Niyo: Lions are down but not out at defensive end

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Anthony Zettel

Allen Park — Practice was over, but the work sure wasn’t Wednesday. Not for a few of the Lions’ young defensive linemen. Assistant coach Kris Kocurek, always the loudest voice on the practice field, was on one knee bellowing as undrafted rookies Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Voloaga took turns attacking an individual pass-rush drill along with second-year defensive end Anthony Zettel.

That’s hardly new, NFL rookies getting in some extra reps. But given the current state of the Lions’ roster at their position — down two starters, with Kerry Hyder lost for the season because of a torn Achilles suffered Sunday against Indianapolis and Ziggy Ansah still on the physically unable to perform list — it’s notable, nonetheless.

So was Kocurek’s message when the group reconvened Monday following the Lions’ preseason opener over the weekend.

“The biggest message I had for ‘em was, ‘Opportunity,’ ” said Kocurek, now in his ninth season coaching the Lions’ defensive line. “In this league, everybody’s always looking for an opportunity. And right now, there’s a big opportunity for whoever wants it.”

Actually, that’s not quite right.

“There’s an opportunity for whoever earns it,” he added. “It’s going to be earned, not given.”

And given what’s at stake, there’s plenty of cause for concern.

Looking for help

The Lions already were without Armonty Bryant, who is suspended for the first four games of the season. Cornelius Washington, the presumptive starter at left end after Hyder’s injury, has missed most of training camp with an injury as well. Even Brandon Copeland, a hybrid linebacker who had worked some at defensive end, is gone now, suffering a torn pectoral muscle against the Colts.

Washington, who returned to full practice Wednesday, tried to dismiss those concerns, lauding the play of the rookies and adding, “it’s definitely a next-man-up mentality, because everybody can play.” But at some point in the next few weeks, Bob Quinn, the Lions’ general manager, might realize he’s the next man up and decide to bring in some outside help.

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He’s in good company at the moment, and that might be bad news when the time comes, with teams like New England and Denver also dealing with injuries and attrition at defensive end in training camp. It’s a thin free-agent field to begin with, led by the likes of Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams and Jared Odrick.

Quinn might find a better fit via trade, just as he hopes he did a couple of months ago when he sent a sixth-round pick to the Rams for Greg Robinson, trying to fill the void at left tackle after Taylor Decker underwent shoulder surgery.

Given the Lions’ improved depth, there’s likely one or two eventual final-cut casualties that’ll land on another team’s 53-man roster. Last year, it was San Diego claiming Caraun Reid after Detroit let him go. This year, it could be a safety or a linebacker or even a receiver.

Whatever the case, when asked about it Monday, head coach Jim Caldwell certainly hinted at the possibility of reinforcements on the line, noting, “there's usually somebody … that's not on your team initially that comes in to do a great job for you.”

Until then, though, Kocurek insists, “I’m confident in the group we’ve got and the guys out here that I’m coaching.

“I like our group. I think we’ve got a tough group. And I think the whole is gonna be better than the parts.”

Solid starters

Part of that is his confidence in Ansah, whom the Lions are counting on to return to Pro Bowl form after an injury-plagued 2016. He might not see much, if any, preseason action, “but I’ve seen him take 2,000 reps in four years, so I’m good,” Kocurek laughed.

In Washington, the Lions think they have the kind of edge-setter that Teryl Austin’s scheme requires from the closed end. Throw in a healthy Haloti Ngata, who looks terrific in camp, and an improved second-year tackle in A’Shawn Robinson — “Hopefully he can become a matchup problem for people, a guy they’ve got to account for,” Kocurek said — and there’s a solid starting unit.

But what about the entire rotation? As it is, they’d still be expecting big contributions from Zettel and one of the rookies, either Barrett or Voloaga — both of whom were coveted UDFA targets for the Lions — or seventh-round pick Pat O’Connor.

Kocurek has done it before, whether you want to point to Hyder's breakout performance last fall or those from George Johnson and Devin Taylor the previous two seasons. Yet for a team that finished with just 26 sacks last year — tied for 30th in the league — that’s a huge question mark.

Ask Kocurek to explain that disappointing result and he’ll rattle off plenty of contributing factors. But the one he focuses on most sounds rather simple.

“You’ve got to win one-on-one matchups,” he said. “We’ve gotta have guys that win 1-on-1 and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”

So that’s what they’re over there working on, after the others have finished. The rookies are feeling the heat, trying to seize an opportunity. And for now, Kocurek says, "That's what I’m worried about, not anybody that’s not here.”