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2023 Detroit Lions roster preview: Will Isaiah Buggs remain a starter on the defensive line?

After a season in which he logged over 750 snaps due to depth issues, how will Detroit Lions’ DT Isaiah Buggs fare on a deeper defensive line?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

As we make our way through our Detroit Lions roster preview series, next up we have defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs.

Buggs played his college football at the University of Alabama and was originally drafted in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Prior to the 2022 season, he was signed by the Lions after the retirement of former Lions’ defensive tackle John Penisini and the need to add more “bulk” in training camp. After injuries made their mark on the Lions’ defensive front, Buggs seized his opportunity as his share of snaps on the inside increased—leading to him re-signing with the Lions on a two-year deal worth up to $6 million.

Let’s take a closer look at what Buggs accomplished in 2022, and how he figures into the defensive line rotation in 2023.

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, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Derrick Barnes, Jermar Jefferson, Brock Wright, Jerry Jacobs, Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, David Montgomery, Graham Glasgow, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Marvin Jones Jr., Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Christian Covington, and Craig Reynolds.

Isaiah Buggs

Expectations for 2022

As mentioned before, Buggs was a late addition to the Lions’ 2022 roster, and upon arriving in Detroit at the start of training camp, it was expected he would be part of the rotation on the interior defensive line. He had produced at a solid level during his time in Pittsburgh and was thought to offer a bit of versatility by lining up either at the nose or as a three-technique.

Actual role in 2022

17 games (13 starts): 752 defensive snaps
Stats: 46 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 PBUs
PFF defensive grade: 53.9 (55th out of 66 interior DL with 500+ snaps)
PFF run defense grade: 47.0 (59th of 66)
PFF tackling grade: 45.1 (47th of 66)
PFF pass rush grade: 66.8 (33rd of 66)

Seemingly as soon as the 2022 season began, the Lions’ depth problems along the defensive line became more dire, as injuries and inconsistent play limited the unit.

After a dismal showing in a Week 5 loss to the New England Patriots, there were major changes made to the defensive side of the ball. One aspect of these changes was a shift for Buggs to being primarily deployed as a nose tackle/one technique—freeing up 2021 third-round pick Alim McNeill to take more snaps at the three-technique. Gradually, Buggs and McNeill began to gel on the inside, which helped the Lions’ run defense level out after their rough start to the season.

Beyond his on-field production, Buggs became a vocal leader for a really young, and inexperienced Lions team. From being one of the players to step up the players-only meeting, to breaking down the team pre-game, his value as a leader in the second half of the season is difficult to quantify.

Outlook for 2023

As of now, it is likely that Buggs is the Week 1 starter next to McNeill on the inside. However, with the addition of rookie defensive tackle Brodric Martin, Buggs will likely see his snaps take a dip in 2023. And due to the nature of defensive line play, and rolling through fresh bodies—it may actually increase his level of play, and statistical production.

“Buggs is a very talented player,” Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes said of the former Alabama defensive tackle. “The real thing with Buggs is that I think he’ll be even better if everything works out in terms of — he had to play a lot of snaps last year, more snaps than we would have liked for him to play. But due to the circumstance he just had to.”

Could the emergence of a player like Martin free up Buggs to take more snaps at the three-technique where he can utilize his pass-rushing chops? It’s certainly possible. At times, Buggs proved to be a disruptive force on the inside, and if he can stay fresher throughout the course of the game—those splash plays he made in the offensive backfield last year may become more of a regular occurrence.

Either way, Buggs will be crucial to the Lions’ success in 2023.

“He’s extremely important,” coach Dan Campbell said of Buggs during the 2022 season. “And I kind of feel like every week, you talk about the run game, it always starts inside. Everything for us starts inside and works its way out because if those guys don’t do their job, then all the strain starts to go out on the guys who that’s not necessarily what they’re able to do a full game of, whereas man, Buggs and Mac (McNeill), I feel like those two guys are linked. They’re always going to be linked, and it all starts with them.”

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