Deep defensive tackle class has Lions’ attention

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — For the second offseason in a row, the Lions will look to replenish their defensive tackle group.

Luckily, if the Lions don’t find the pieces they need in free agency, the draft offers a plethora of interior defensive lineman for them to consider in their long-term plans.

There are powerful guys like Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson and Baylor’s Andrew Billings. There are quick guys like Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins. And there are talented players with off-field issues like Robert Nkemdiche.

Whatever the Lions want, whether it’s in the first round or beyond, they can find in what draft analysts Mike Mayock and Mel Kiper Jr. have called the best defensive tackle class they’ve seen.

The question is how all of the talented linemen will distinguish themselves from their peers.

Many of the top defensive tackles discussed their versatility as a top trait, and that’s something that would attract the Lions. In the Lions defensive scheme, the tackles move all over the line at times throughout the game, so finding players with an ability to stop the run and rush the passer is paramount.

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However, it’s unclear if general manager Bob Quinn’s approach will change how the Lions view the position. The Patriots typically have relied on a big nose tackle in the middle of the defense to stop the run.

A couple of players who fit that profile are 311-pound Billings, 323-pound Vernon Butler from Louisiana Tech and 314-pound Kenny Clark from UCLA.

Alabama products Robinson and Jarran Reed, both likely first-round picks and 307 pounds, have experience in a run-stuffing scheme, too. Robinson had 3.5 sacks in 2015 and Reed had just one as they focused more on plugging gaps, but both players are confident they can attack the quarterback.

“I definitely can apply pressure on the quarterback,” Reed said. “I definitely can affect the quarterback; I definitely can get sacks, too.”

Even though it wasn’t his duty at Alabama, Reed said he has experience playing in space after playing as a 260-pound linebacker in high school — clearly, opponents tried to avoid him.

“They didn’t want me to (tackle them), but it happened,” Reed said.

Then there’s Rankins, who resembles the player Lions fans wish was already on the team — Rams star Aaron Donald. The 299-pound Rankins is on the shorter side for a defensive tackle at 6-foot-1, but he said he models his game after players with similar body types, like Donald.

Rankins has a quick first step and a variety of moves, which helped him get six sacks in 2015 and eight in 2014, but sacks aren’t his only goal.

“If you can be disruptive, that causes more headaches than you just making a few plays a game,” he said.

Rankins was one of the highlights of Senior Bowl practices last month before an injury sidelined him. Michigan center Graham Glasgow said Rankins impressed him during the all-star game because he’d never seen a defensive tackle with a spin move, which Rankins developed playing basketball in middle school and high school.

“I was always kind of the bigger guy on the court, so people always try to take charges, get me in foul trouble,” he said. “So, going around them wasn’t always the easiest, so the spin move kind of came in handy because nobody really expected it.”

The move just happened one day on the football field, and Rankins said his coaches at Louisville helped him hone it to become a legitimate rush move. And he showed it off at the Senior Bowl.

“I felt like when I went down there I made a statement and put everybody on notice,” he said. “It’s been good for me since.”

Rankins boasted about his experience playing in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 in college, but most players are confident they can play in any scheme.

“There aren’t many guys who can play the run and pass rush, or can play multiple positions that’s an interior guy,” Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington said. “Most of these guys are just run-stoppers. I think that’s what sets me apart.”

In a couple of months, the Lions will have to decide which defensive tackles can help them in 2016 and beyond.