Lions could seek Ngata’s eventual successor in draft

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Leading up to the NFL draft we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster situation and evaluate how the team might address these positions during the event. Today: Defensive tackle.

Current roster: Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson, Khyri Thornton, Akeem Spence, Jordan Hill

Top prospects: Jonathan Allen, Solomon Thomas, Malik McDowell

Mid-round fits: Larry Ogunjobi, Carlos Watkins, Chris Wormley, Eddie Vanderdoes

Late-round options: Grover Stewart, Treyvon Hester

Short-term need: 4 on a 1-to-10 scale

Long-term need: 8 on a 1-to-10 scale

Analysis: If we were forced to bet on it, 2017 will be Ngata’s last season.

The 11-year veteran, and five-time Pro Bowler, contemplated retirement this offseason before opting to play out his contract with the Lions. The 33-year-old Ngata is still a force to be reckoned with, when healthy, but he’s no longer the dominant player he was in his prime.

Even with a $7.7 million cap hit, the Lions should feel fortunate to have him back. Beyond his above-average offerings on the field, he’s a leader in the defensive line room. Plus, without him, the depth chart would look frightening.

General manager Bob Quinn has put some noticeable work into the defensive tackle position. Robinson, the team’s second-round pick last year, has the look of a longtime starting-caliber player.

Slowly adjusting to the Lions’ attacking scheme last season, Robinson showed continued improvement throughout the year, earning a starting job the final four games of the season. He finished the season with 30 tackles (six for a loss), two sacks and a team-leading seven passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.

Lions' offensive line in good shape ahead of NFL draft

Beyond Ngata and Robinson, Quinn is banking on the potential of several young veterans who haven’t been able to fully hit their strides as professionals. Thornton, Spence and Hill were all drafted in the first four rounds within the past five years. Each have athletic gifts and experience, but have lacked consistency. The Lions are counting on defensive line coaching tandem Kris Kocurek and Matt Raich to be able to help that group reach its potential.

In the draft, the Lions would benefit from finding a long-term partner to pair with Robinson, particularly a more athletic, penetrating 3-technique.

Unless the team trades up, Allen and Thomas likely will be long gone. The other player with first-round talent, McDowell, is dogged by concerns about his effort. If you roll the dice, that’s where Kocurek and Raich once again enter the equation. The same could have been said about Florida's Caleb Brantley, but a domestic violence charge over the weekend is likely to take him off the Lions' board.

In the middle rounds, Vanderdoes is a big-time athlete with a high ceiling, but there are lingering concerns about a knee injury, which cost him the 2015 season. Michigan’s Wormley is the safer version, with plus athleticism, a good frame and high character. Ogunjobi, a small-school standout, is going to be a rawer prospect in need of more development.

In the late rounds, Stewart is an interesting prospect who the Lions have looked at during the pre-draft process. He’s not a 3-tech, but a massive space eater who can make a difference against the run. You’ll see his listed weight at 295, but he checked in closer to 340 at his pro day. He’s a powerhouse and surprisingly quick for his size.

Based on the way the board is setting up, it seems unlikely the Lions will address the interior of their defensive line in the first round, but the team is in a prime spot to potentially solidify the future of the position group on Day 2.