (6% of the team's defensive tackle snaps)—with 100 coming in the first four weeks of the season. Brockers, Hector, and Taylor are no longer with the team.

For all intents and purposes, over the majority of the season, the Lions only utilized three defensive tackles (McNeill, Buggs, and Jones accounted for almost 90% of defensive tackle snaps), while leaning on their edge rusher depth to help on the interior in obvious pass-rushing situations.

With the Lions rostering a plethora of edge rushers again in 2023—including all of those who kicked inside last season—it’s fair to wonder if the Lions will once again lean on only three defensive tackles, or if they will opt for four, which is more traditional with their style of scheme.

The battleground

The Lions enter training camp with eight defensive tackles on the roster and McNeill the expected leader of the room.

“Mac’s a leader for us now because he understands—he knows what it’s supposed to look like,” Dan Campbell said during OTAs. “He was around a guy like Brockers who was in that room, and that’s the value of it. Because I see Mac very much as a leader. Now he’s not going to be an ‘open his mouth rah-rah’ guy, but he leads by example. He leads by his approach, and what he does, and that is what you want. So now he takes over and eventually he’ll teach it to somebody else and then it just, the cycle starts over.”

Beyond McNeill, the competition gets tight. There will be players battling for the other starting spot, as well as for depth roles. Let’s take a look at who is in the mix.

Isaiah Buggs. The incumbent starter who took on a leadership role in 2022, Buggs was rewarded with a two-year deal this offseason, indicating he is close to a lock for, at a minimum, a rotational position. He should also be the early favorite to line up next to McNeill on Day 1 of training camp and will have to fend off the players behind him on the depth chart.

Levi Onwuzurike. Incredibly talented but his health remains a huge question mark. If he is truly healthy, he could win a starting job, but it’s difficult to count on that considering he is coming off back surgery and has yet to show he can stay on the field.

Brodric Martin. The Lions were aggressive in trading up into the third round for him, so it’s fair to say they are invested in him making the roster. Could he earn a starting role? It’s possible because he has the makings of being everything they want in a nose tackle. Of course, we have yet to see him in a padded practice, so he’s still got a lot to prove on the field.

Christian Covington. After taking starter reps in the spring, Covington has captured the attention of the Detroit media. With 102 NFL games under his belt, including 32 starts, Covington is not only in the mix for a roster spot, but some believe, potentially a starting role as well.

Benito Jones. The additions of Martin and Covington, along with a possibly healthy Onwuzurike, have suddenly made Jones look vulnerable. But make no mistake, Jones is by no means out of the mix. The Lions showed some confidence in him last season and he did get better as the year went on.

Cory Durden and Chris Smith. Both UDFA defensive tackles did well in the spring and earned compliments from defensive line coach John Scott Jr. during OTAs, saying, “Yeah, I’ve been very impressed with those two big inside guys that we brought in. Very impressed with those guys.” The caveat here is that, like with Martin, neither has practiced in pads, so it’s difficult to really know how good they can be. Both players’ games have a foundation built on power and technique, with the positional range to play the nose and 3-technique spots.


Erik: I keep going back and forth on if the Lions will keep three of four defensive tackles. Onwuzurike’s health will certainly factor into things, but even if he’s not ready, I think they may be able to justify four players.

McNeill, Buggs, and Martin are close to locked in for me, with Onwuzurike landing at DT4 if healthy. If Onwuzurike is not healthy and the Lions still want to keep four, my early edge is that Covington may be able to edge out Jones—though, I’m just not entirely sold that Covington can beat out EDGE6 or 7.

So Jeremy, do you think the Lions keep three or four defensive tackles? And with that answer, how do you see the depth chart shaping up in that spot?

Jeremy: It’s tricky, because three doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider how many edge defenders can slide inside, it’s doable. As you pointed out, they did it for long stretches last year.

But the coaching staff also expressed an interest in scaling back Buggs’ playing time and they’re going to need true defensive tackles to do that. I don’t know if they’re prepared to put all of that on a rookie’s plate, so at this point in time, I think they’ll keep four. They weren’t all that comfortable giving Benito Jones a ton of snaps last year, which is why I think the addition of Christian Covington may be more significant than most originally believed at the time of the signing.

Erik: Onwuzurike’s health is going to be such an important storyline for this group because if he can go, I think he makes the roster. But if he’s not ready, I am with you that Covington is probably ahead of Jones and would be DT4.

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