It seems the Detroit Lions always have a young defensive lineman on the come up. From the days of Willie Young to Ndamukong Suh and most recently Kerry Hyder, there’s always optimism regarding the future of the Lions defensive line. This year, however, was the first in recent memory where there wasn’t. With defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid Kerry Hyder sustaining a torn Achilles in the first preseason game, defensive tackle signee Jordan Hill spending the year on injured reserve with a biceps injury, and the aging Haloti Ngata sidelined by a torn pectoral muscle in Week 6, the Lions defensive front was anything but a front.
The Lions spent the season with an ugly lack of depth, and there isn’t overwhelming optimism going into next season. Ngata’s future with the Lions is still up in the air, Hill is now set to be a free agent, and Hyder may not be his former self as a torn Achilles can ruin players. That being the case, let’s take a look at potential solutions to the Lions’ lack of defensive tackle depth.
Dontari Poe is set to be a free agent this off-season, coming off a one year deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Poe has spent much of his six-year career as one the league’s most disruptive forces on the defensive line. His power and size at 346 pounds are a unique combination that makes him one of the NFL’s most consistent and effective run stoppers.
While the Lions are not going to be exclusively a 3-4 defense in Matt Patricia’s new system, they will operate in a hybrid similar to what the Patriots have done in recent years, and thus could use a big, powerful body like Poe to fill the middle of their defensive line.
Alan Branch, who was released by the New England Patriots last week, would essentially be a Haloti Ngata replacement if he came to Detroit. Sitting at 350 pounds, Branch is another big body to fill the middle and his familiarity with Matt Patricia from the last four seasons makes him more likely to be targeted.
It’s highly unlikely that the Lions would put much money into two aging veterans in Branch and Ngata, so if the Lions were to sign Branch it could spell the end of Ngata’s tenure in Detroit.
Muhammad Wilkerson signed a monster five year, $87 million deal last off-season but was cut last week as he failed to live up to expectations in year one. That’s not to say that Wilkerson is no good, however; he just wasn’t worth that large amount. He’s still a very good player who comes from a 3-4 scheme and could work with Patricia’s new defense at an affordable price if Detroit wants to give him a shot.
Vita Vea is a monster of a man and without a doubt the best defensive tackle in the draft. He weighs in excess of 340 pounds and bench pressed 41 reps at the combine, yet still moves like a defensive end. He could easily fill the nose tackle role in the Lions’ new defense, yet has the mobility to also fill a typical 4-3 defensive tackle role.
If Vea falls to 20 in the draft it should come as a surprise to no one if his name is called. No matter where he lands, however, Vea will surely make an immediate impact.
Maurice Hurst is a close second behind Vea in terms of the most talented defensive tackles in the draft. Many mock drafts had him going to the Lions prior to being diagnosed with a yet to be determined heart condition at the combine. It is expected that Hurst will still be able to play in the NFL, but his stock may fall much like the situation was with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei when he fell in the draft because of a heart condition.
As a player, Hurst is incredibly talented. Despite being somewhat undersized at roughly 295 pounds, Hurst is very powerful at the line and easily moves double and even triple teams. He combines this with a very quick step off the ball much like those of Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald.
While teams may hesitate to select Hurst early, he could be a steal if the Lions manage to snag him on Day 2 of the draft.
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