Surprise Lions Breakout Player Candidates for 2016

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Who is going to come out of nowhere this season? It seems like every year there is a guy who did nothing last year, may have done nothing for a couple years since he was drafted, but after some seasoning and time with NFL level coaching and off-season training programs he’s ready. This is a player like Devin Taylor, a guy that a lot of pundits didn’t even have on their listed 53-man roster predictions last year, but who put up 7 sacks and took Jason Jones’ job in the second half of last season. This is a player like Nevin Lawson who stepped in after three injuries for players who had been more highly regarded and solidified the outside corner spot across from Darius Slay during the second half of 2015. A guy like Theo Riddick in 2014, who came from nowhere as an unused third wheel and put up play after play coming out of the backfield to save the offense. Riddick could very well be considered the most important player on the 2014 offense apart from Golden Tate, given the poor performances that the offensive players put up in the 2014 season. Riddick saved four or more games that season for the Lions. The question is, who is the Lions’ breakout player this year?

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TJ Jones is the Obvious Choice to be the Lions Breakout Player

TJ Jones is the candidate of the hype machine and it is not hard to see why. He is an explosive player who was extremely limited by nerve damage as a rookie, losing his entire season, then less so as a second year player. It’s not hard to see the opportunity before him, as a smooth athlete, who has been regarded as a good route runner since his college days and had good hands before his injury. If the Lions end up in a formation with Marvin and TJ Jones on the outside, Golden Tate in the slot, with Ebron and Riddick on the field in a two minute offense, they’re going to convert a lot of opportunities to score. He gives a good interview, so reporters like him, and while there isn’t a huge sample size he apparently looks good in OTAs . The guy was even Matthew Stafford‘s pick to be the Lions breakout player of 2016 and in the event of an injury to either Golden Tate or Marvin Jones, he will almost assuredly get the first crack at replacing them on the outside. Despite all that; I’m just not sold that he’s the guy this year that’s going to be the surprising difference maker, if you could even call it a surprise anymore.

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OK Smart Guy, Who is Going to Be The Lions Breakout Player?

I’ll give you two, and they play the same position. It’s an extremely underused position that was almost entirely eliminated from the Lions scheme last year after having been one of the most disruptive spots on the 2014 Lions defense. Those two names are Kyle Van Noy and Brandon Copeland. A lot is being made of the fact that the Lions didn’t really go out and restock the defensive end position, despite losing one of their starters at the position in Jason Jones. Sure they went out and picked up Wallace Gilberry, a veteran player who will give you a less expensive version of Jones, and they did draft a player in the sixth round that very well may turn out to be more than a good story, in Anthony Zettell. The Lions did have a young player step up last season in some big games when they were desperate to have anyone not named Ansah play well on the line in Devin Taylor, but I think there is a possibility that the Lions go a different route in 2016 to generate some pass rush. I suspect that Taylor, quite frankly a freak of nature in his own right and worthy of a spot standing beside Ansah as a physical phenom, will swap shifts shifts with Ansah being moved inside on passing downs, and we will see more of the alignment that absolutely wrecked offenses in 2014.

DeAndre Levy’s coverage abilities allowed the Lions to cheat a little bit in terms of personnel groupings in 2014. They did not need to bring in a defensive back to handle “match-up nightmare” tight ends, Levy took care of it. In 2015, the biggest change the Lions made in the second half of the season was not relying on their linebackers to be DeAndre Levy, realizing firstly that there are a few special linebackers that can cover well enough to get away with that, and secondly Travis Lewis, or Josh Bynes, while adequate coverage linebackers, were no direct substitute for Levy. With this realization, the Lions completely abandoned a specific personnel package that had generated incredible pressure on the quarterback, or destroyed running plays in the backfield virtually every time it was unleashed. The formation is simply a slight shift of the linemen to one side or the other, and a shift of the linebackers to the opposite side. The outside linebacker on the side that the defensive linemen shifted away from moves up to the line of scrimmage. I fully expect the fully stocked linebacker core to return to using this as a look that messes with opposing offenses, as with two shifts is where the players in the front seven are standing, the defense has effectively gone from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look without changing personnel, this is called 4-3 “under” defense. If you want to read about the specifics of this formation, click here. The return of a completely unused but extremely effective pressure concept is why these two are the best candidates to be the Lions breakout player in 2016.

Why Kyle Van Noy Will Be The Lions Breakout Player

Kyle Van Noy was drafted to play this role; a preseason injury, and frankly the surprising emergence of Tahir Whitehead in 2014 as the Lions’ starting strong side linebacker, kept him from making an impact in his draft year. The drastic change in personnel forced the Lions to move away from this formation last season, as their linebackers and interior linemen proved to be unable to generate the pressure, or provide the coverage that this formation needs to be successful. That left Kyle Van Noy as a player without a position in the Lions’ defense, as his bread and butter is as a rusher off the edge who can drop in to zone coverage well enough to make some plays by being where he is not expected to be. He was supposed to play the role in the Lions defense that Bruce Irvin has played in those dominant Seattle Seahawks defenses, who utilize this formation frequently as well.

Two factors lead me to believe that Van Noy may be due to be the unexpected Lions breakout player of 2016. The first is that DeAndre Levy has returned, giving the Lions a player who can handle the additional coverage responsibilities that an offense can heap on the weak side linebacker in this formation; his presence on the field is the key to this formation. The second is that the defensive line is back to being an athletic group that will be able to apply pressure quickly enough to prevent the quarterback from taking advantage of the match up of Levy on a wide receiver that is often created. Without Levy, and without pressure in the quarterback’s face, the San Diego game last year is an excellent example of what a Lions defense utilizing this concept looks like. Phillip Rivers had a field day because the pressure wasn’t getting there, and his underneath receivers were able to exploit being covered by lesser linebackers for the entire second half. It wasn’t that this is a bad concept, it was that a lot of pressure was being put on people that were not up to the task.

Why Brandon Copeland Will Be The Lions Breakout Player

Brandon Copeland was a defensive end in college who got the tag as a tweener coming out of Penn, bounced around for a couple seasons, and dropped weight for the veteran combine in 2015 to put up the best numbers he could. The result was that he found a job with the Lions as a special teams player and back up strong side linebacker, but that seems like a long shot to ever work for him. He ran in to two problems, the first being that he had never played 4-3 outside linebacker, and the second being that the Lions barely bothered to have a strong side linebacker on the field in 2015 for the reasons I have listed for Van Noy not really having an opportunity to play last year even if he had excelled. If your linebackers can’t cover  tight ends and underneath receivers, you have to play nickel the majority of the time in the NFL, and this type of player won’t see the field in a linebacker role. Copeland has bulked back up to his college weight, he’s returned to being the six feet 3 inch, 260lbs monster that tore up the Ivy League, and assuming that that’s something the organization wanted, Brandon Copeland very well could be the player filling the situational pass rusher role. For those of you with short memories, George Johnson and Devin Taylor were the players in that spot for the Lions in 2014 and 2015. They would be strong candidates for being named the surprise Lions breakout player for those seasons. Looking at his college tape I have to say that while a 4-3 linebacker role is something he has the athleticism to pull off, defensive end was a natural fit for Copeland. In fact, putting a player with Copeland’s blend of athleticism and size in that role opens up all kinds of zone blitz options to confuse other teams, something the Lions did a lot with Ansah and Taylor last season when they were having trouble getting pressure with the base defense. Whether they’re putting him back in his natural role, or having him fill the strong side linebacker spot in 4-3 under formations to apply as much pressure on the backfield as possible, I would not bet against Brandon Copeland making an impact this season.

So there you have my picks for the surprise Lions breakout player of 2015. I don’t think that the fan base or media are really hyping these guys at this point, but I’d be curious to see where and how these two players are being deployed as OTAs and training camp go forward. If you see Brandon Copeland coming off the edge in the second half of the first preseason game, and he’s costing some poor stone footed seventh round pick their spot at another team’s camp by running around the poor kid like he wasn’t even there, remember who told you it was coming. If you see Van Noy on the line of scrimmage outside the tight end, stunting with Ziggy to leave the big man blocked by a running back while Devin Taylor drops in to coverage on the other side of the field, remember who told you it was going to happen that way. And if none of that happens, well you can find me on /r/detroitlions and tell me what an idiot I am.


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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.