In the last installment in the training camp prep series, we examined the Lions’ defensive line philosophy and scheme. We also looked at a very talented but thin group of defensive tackles.
This time out, we’ll see what the Lions have at defensive end. As usual, you can refer to my handy, dandy depth chart as a reference.
Some Historical Perspective
The year was 2010. The Lions had signed unrestricted free agent DE Kyle Vanden Bosch to a four-year contract and drafted DT Ndamukong Suh with the second pick overall.
The Lions also acquired DT Corey Williams, plus a 2010 seventh round draft pick in a trade with Cleveland for a 2010 fifth round pick. The Lions used that seventh round pick on DE Willie Young.
During training camp, the Lions traded a sixth round pick in the 2011 draft for DE Lawrence Jackson.
These 2010 acquisitions, along with returning veteran DE43 Cliff Avril and DT43s Sammie Lee Hill and Andre Fluellen, formed the core of the defensive line for three years.
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley was added to the mix in 2011, and OLB34 Ronnell Lewis was a fourth round pick in 2012 who was converted to DE43.
A decent group up front was expected to be the dominating D-line that Lions fans had long anticipated. But according to stats provided by NFL.com, the Lions’ defense slipped in league rankings in sacks, run defense and scoring defense in 2011 and dipped even further in 2012.
While the defensive line cannot be held solely to blame for slumping in 2012, it became clear that after a 4-12 season some changes were in order.
This year, the Lions didn’t offer a contract to veteran UFAs Jackson or Vanden Bosch. DE43 Avril was allowed to sign with Seattle as an unrestricted free agent.
Head coach Jim Schwartz needed bigger and faster DE43s with which he could replenish his defense and fully realize the potential of the Wide 9 alignment that was successful during his tenure as the Titans’ defensive coordinator.
I subscribe to this astute analysis by our own Blue in Greer, who wrote (and I paraphrase): "That’s why you will see more of a Wide Half 9. There have been times when the Titans were a dominant defense, and those were times when the Titans had some bigger Des. Think Kevin Carter, David Ball or—get this—Jason Jones."
In free agency, the Lions targeted the Seahawks’ Jason Jones, the Bears’ Israel Idonije and claimed Braylon Broughton off waivers from New Orleans.
The Lions didn’t play it safe in the draft either. They drafted huge, athletic DE43s in Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah (fifth overall) and spent a fourth round pick on Devin Taylor, who we'll get to in a moment.
Returning only two defensive ends from last year’s roster (Young and Lewis) sure feels like 2010 again, doesn’t it?
The Lions will likely keep five defensive ends on the roster as is their customary practice under Schwartz.
Two will be speed-burning athletes that the Lions like for the strong-side LDE position.
Two will be RDEs, where the Lions like more physicality than speed. At least that’s how the roles seem to be defined by the personnel used in Detroit’s base defensive sets since 2010.
This seems counterintuitive to me. In a standard 4-3 defense, you usually see the speediest DE43s on the weak-side, or the QB’s blind side—at RDE. The Lions played Avril and Young at LDE in mostly the seven-tech (lined up outside the TE). Jackson and Vanden Bosch played the Wide 9 tech at RDE.
If anyone can educate me in why the Lions would adopt this approach, please do. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
The fifth DE43 will contribute primarily as a special teams player. It wouldn’t surprise me if a second, or even a third, DE is tapped for special teams duties in addition to being a member of the rotation. The athleticism of the group makes this possible.
The Lions like to utilize “hybrid” DE/DTs who play RDE on first and second downs, then kick inside on third down or nickel sets. This allows the Lions to maintain fewer defensive linemen, especially at defensive tackle.
Kicking a RDE inside on third down relieves the DTs who, as a group, are spread pretty thin.
Here, for our consideration, are the Lions’ defensive ends. As usual, stats will be provided by ProFootballFocus.com Premium Stats (subscription required) unless otherwise specified.
The Southfield Lathrup, Mich., product is entering his sixth NFL season. Jones is a DE/DT hybrid who will play RDE on first and second downs, then kick inside to DT on third down or nickel sets, depending on down-and-distance.
Jones, a converted TE at 6’5” and 275 pounds will ably fill the hybrid role for the Lions. According to SI.com, Jones clocked in at a 4.79 forty at his 2008 NFL combine.
Nowhere in my research do I see Jones’ arm length, but my eyeballs tell me that they are more than 36 inches, a must for the new Detroit prototype DE43s.
Young is listed at 6’4” and 251 pounds on the Lions' roster. This is probably 20 pounds lighter than his actual weight.
He’s a fourth-year veteran who the Lions slapped a second-round tender on as a restricted free agent ($2 million). Young chose not to test the open market this year and signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million.
A “show me” contract.
During the Lions’ 2010 training camp, the rookie looked miscast as a DE. He looked to me to be better suited at OLB on a roster where the linebacker corps was extremely unsettled and under-manned.
Young saw only seven snaps in 2010 (all at LDE) but notched two QB pressures as a designated situational pass rusher.
Young’s diet, along with his strength and conditioning program, added 20 pounds of muscle for 2011. Young platooned largely at LDE, where he recorded four sacks over 246 snaps. He also played 28 undistinguished snaps at RDE.
In 2012, the Lions wanted more physicality out of Young, who was soft against the run. He looked sensational in non-contact drills during training camp and had a productive preseason.
Then, inexplicably, Young disappeared during the regular season. In 337 snaps at LDE, Young recorded zero sacks, nine QB pressures and only 12 total tackles.
This points out the futility in our assessing defensive linemen prior to preseason games.
Whatever the reasons, Young has something to prove this season if he wants to remain a Lion, especially at LDE, where he will face some stiff competition from...
Prior to the 2013 Senior Bowl, “Ziggy” Ansah was little more than a curiosity as a huge, insanely athletic but extremely raw defensive end prospect.
Ansah’s Senior Bowl week was a real eye-popper that sent me scurrying to his 13 BYU game films from 2012, where he seemed quite overwhelmed while the coaching staff tried to find a position where this 6’6”, 270-pound former track athlete could contribute.
Over Ansah’s first eight games, he simply didn’t look like a football player as a DT, DE or OLB. Then, the BYU staff concentrated on Ansah’s LDE techniques. Over the remaining five games of 2012, Ansah was a force.
"Ziggy" had found a home at LDE as his YouTube highlights testify.
For all of his tantalizing potential, we don’t know for certain how Ansah will respond in his rookie campaign in the NFL. The prospects, however, are very exciting.
It’s been a strange year for free-agent DE pass-rushers on the wrong side of 30 years of age. John Abraham (35) is still looking for a home. Idonije (32) languished on the market until coming to terms with Detroit for one year June 25.
Despite recording 20.5 sacks over the past three years as a starter, Izzy found himself on a Bears team with a new front office and a salary cap squeeze that was even more crushing than that of the Lions.
Idonije (6’6”, 275 lbs) has played every technique and every position on the Bears defensive line during former head coach Lovie Smith’s nine-year run in Chicago. He gained or lost 20 pounds whenever called upon to do so and acquitted himself admirably in every role asked of him.
Nothing splashy, mind you, but Idonije was very solid in every technique.
Izzy has the well-earned reputation as a high character, high motor player who was a run stuffing LDE opposite RDE Julius Peppers in the Bears' more traditional RDE/LDE roles in a 4-3 defense.
Idonije was effectively used as a nickel pass-rushing DT. We will see him work at the RDE position, platooning with Jones, and inside on some third down situations.
Izzy’s special teams contributions have come in the form of blocked field goals and extra points. In three consecutive games in 2007 (according to Wikipedia) Idonije blocked three kicks. He's even played the gunner role on kickoffs. A nice portfolio of skills.
Idonije’s new comic book, The Protectors, makes its debut in September.
The other tidbit that I can report with complete confidence is that Chicago Bears fans are not happy to be facing Idonije twice a year.
At South Carolina all eyes were upon DE Jadeveon Clowney, who was so dominating in 2012 that he’s the consensus favorite to become the first draft pick overall in next year’s draft—as an underclassman.
Taylor’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed as a three-year starter for the Gamecocks. According to cfbstats.com, Taylor made 45 total tackles (8.5 TFL) and notched three sacks but batted down an amazing six pass attempts in 2012.
Taylor checks in at 6’7” and 266 pounds. Having 36” arms and huge hands are a plus. Taylor’s 4.72 speed gives him the opportunity to run down all but the fleetest of quarterbacks.
Taylor plays hard through the whistle and can provide a nice speed option on third down at RDE, opposite Ansah.
Tune in to Taylor’s highlights here.
The Lions will work Taylor at LDE along with Ansah, but I expect him to see heavy use on special teams until an NFL strength and conditioning program improves upon his strength.
Taylor could easily add another 10 pounds of muscle by 2014.
I graded Taylor as a C+ draft pick in the fourth round. He lacks the upside of Ansah but should easily win a roster spot as a developmental project more worthwhile than...
I’m still scratching my head over the selection of Lewis in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. The converted OLB34 is too small to play DE43 at 6’2” and 244 pounds and is too slow to play OLB43 (4.68 speed according to NFL.com).
The prevailing opinion is that Lewis was drafted for his coverage prowess on special teams. However, according to PFF, Taylor made only two tackles while missing two others in 2012.
He was PFF’s 20th ranked Detroit Lions special teams player in 2012. That’s pitiful.
Lewis will have to make a gigantic leap in his second year as a pro in order to make the 53-player roster. Making this even more improbable is Lewis’ recent off-field behavior.
Considering the competition he faces in training camp, Lewis seems destined to go down as a draft bust.
Broughton was claimed off waivers in June after being released by New Orleans, where he spent his rookie season on the practice squad.
Broughton is generously listed at 6’6” and 272 pounds on the Lions roster. These must be “dog” measurables though since his pro day actual measurables are 6‘4“ and 257 pounds.
The eyeball test in training camp will settle this dispute.
Broughton made a predraft visit to the Lions in 2012 but signed as an undrafted free agent by the Saints. So he’s been on the Lions’ radar for awhile.
He has the length and speed (4.55) that makes this former OLB34 an enticing prospect as a DE43. It remains to be seen how the Lions will use Broughton. Is he an LDE or a RDE?
Questions surrounding Broughton will begin to be answered during full-team drills in training camp.
The turnover at DE is the most profound of any position on the team. The Lions have assembled a cast of defensive ends who are more athletic and much longer than any group during Schwartz’ tenure.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is at LDE, where we have no clue whatsoever as to how effective rookies Ansah and Taylor will be.
Broughton could find himself in a great training camp competition with rookie Taylor for an active roster spot. Both should be keepers.
RDE looks to be set with a great platoon of Jones and Idonije, who you must admit are a most welcome upgrade over the former tandem of Vanden Bosch and Jackson.
Will Lewis answer the bell and win a roster spot?
Another player who must turn in a great training camp and preseason is Willie Young, who will have the fight of his life to keep his roster spot.
The only returning veterans (Young and Lewis) could find themselves jobless.
Up Next: The Linebackers