In this series, I’ll be looking at the Lions position-by-position, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and looking at what options are available in free agency. Join me again as I break down the fifth position I’ll be looking at…
The Lions’ defensive tackle spot is not particularly complicated. The strength of the team in 2014 became the weakest position on the field in a single off-season due to mismanagement and injury. The Lions just brought back Tyrunn Walker at a reasonable price after he flashed some potential as a scheme fit before his broken leg and dislocated ankle derailed him. The Lions also have third year player Caraun Reid, second year player Gabe Wright, and some guys that are there to fill camp roles. Their best starting defensive tackles from the 2015 season, Haloti Ngata is an unrestricted free agent, on the wrong side of 30. So far Bob Quinn has had an aversion to older players, but reports are that Ngata and the team are working on a deal, and both sides want to get it done.
Bob Quinn has used the words “younger and more athletic” recently to describe his plan for the Lions’ defensive line, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is limiting himself to the draft. The Lions need two starters and this year is incredibly deep at the position, but this is not a draft article (I’ll get to those after free agency opens) making that relevant only in that the deep class of rookies is likely to keep the price of upcoming free agents down. That could be a good thing for the Lions, who are looking to go from being as thin as a sheet of paper to as deep as the Marianas Trench if the new GM is to be believed. What the Lions do in the scheme at the defensive tackle spot when it’s working is a lot of stunting, and that was a huge part of what was missing from last season’s defense as Walker went down, and Ngata recovered from an early injury. The Lions use their defensive tackles to get in to the gaps between offensive linemen, and disrupt the play in the backfield, whether it be a run or pass. They need players who can play a quick penetrator’s game, more than guys who stand straight up and hold the point of attack, and trying to take guys from one style to the other is part of the huge problem that the Lions had to begin the 2015 season. This is a fairly weak position in free agency this year, making free agency a menagerie of bad scheme fits (Knighton, McLendon), old men (Mebane, Soliai), and players who are just not going to be signed by the Lions for character reasons (Fairley, Hill), which makes this list one of the harder articles to put together in this series, despite being one of the Lions’ biggest needs.
Defensive Tackle Free Agency Options:
#1 Haloti Ngata
Despite being neither young nor overly athletic, the most recent rumors point toward Ngata signing in Detroit to finish out his career. Ngata is unquestionably great against the run, holding the point of attack in a manner that defines the words “old man strength.” What impressed me most in the second half of the year though was the improved level of burst in the pass rush that he showed. As he healed from his pre-season injury, he became more and more capable of mopping up after the Lions’ pair of demons off the edge in Ansah and Taylor, and that’s one of the abilities that is key to succeeding as a defensive tackle in the Lions’ system.
#2 Henry Melton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He’s only a couple years younger than Ngata, but he is a much more athletic defensive tackle. Melton has been one of the best gap penetrating Three Techniques in the league for a long time. His price tag is likely to be as low as it’s ever been, because the Buccaneers were using him as a defensive end. That bad decision was due to their terrible roster depth at that position and their need to generate some pass rush from the outside. Not surprisingly, moving a defensive tackle to defensive end in a 4-3 defense did not generate much pass rush and Melton is coming off his lowest sack total in recent memory; just in time for the Lions to swoop in and grab a bargain. From his natural position Melton is a very disruptive guy who generates pressure on the quarterback, having topped 5 sacks in every season that he played more than three games since his rookie season prior to last year’s train wreck. The deep draft leaves guys like Melton looking at what will probably be lower deals than they are used to, making it possible that the Lions could lock up the last few years that Melton is going to be productive in the NFL for a low price tag.
#3 Ahtyba Rubin, Seattle Seahawks
Rubin has shown over his career that he shares the trait of being able to mop up after others’ work in the pass rush with Ngata, while also being a dominant player against the run. He is a big and powerful man, but not a sloppy 325lbs, I was surprised to find that his weight was that high after watching him against the Bengals, a game where he registered 4 tackles and a sack. He’s going to give you essentially what Ngata did last season on the field at a much lower price tag, but also nowhere near the locker room presence, which is a sizeable portion of the reason to sign Ngata.
#4 Abry Jones, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jones was an undrafted free agent out of Georgia, but saw action in his first season in eight games. In his second season he had 39 tackles, and three sacks as part of a terrible Jaguars Defence. Last season they brought in some reinforcements to their defensive line, and Jones was back in his rotational role, where he looked less out of place and still registered two sacks. He is a bit of a flier, and is more of a run stuffer than pass rusher by trade, not really having the fast twitch explosiveness to blow past guards at the snap, but with ample power for the role Ngata was playing last season. Jones would be a great depth signing.
#5 The pandering to the homers pick, Mike Martin, Tennessee Titans
There is no place in a 3-4 defense for a 6’1″ 298lb man, and Martin has been a square peg in a round hole for years on the Titans defense. Having ended his contract year on IR and not having a scheme fit with the team (52 snaps in 5 games), the Michigan alum seems likely to be looking for pretty much anyone to give him another shot. He could still become the 3 technique rotational rusher I believed him to be coming out, and he did show some success in that role as a rookie. At 25 years of age, and likely on a league minimum deal, Martin is a guy with an excellent risk: reward ratio. It doesn’t get better than 0: more than zero.
So there you have it, one of the lions biggest areas for improvement bumps right up against a terrible crop of free agents at the defensive tackle spot. No matter who the Lions sign, from this list or otherwise, this is one of the bigger needs that the team has going in to the draft. Most of these players don’t have a lot of time left, and the other guys are risk/reward plays with no guarantee of consistent production. Luckily this is the deepest Defensive Tackle draft class I can remember. It’s going to be fine, have some Kool-aid.