Retooling the Detroit Lions Defense

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Dan Campbell has said that he doesn’t think the Lions are as far from competing as many think. Ash Thompson agrees.


The Detroit Lions’ new GM and head coach have been consistent in their marketing message. “This is not a long-term rebuild” they are telling us, “this is a retool.” The team will not be committing a fire sale of all assets to gather all of the draft capital they can, so you can ignore any analysis that starts there. Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell are going to improve the team as much as they can and build that way. Many of those national media pundits who haven’t actually watched a Lions game outside Thanksgiving since the first week of Matt Patricia‘s run with the team will tell you that this is a bad idea. They might be right, but you’re wasting your time reading about a future that’s never coming. They can discuss trading Matthew Stafford all they want, but that’s the beginning of a full rebuild, not a retool. Holmes and Campbell have not said Matthew Stafford will be back directly, but everything else they’ve said leads to that conclusion.

The Lions’ list of offensive needs is a pretty short one. They need wide receivers. They need a lot of them. All they have under contract is last year’s covid-19 opt-out Geronimo Allison and fifth-round rookie Quintex Cephus. They have a pro-bowl caliber tight end and quarterback (when he’s healthy), a pretty good offensive line, and a rookie who had over 1000 yards from scrimmage despite the former head coach’s old running back fetish. The defense, however, needs some serious “retooling” if that’s the vernacular we’re using. The 2020 Detroit Lions defense was worse than the 2008 group in almost every statistical category. With that said, the group of players was nowhere near as bad. That leads me to believe that with a better coaching staff, one that appears to be dedicated to letting players do what they’re good at rather than molding them into what the system needs, there might be some salvageable pieces. So I am going to go position by position and see what the Lions actually have for their new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn to work with.

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The Lions Defensive Line

Matt Patricia’s defense was all about big, powerful guys up front. The Saints ran a scheme that relied on getting upfield quickly. The good news for Lions fans is that a lot of the players Bob Quinn brought in are actually better at getting up the field than clogging space. That is part of why Patricia’s defense was so terrible. All year, the Lions’ best option was to line up in a 4-2 front, but they insisted on utilizing a 3-3 for most of the season.

The one exception is Danny Shelton. Despite how badly the Lions defensive line looked, Shelton is the only guy in the group who just is not a good fit for doing anything else. He also has a big cap number. The Lions save $4 million by moving on from Shelton, and they will likely do so. But if they do not, Shelton’s role in the new defense is likely a 30% of snaps in short-yardage and goalline situations. They can likely fill that role with a league minimum free agent or a rookie.

John Penisini is the Lions 1 technique of the future. Penisini was the Lions best penetrating defensive tackle last season, despite having been their stoutest defender in the middle as well. It’s early in Penisini’s career to just anoint him a starter, but he is the Lion most likely to fill this role. He would likely either split time with Shelton, or with a newcomer if the Lions need Shelton’s cap space elsewhere, but Penisini looks like a starter to this point.

The 3 technique spot is interesting. It didn’t really exist in Patricia’s defense so it is the hardest spot to project.  Rushing the passer and getting into the backfield is what Nick Williams did for the Bears. The 3 tech spot is probably actually his best schematic fit. He’s powerful enough, but his quick first step is his calling card as a player. He’s no Ndamukong Suh, but Williams can be a functional player in the NFL at this position. They could likely bring in a decent placeholder for the $4.7 million they would save by cutting Williams, but the guy they have will likely be better in this role than he was last season. This is also the natural fit for Da’Shawn Hand. If he can stay healthy, and this is a much less physically punishing role than it was in Matt Patricia’s system, Hand could be a solid rotational piece.

Trey Flowers is a solid left defensive end in the league. He will be fine in a more aggressive defense that gives him simplified responsibilities. In fact, he would likely see an uptick in sack numbers if he was asked to play a less restrictive role where he could just get after it on the edge. The opposite side is a problem. Romeo Okwara is the best option for the right defensive end, but he is a free agent. If this thought experiment is to be competitive next season, it may be necessary to franchise tag the elder Okwara brother, because Julian is not someone the Lions should be counting on immediately. The year before Quinn handed Romeo’s job to Trey Flowers, 2018, Okwara had 7.5 sacks. Backing up Flowers that number dropped to 1.5 in 2019. When Okwara got back on the field more consistently with Flowers’ 2020 injury, Romeo, a career journeyman, had 10 sacks. He’s 25 years old and coming off a career year at a position where 25-year-old players coming off double-digit sack seasons do not ever hit the open market. I can name you ten reasonable free agent replacements for Kenny Golladay, I can’t name one for Romeo Okwara. If anyone gets franchise tagged in 2021, it needs to be Okwara. Austin Bryant would get his last chance to be a player backing up Flowers. The Saints will not be able to retain Trey Hendrickson, who logged 14.5 sacks this year, but on the open market, spending for Hendrickson will exceed Okwara on the transition tag significantly.

So your D-line depth chart looks like this without adding players:

LDE: Tery Flowers, Austin Bryant

3 Tech: Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand

1 Tech: John Penisini, Danny Shelton

RDE: Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara

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The Detroit Lions Linebackers

Basically, the Lions have a bunch of guys who can play the strong-side linebacker position in this defense. Jamie Collins is the starter, his backup is Christian Jones, though if they did not add anyone Jones would probably be the Middle linebacker. Jahlani Tavai is also only really an option for the strong-side linebacker spot, so those three men are likely fighting for two positions on the roster. This is a pretty bleak scenario because the strong side linebacker only plays about 40% of the snaps in a scheme like this.

The Lions’ own free agents may be their saviors immediately. Jarrad Davis looked like a real player the last time he was playing in a system similar to what the Saints ran last year. He’s not the pro bowl player we all hoped he would be, but if he could shed the weight he gained at Patricia’s behest, Davis could regain some of his lost athleticism and make plays as the weakside linebacker. Dan Campbell went on the radio talking about the players on the defense that he liked and of Davis he said: “He will literally split your chin and knock your hat off.” I’ll assume for this depth chart that he begins in the middle. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a capable backup for that spot, something he was not for any spot in Patricia’s scheme because he is not the most powerful guy. Myles Killebrew has also been a man with no position aside from special teams in Patricia’s scheme, but this is also where he fits on defense.

The Lions desperately need a three-down middle linebacker. If they drafted a player for the role in the first couple rounds of the draft they would likely have it by the middle of next year. There are a bunch of pretty good linebacker prospects in the draft, and it is a position that often produces a defensive rookie of the year out of the second round. Mikah Parsons is the athletic phenom and possible at pick seven, but he hasn’t played since 2019, so asking him to start day one as the QB of the defense might not yield immediate results. Davis has done that job before for a decent team, and a midseason role swap could be a reasonable plan for 2021, letting Parsons work his way back into playing shape. Your Nickel linebackers are likely Collins and Davis to start the year. The Lions need linebacker help, we all know this. This is a good linebacker class in the draft and off-ball linebackers are usually reasonably priced. The Saints Kwon Alexander is a guaranteed cap casualty, and Alex Anzalone is a free agent that the Lions could easily outspend the Saints on. Athletic linebackers are back on the menu in Detroit. Pick your players in mock drafts accordingly. They’re all full up on the big slow guys.

Here is your linebacker group in the Saints defensive scheme.

SLB: Jamie Collins, Jalani Tavai

MLB: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones

WLB: someone, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Myles Killebrew

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The Detroit Lions Secondary

The Lions young corner duo of Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye are both fine fits for what Glenn is going to do in the secondary. They’re not Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore, but they’re good players who are still working their way into being a finished product. Glenn is certainly not going to bail on them. The Lions will also likely bet on Desmond Trufant to stay healthy in 2021. He has a $12 million cap hit, but he only saves the Lions $6 if they cut him ($9 million if they can trade him). However, that leaves them with no depth at a key position for winning in the NFL. The Lions outside corner group was bad in 2020, but Okudah had an abdominal injury for the entire season before he finally had surgery and went on IR, and Trufant was on and off the injury list all year before also going on IR to close the season. The Lions can not get a better player for the $6m they’d save by cutting Trufant, but the $9m they would save on a trade could go a long way toward helping the Saints unload one of those two corners I mentioned above.

If the Saints were willing to unload Lattimore, his just over $10m cap hit would be largely covered by a Trufant trade. Lattimore has one year left on his deal, but the Lions would happily pay up for a top tier long term deal. They’d likely save cap space in the first year of the deal by doing so. That would cost the number seven overall pick, probably Oruwariye (a cheap and decent cornerback to fill the void), and a bit more future draft capital, but it would set the Lions up extremely well for the future at corner with Lattimore and Okudah. Jenkins clears $7 million off the books for the Saints and would cost the Lions only $15 million for the next two years. Jenkins was an example used by Holmes in a 2019 interview about players with “Superpowers” that made them stand out in the draft process. He started his career as a Ram while Holmes was scouting for the team. This is an easy connection to make and the Saints cap situation makes it likely to cost almost nothing, a future seventh-round pick could be the price for a corner who still has the goods. It is very likely that the Saints will need to ditch one or both for pennies on the dollar to get under the salary cap this season.

At Nickel, it is difficult to imagine the Lions hanging on to Justin Coleman. He is a very good zone nickel, and not a very good man nickel. The Saints coverage scheme involved a lot of cover two man. Coleman is not a good fit, he’s been hurt a lot, and moving on saves the Lions $5 million. They need to figure out if they can find a better nickel corner in the draft or free agency. I suspect they’ll conclude that they need that $5 million elsewhere. Mike Ford is a restricted free agent and a decent special teams player. I’ll call him a part of the team as I did with Okwara.

At Safety, the Lions really only have Tracy Walker worth holding on to. Last year they moved him from a free safety role to a strong safety and nickel combo role that is basically the opposite of his skill set. The Saints cover two scheme would let Walker do what he does best most often by helping over the top on half of the field. Will Harris has shown no indicators that he would be good in this role, but right now he would be the starter opposite Walker CJ Moore is the third guy, and when pressed into action he’s been a fine backup safety. The Lions need to acquire a starter and several depth players, but there is hope.

Marcus Williams is a stud at safety and the Saints can’t keep him for the same reasons as all of the players I listed above. Safeties are cheap relative to some other positions, so nailing down this spot on the back end could be cheaper than trying to acquire a veteran corner. Williams has 13 interceptions in his four seasons with the Saints, and playing the same role he did, under the secondary coach who trained him, could make this the next Glover Quinn type of signing for the Lions. Good, and not prohibitively expensive. The Saints’ secondary was very good, the Lions’ new DC was their position coach, and the Saints are going to have to get rid of some talented players. Helping out their old coaches may be a factor in how difficult it is for the Lions to acquire some of these players.

CB1: Jeff Okudah, Ford

CB2: Desmond Trufant, Amani Oruwariye

Nickel: Coleman, someone

S1: Tracy Walker, C.J. Moore

S2: Will Harris, Godwin Igwebuike

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What do the Detroit Lions Need to Add on Defense to Compete?

So basically the Lions need desperately to add a couple of linebackers, even if they do hold on to Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. They should have been playing Davis and Collins in nickel situations all year, but their maddening reliance on three down linemen and Collins for a pass rush all year kept someone like Tavai, Ragland, or Jones one on one with a more athletic player every down. If they don’t find a way to keep those two players, they could realistically spend all five picks they have in the 2021 draft on linebackers and have every single one make the team over what they have alongside Collins.

On the defensive line, these players actually fit a one-gap four-man scheme better than they did the two-gap three-man monstrosity the Lions trotted out to failure every week in 2020. When Dan Campbell talks about not refusing to come off a scheme that isn’t working but instead letting players do what they do well, this is a prime example of what the Lions should have been doing all season. Their best 11 guys involved a 4-2 alignment all season without a shadow of a doubt. After the acquisition of Everson Griffen, it became undeniably true, but the Lions still insisted on playing one of their pass rushers as a stand-up linebacker in coverage at times. Not doing dumb crap (an academic term I picked up at school) like that will go a long way toward respectability for this defense.

The Lions’ secondary is a good safety away from being fine. They were expected to be the strength of the team in 2020, and if they’d mixed their coverages better, disguised their coverages at all, not had their top 3-4 corners legitimately injured almost every week, or provided any kind of pass rush at all, the Lions would have been fine in the secondary. Not every player is going to survive the offseason in all likelihood, but there are four corners who belong in the NFL and at least one starting safety currently on the Lions roster.

The Saints cap situation makes it possible for the Lions to make some aggressive moves to acquire good players who speak Aaron Glenn’s language. They are obviously not going to be able to con the Saints out of all their talent at budget prices and sign all of their free agents to port over an intact successful defense, but two or three of those players could take this team a significant distance toward respectability. Add Williams at safety and Anzalone at linebacker to the Lions’ current roster, and this team is where it needs to be in order to be average. Add a couple of rookies that can contribute right away, Holmes specialty, and they could be a good defense in the not too distant future. Whether the Lions free agents like Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin have any interest in staying with the team that has wasted three years of their careers trying to turn them into something they are not is an entirely different question.

I know Lions fans are more than a little bit jaded when it comes to a coaching staff bringing over players who know their scheme. We just watched a 9-7 team turn into a 5-11 team by adhering to the mantra of “scheme fits.” the Saints players I used are just easy examples. In free agency this year, there will be a lot of players taking shirt deals at low prices to get to free agency after the effect of the 2020 revenue hit is offset by the new TV deals after the 2022 season. If you don’t want Saints, it is not as though an analogous talent to Alex Anzalone is incredibly difficult to find.

The Salary cap issue for the Saints is real, and they’ll have to make moves they really do not want to make after they went absolutely all in to try and get Drew Brees one more Superbowl. This could be an opportunity for the Lions brass to do better than dumpster diving at the old team’s facility looking for pink slips. Doing so is likely the key to becoming a respectable franchise quickly.

Ash Thompson is a substitute teacher in Canada. He does what he can to point out really obvious things to the Lions but they rarely listen to him. He’s liking what he hears from the latest group of folks to come in and try to revitalize his favorite sports franchise. He also does Vlogs for the DLP youtube channel you can find HERE. If you want to talk Lions in a civil manner with Ash, and more importantly Chris, Case, the Rizz, or Sandman, a dollar a month to the Patreon HERE gets you access to the most intelligent Lions chat on the internet. His Twitter account does not stick to sports, and he doesn’t want you to follow him, but he’s not going to block you if you go to the trouble of finding it.

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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.