If there is one position Detroit Lions fans have expressed the most concern about, it's defensive tackle. Last year, the Lions only carried three defensive tackles on their gameday roster, and their run defense struggled mightily at times. This offseason, the only major change they made was drafting Brodric Martin in the third round, but coming from a small school, early expectations for the rookie tempered.
Regardless, coach Dan Campbell expressed a ton of confidence in that room on Sunday.
“We’ve got a group of that interior D-Line that’s showing up,” Campbell said. “I said this the other day, but our fundamentals are showing up, up front defensively and it’s making a difference with all those guys.”
The group is headed up by Alim McNeill, who dropped 20 pounds this offseason to improve his quickness and pass rush skills. And if there was any concern that McNeill may lose some of his strength with that body transformation, both McNeill and Campbell squashed it.
“He’s not lost his strength and he has more twitch,” Campbell said. “He has more twitch. You can see it. He’s getting an edge on rush and he’s just as powerful. He can anchor in there.”
Campbell also gave some praise to the Lions’ depth in Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones, but it’s been the play of Martin that has turned some early head. The rookie has been consistently getting first-team reps and on the very first play of padded practice, Martin tossed All-Pro center Frank Ragnow to the side and picked up a tackle for loss.
“There was a couple of things that showed up yesterday with him, to your point, that was encouraging, man it was encouraging,” Campbell said. “Because that’s kind of one of the next steps for him is to where you’re not—you’re thinking, you’re going through all this, that’s a good offensive line, I mean Frank and Jonah (Jackson) and those guys.”
Campbell also went out of his way to credit new defensive line coach John Scott Jr. for some of the development. Scott was hired this offseason after three seasons at Penn State to replace Todd Wash, but Campbell actually had his eye on Scott when he was crafting his initial coaching staff back in 2021. Scott had been an assistant defensive line coach for the New York Jets and apparently made an impression on Todd Bowles, the Jets' head coach at the time, and Kacy Rodgers, the team’s defensive coordinator. Campbell had worked with Bowles and Rodgers back in Miami, so their endorsement of Scott carried weight.
“They know what they’re talking about, so (Scott has) always kind of been on the radar, and that piqued my interest,” Campbell said. “Then when the opportunity came up and it’s time to hire someone for that room, I never really lost track of him. You see what he’s done out there at Penn State, and those guys they’re fundamentally at Penn State, those edge guys are – and up front, they’re on it now. They do it right and so it just felt like it was going to be a fit for us.”
Scott has his hands full with that defensive line, as it features a ton of young talent beyond Martin. Aidan Hutchinson is 22, McNeill is 23, Levi Onwuzurike is 25, Josh Paschal is 23, and James Houston is 24.
But if early camp is any indication, the Lions' defensive line is looking far more stout than in previous years. Detroit’s running game has yet to really turn things on, and Saturday’s practice was a dominant performance from the defensive front during 11-on-11 drills.
“We talk about wanting to be a great defense and it all starts with that D-Line up front,” Campbell said. “You’ve got to be able to build a wall, strike blocks, violent shed, and then when it’s time to turn it into rush, you can hit an edge and put him back into the quarterback. And those are all things that I feel like (Scott) can teach and our guys are really responding to it and working.”