Mobile, Ala. — The Detroit Lions need defensive playmakers. That much is obvious. The team finished with 26 sacks and 71 quarterback hurries, both 31st in the league. And the team’s 14 takeaways ranked 28th.
The good news for the Lions front office and scouting department, which has descended on Mobile for this week’s Senior Bowl — everywhere they turn they’re bound to run into a disruptive defender.
Up front, you have multiple defensive tackles — such as Clemson’s Carlos Watkins, Iowa’s Jeleel Johnson and Michigan’s Chris Wormley — who each had at least 7 1/2 sacks their senior season. On the edges Kansas State’s Jordan Willis, Alabama’s Ryan Anderson and Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers showed a propensity for forcing fumbles and negative plays. And in the back end, West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas led the nation with eight interceptions last season, while Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and LSU’s Tre’Davious White are around the ball all the time, racking up pass breakups.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn understands success starts in the trenches and has been paying close attention to those drills during the first two days of practice. He isn’t about to tip his hand as to who the team is interested in, but there are plenty of options who could bolster the Lions defense.
Willis certainly looks the part on the outside, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 255 pounds. A high-character athlete who claims to have studied film on every starting NFL defensive end, his production is particularly appealing.
He showed steady improvement each of his four seasons at Kansas State and was named the Big 12’s defensive player of the year after racking up 11 1/2 sacks, 17 1/2 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles last season.
Willis says his consistency, both against the run and as a pass rusher, is what sets him apart.
“To get into the backfield, you have to be fundamentally sound, technique sound, willing to take chances and study your (opponent) so you know their tendencies,” Willis said.
Anderson has a similar build to Willis, but is a more violent hitter. In addition to 30 tackles for loss the past two seasons, he forced six fumbles. At the Senior Bowl, he is splitting his time between lining up in space and down on the line, but admits he’s at his best playing on the edge and is confident he could be an end in Detroit’s 4-3 scheme.
Inside, Watkins is arguably the best defensive tackle in Mobile.
A survivor of a car accident in 2013 that claimed the life of the driver, cousin Dache Gossett, Watkins missed a year with injury. Still, he has managed to develop into one of the nation’s top interior pass-rushers, dropping opposing quarterbacks 10 1/2 times last season. That’s even more impressive given Clemson’s scheme placed more emphasis on controlling gaps than penetrating the backfield.
With some refinement of his technique, Watkins could fill the disruptive 3-technique tackle the Lions have lacked since Ndamukong Suh left in free agency.
“My coaches really emphasized winning one-on-ones and I took that to heart,” Watkins said. “If your man beats you one-on-one, you kind of fail. I take that personally.”
While everything is a projection with these young players, given the increased competition and likely adjustments to new schemes and techniques, NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks says sack production in college is a strong barometer of future success.
“Obviously you want to see how the production was derived, but one of the stats that does carry over are guys that sack the quarterback consistently and a lot in college, typically have a lot of success in the pros,” Brooks said. “Those guys that you’re talking about have consistent production. When you have that consistent production, you have a knack for finding a way to win.”
The Lions will wrap up their Senior Bowl evaluations and head back on Thursday to shift focus to next month’s scouting combine. The draft will be held from April 27-29 in Philadelphia.