Is Devin Taylor the Lions’ Defensive X-Factor in 2016?

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After having one of the best defenses in the league in 2014 the Lions regressed in 2015, largely due to the departures of All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and, to a lesser extent, Nick Fairley. Going into the season there was optimism among the fan base, with the team having traded for Haloti Ngata who had been a force in the middle of the perennially stout Ravens defense for several years. They also acquired Tyrunn Walker, who had a breakout year with the Saints, via free agency. The Lions faithful know how this story ends. Ngata’s transition from a 3-4 to an attacking 4-3 didn’t go smoothly, and Walker suffered a freak injury against the Seahawks. Heading into 2016, there’s cause for optimism yet again. Ziggy Ansah‘s emergence is a big part of that. Ngata will benefit from a second offseason in Teryl Austin’s scheme, and Tyrunn Walker should be healthy again. Sometime during the broadcast of Detroit’s first preseason game against Pittsburgh, color commentator and former Lions and Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch said that the Lions could have one of the best defensive front fours in the league this upcoming season. Obviously, the centerpiece of that group is Ziggy Ansah, who led the NFC in sacks last season with 14.5 en route to his first Pro Bowl. And despite being 32 years old, five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata still has a lot left in the tank. However, whether Detroit has a good front four or a great front four this season could be contingent on the performance of an oft-overlooked piece, Devin Taylor.

Many casual NFL fans – hell, even some Lions fans –  remember Taylor as being the victim of a ghost facemask call during the so-called Miracle in Green Bay. However, the former fourth round selection quietly had a very good year for the Lions, racking up 35 tackles and seven sacks in just his third NFL season. These numbers don’t exactly jump off the page; so many fans clamored for the Lions to use their first round selection on a pass rusher – namely, either Shaq Lawson or Kevin Dodd – to serve as the bookend opposite Ansah. (An aside: this was also the thinking that led the Texans to take Jadeveon Clowney first overall in the 2014 draft, and you see how that worked out.) However, what many people failed to consider is how Devin Taylor split snaps with Jason Jones. With that in mind, Taylor actually had a fantastic season.

In 2015, Taylor played 551 downs, or 51.7% of the Lions’ total defensive snaps, recording 35 tackles and seven sacks. In the following table, we’ll compare Taylor’s stats and snap count to that of several top flight defensive ends, and extrapolate his statistics to their snap count.

Games Snaps Tackles Sacks
Chandler Jones 15 861 44 12.5
Ezekiel Ansah 16 659 47 14.5
Cameron Jordan 16 982 45 10.0
Everson Griffen 15 863 44 10.5
Devin Taylor 15 551 35 7.0

All of these players were Pro Bowl selections at the defensive end spot in 2015. Jones played 1.56 times as many snaps, Ansah played 1.2 times as many, Jordan played 1.78 times as many, and Griffen played 1.57 times as many. Extrapolating Taylor’s statistics to those snap counts, we see that his production would have (theoretically) been on par with the likes of these players.

Tackles Sacks
Jones’ snap count 54.5 11.0
Ansah’s snap count 44.0 8.5
Jordan’s snap count 62.5 12.5
Griffen’s snap count 55.0 11.0

At Ziggy’s snap count, Devin Taylor would have logged 8.5 sacks, which would have made them a top sack tandem in the NFL with 23.0, behind just Houston’s Watt/Mercilus (29.5) and Cincinnati’s Dunlap/Atkins (24.5). Taylor’s detractors would be quick to point out that most of his snaps came during obvious pass situations, and claim therefore that his production won’t increase. However, Taylor recorded a good deal of tackles, meaning his role transcended that of a mere situational pass rusher. While it’s unrealistic to expect him to log 50-plus tackles, it’s not unrealistic to believe he can compile 40-plus tackles and 10-plus sacks. I highly doubt that his snap count will exceed Ziggy’s – at which rate he would have had 44 tackles and 8.5 sacks. But I don’t doubt that he’ll improve slightly in his fourth pro season, and could therefore produce at a similar rate even when playing more snaps. Taylor is admittedly a dark horse for a Pro Bowl bid, but ten sacks is an attainable goal for him. And if he can do that, opposing offenses will have plenty of pass rush to deal with in 2016.

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