The Detroit Lions Moves Make Sense In Context

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The Detroit Lions Have Not Made A Lot Of Big Moves This Offseason And It’s The Right Call.

No move is made in a vacuum. The Detroit Lions are almost a week into free agency and a lot of the fanbase are agitated. The Lions have not made any big splash signings. The question that needs to be asked though is: did they need to? Recall that this was a 9-7 team in 2017. They were a couple breaks from a playoff berth. That was despite a complete lack of running game. That was despite a defense that ranked poorly in almost every category that is tracked statistically but the scoreboard.

Would signing a defensive tackle for $13 million dollars have helped the team more than a $6 million pass rusher, a $4 million corner, and a $3 million linebacker? I would say no. To make sense of the moves that the Lions have made requires looking at the entire picture, rather than just one aspect of it. This is going to involve a video, a bit of reading, and then coming back here to read more of this.

Why Didn’t The Detroit Lions Sign a Defensive Tackle?

The first thing I would encourage you to do is watch the first half of this video: I apologize that NBC videos force you to turn off your ad blocker. The key takeaways from this are what Jerod Mayo, a player who spent most of a decade as the middle linebacker in this defense, has to say about the scheme. First, and most importantly, we all need to get our head around the fact that it is not a 3-4 to have any kind of productive conversation.

Second, he makes mention of two-gap defense, and how that works for a defensive lineman. First step explosion helps, but it’s far from the most important thing. A defensive lineman needs to be alert and powerful to play two-gap defense well. Third, he mentions that the two starting defensive tackles are guys that can both play two-gap or shoot one gap as required. That is the prototype you are looking for in a defensive tackle, whether it is in free agency of the draft: someone who can do both.

Muhammad Wilkerson could do it, but the second he was asked to in New York he turned into a locker room cancer and lost all productivity. He signed a deal in Green Bay to play in a Phillips 3-4 style of one gap defense under Mike Pettine, the Packers new defensive coordinator. Virtually the same story is true of Sheldon Richardson, minus the contract year. Ndamukong Suh? You guessed it, the moment he went to Miami they started asking him to two-gap occasionally. He led a players revolt that got the coaching staff fired.

In 2017, Dontari Poe left the Chiefs for a one year “show me” deal in Atlanta to prove to the NFL that he was not limited to this role, much like Wilkerson did this year. It takes a special kind of crazy person to embrace two-gap defensive line play. It’s is incredibly physically taxing.

The reason for the Lions lack of movement at this position is simple. Defensive tackles will sign in Detroit once all of the big money has dried up elsewhere, not one second before. None of the big fish want to swim in the two gap pond; not for any amount of money. There is a reason for optimism, however. A team doesn’t have to pay $13 million dollars a year to find a guy that can two-gap. That kind of money is for the dancing bears that shoot gaps. A quick 300 lb man is much harder to find than a strong 300 lb man, that’s why the quick ones cost more. That’s just a fact. It is a long offseason so relax, they’ll sign a couple guys you’ve never heard of that can do the job, and everything will be fine.

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About Those Linebackers

Tahir Whitehead was never coming back unless he took a huge discount. Jarrad Davis was drafted specifically to replace Whitehead. Their skill sets are not exact, but the end result at this point is. Both are prone to getting caught up in traffic against the run, and both struggle to be in the right place at the right time in coverage. Whitehead’s limitations are physical, however, while Davis’ limitations are experience related. Jerod Mayo said it above, The middle linebacker needs to “make the defensive lineman right” not get caught up in traffic. The Lions are betting that their 2017 first-round pick will figure it out with better coaching. That is not a bad bet.

Christian Jones is an upgrade over Paul Worrliow in every imaginable way. He is a better open-field tackler, which was Worrilow’s only above average trait. He is faster, more agile, and lighter on his feet. Most importantly, he doesn’t go dead like an untended marionette at the top of his zone drops. The most impressive game of the three I watched from him last year was against Carolina. Jones was matched up with Christian McCaffery as though both teams had schemed to isolate the two all week. McCaffery had seven carries for 10 yards. That was a communal effort by the Bears defense, but a large part was the tackling of Jones. McCaffery had seven receptions for 51 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per catch, and that was almost entirely because of Jones. He removed his opponent from the game.

Jones has average play strength and uses his length to keep blockers from latching on more than he traditionally stacks and sheds. The Lions biggest need last season was to develop a linebacker corp that wasn’t victimized in coverage. The Carolina game showed just how badly the Lions had failed. Christian Jones is better in coverage than any linebacker the Lions had last year. He insulates the Lions from needing Jalen Reeves-Maybin to step up in a big way to start the season. The second-year player may do so, but the team is not screwed if he does not.

Devon Kennard plays a role that no linebacker on the 2017 roster could. He plays the role that Kyle Van Noy was drafted to play, but Teryl Austin stopped using after 2014. Kennard will fill the role described in this article. He is a player that allows the defense to completely change formations without changing personnel. Without adding or removing players the Lions defense can switch from a two gap 3-3-5 to a single gap 4-2-5 between plays, or even line up in one but at the snap be playing the other. Any offensive lineman reading this knows what a nightmare that is to prepare for. For the rest of you, I will go into a little detail.

The blocking scheme of an offense is predicated on two things. Where your opponent’s front seven are likely to be lined up, and what your opponent’s front seven are likely to be doing. The first question asked of the person putting that together is how many linemen there will be. The second question is whether they are playing one gap or two gap defense. In the Lions new defensive scheme, the answer to both questions is effectively: “I don’t know.” The Patriots had the worst front seven personnel in football last year. They still stopped people from scoring at will with a solid secondary and an unpredictable front. In the Superbowl, they just ran into an equally creative offense.

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Why Didn’t the Lions Sign a Top Tier Pass Rusher?

They did. His name is Ziggy Ansah, you may have heard of him. The blocking schemes that teams were able to utilize on a weekly basis against Ansah were ridiculous. The rest of the Lions defensive line was so inept at rushing the passer that teams always used two blockers, and often had a third on standby. Ziggy would beat tackles cold, only to have a running back hit him in the side and not bother to run a pattern. He was just there to slow Ziggy down. Ansah would cleanly beat a tackle with a spectacular inside move, and find the guard there with no other assignment but waiting for just that.

The Lions need to support Ansah, not replace him. There were no better options in free agency anyway, only cheaper options. Vinny Curry signed for $9m and hasn’t topped 3.5 sacks in four seasons. Adrian Clayborn signed for $6m and he had one good game. The rest of his career is 24 sacks in 80 games. He has a 5 sack per 16 games played pace. Do you think he’s the six-sack in one game player or the guy that showed up for the other 80 games?  Eighty to one are not odds you bet on.

The Lions secondary pass rush will come from Kennard, Zettel, and a returning Kerry Hyder. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016. Zettel had 6.5 sacks in 2017. There is a pretty good chance the team will also draft another guy for that room. They are interviewing highly touted pass rushers like Harold Landry and Lorenzo Carter at every opportunity.

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The Detroit Lions Are All But Done in Free Agency

To put it bluntly, they don’t have the cap space to make big long-term moves. Justin Rodgers did the math. The Lions are at $15.4 million remaining. I can already see people telling me that the Lions can work contracts to fit the first year into any salary cap number they want, as though that’s something I don’t know. The problem with that is that the Lions have done that repeatedly for the last two years under Bob Quinn. Next year is when we get to see the downside of doing that.

T.J. Lang had a salary cap hit of under $6 million last year on a contract that has an average value of $9.5 million. In 2019 his salary cap number is nearly $12 million. Rick Wagner’s five-year deal had an average cap hit of 9.5 million. The first two seasons came in at $5.9 million each. Next year is when that increases to $11.9 million for the rest of the contract. Nevin Lawson‘s salary cap number jumps. Theo Riddick‘s salary cap number has gone from $1.8 million in the first year of his extension to over $4 million. Jones and Kennard also get raises next season. Bob Quinn has spent money to improve and maintain the roster. Next year is when the bill comes due.

The Lions likely have about $40 million or so remaining in salary cap space for 2019, plus whatever they carry over from 2018. With that money, they need to replace Golden Tate and Ziggy Ansah. Re-signing them, or bringing in replacement level players would cost a minimum of $25 million. There are eight other Lions who will likely make the roster that are also impending free agents. To fill those ten roster spots, the Lions will have $15 million plus their 2018 carry over. Any long-term deals they sign now cut into both that cap space and the current $15.4 million carry over. Particularly big deals likely mean losing Tate or Ansah.

It is possible that you would rather have Ndamukong Suh or Johnathan Hankins than one of those two Lions players. Bob Quinn, however, isn’t you, and Matt Patricia doesn’t run a defense that favors those players. Quinn will try to replace both of his impending free agents in the upcoming draft. That would allow him to use their 2019 cap allotment elsewhere. He knows that there are no guarantees he will be able to do so, or that the players he chooses will be ready in one year. There is no big deal coming. There should not be any big deal coming. Every fan likes the splash signings. The truth of this year is that the Detroit Lions did not need to make noise in free agency. They only needed to plug a few holes.

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Quinn Can Fill The Remaining Holes in the Draft

There are no less than ten prospects at the defensive tackle position in this draft who will be capable day one two-gap players. There are a similar number of interior offensive linemen who could step in and immediately contribute for the Lions. Any of the first four rounds could yield a starter at either position. Immediate pass rush help is a little more scarce, but there are many likely candidates to be productive in their second or third season and the Lions are meeting with all of them. LeGarrette Blount filled the lead running back role for the time being. Everything is fine.

Want to rip me a new one? I’m pretty easy to find. @a5hcrack on twitter and over on the Lions subreddit.

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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.