Lions’ defensive line has foundation, still needs help

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

This is the third in a series looking at positional needs for the Lions in free agency.

Allen Park — Little went the way it was supposed to go for the Detroit Lions defensive line last year. And while the foundation of the unit remains strong, the group is still in need of a significant makeover this offseason.

Ziggy Ansah should be fine. The fourth-year defensive end, a year removed from a season that had him on the cusp of superstardom, had a frustrating campaign marred by injuries. But healthy, there’s little reason to believe the hyper-athletic edge rusher can’t return to double-digit sacks in 2017.

On the inside, the Lions found a building block in A’Shawn Robinson. The soon-to-be 22-year-old defensive tackle is still a work in progress as a pass rusher, but he’s already showing signs of being a plus run stopper, and few have his knack for getting hands in the passing lanes and batting down throws.

Kerry Hyder also emerged, adding a pass rusher who can play inside and outside. As an exclusive-rights free agent, the Lions basically have him under control for two more years.

Size, speed at RB available for Lions in free agency

But the overall numbers for the group were dismal. The Lions ranked 30th in sacks, only three teams did a worse job stuffing runs for no gain or a loss, and when it came to stopping opposing running backs on third- or fourth-and-short, the team gave up a first down 73 percent of the time.

Few positions cost more on the open market than a quality defensive lineman. See Olivier Vernon’s five-year, $85 million contract with the Giants last offseason, which included $52 million in guarantees, as a prime example. That’s why a lot of the top options this year — namely Arizona’s Chandler Jones, Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Ingram and Carolina’s Kawann Short — are strong candidates for the franchise tag.

Spending big is OK if the player is just entering his prime, but it’s better to bargain shop, to find players who might be benefit from a change in scheme and are willing to sign at a more reasonable price.

For the Lions, the team could consider someone like Jabaal Sheard on the edge. General manager Bob Quinn was with the Patriots when the organization lured Sheard from the Browns, and with 13 sacks in two seasons, the price tag likely won’t be too high.

Once a strength, linebacker becomes need for Lions

Bringing back Armonty Bryant is another strong option. The waiver claim was a model citizen in Detroit and gave the team three sacks in five games last season.

Inside, the Lions need an explosive option capable of getting into the backfield. Short would be ideal, but even if he isn’t franchised, you’re looking at a contract that would rival Vernon’s deal.

Chris Baker, a 300-pound defensive end in Washington’s 3-4 scheme is an interesting option. So is, dare we say, Nick Fairley. The former Lions’ first-rounder seems to have matured and put his weight issues behind him. The result was a career year in New Orleans in 2016. The talent was always there and now the motivation seems to be, as well.

Lions DL under contract: Ziggy Ansah, Anthony Zettel, Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson

Lions free agents: Devin Taylor, Tyrunn Walker, Stefan Charles, Armonty Bryant, Brandon Copeland (RFA), Khyri Thornton (RFA), Kerry Hyder (ERFA)

Top free agents: Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram, Mario Addison, Nick Perry, Calais Campbell, Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Brandon Williams, Johnathan Hankins