Over the next several days leading up to the start of Lions training camp, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News will highlight the key position battles. Today: Defensive ends.
Allen Park – Lions general manager Bob Quinn has aggressively pursued rebuilding his team’s offensive line since taking the helm in 2016, but has poured far fewer resources into bolstering the defensive trenches.
The one significant addition was A’Shawn Robinson, a physically imposing defensive tackle selected in the second round of the 2016 draft. After a promising rookie season, that pick has the potential to pay long-term dividends in the middle of Detroit’s defense.
Quinn’s other moves along the defensive front have largely consisted of low-round draft picks and lower-tier free agent gets. There’s nothing wrong with stockpiling rotational depth and counting on camp competition to reveal the best system fits, but it rarely leads to the discovery of an impact player.
At defensive end, the Lions’ are concerningly thin on impact performers. Ziggy Ansah returning to full strength this season would go a long way toward solving the team’s pass-rush woes. Ankle issues limited him to just two sacks in 13 games last season, a far cry from the 14.5 he racked up the year before.
Ansah’s struggles were a key factor in Detroit’s inability to get to opposing quarterbacks in 2016. The team finished in the bottom five in both sacks and hurries, putting added strain on the secondary. These deficiencies must be corrected if the defense hopes to be more effective on the whole this season.
Also returning is Kerry Hyder, the practice-squad success story, who stepped up admirably to deliver a team-leading eight sacks. He has his sights set even higher this year, but even a repeat performance would be significant.
The rest of the rotation is either new, unproven, or both.
The key signing was Cornelius Washington, a big-bodied edge defender making a shift from a 3-4 scheme to Detroit’s attacking 4-3 front. The 6-foot-4, 292-pounder should have no issues setting the edge, improving the team’s ability to stop the run, but it might be a bit much to expect a consistent pass-rush threat. He recorded only 10.5 sacks in four college seasons and tallied a career-high two with the Bears in 2016.
The fourth, and potentially fifth, jobs are an open competition. The field did thin out this week when it was announced Armonty Bryant, a waiver claim from last season, will be suspended the first four games of the season. Given it’s his third ban in a year, his days in Detroit might be numbered.
Anthony Zettel, last year’s sixth-round pick, has an inside track of playing time based on having a year in the system and some professional snaps under his belt. He struggled with consistency as a rookie, but did flash some ability to disrupt the pocket.
In the draft, the Lions used a seventh-round choice on small school playmaker Pat O’Connor, who had a knack for jarring the ball loose at Eastern Michigan. The school’s all-time sack leader forced seven fumbles the past two seasons, a much-needed trait for a Lions lineman.
Two undrafted rookies — Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Valoaga — will also be in the mix. Barrett is the more intriguing on the two given the team guaranteed him $36,000 to sign out of San Diego State, the most of awarded to any of the team’s UDFAs this offseason.
Barrett was more disruptive than his 7.5 sacks last season would suggest. According to Pro Football Focus, he also had 31 hurries and six quarterback hits.
Admittedly, the back end of the rotation doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence on paper. There’s some intriguing potential, but without another Hyder-like breakout, the unit could struggle once again.
Lions camp battles
Day 1: Left tackle
Day 2: Nickelback
Day 3: Fourth, fifth receivers
Day 4: SAM linebacker
Day 5: Left guard
Day 6: Defensive ends
Monday: Fourth running back
Tuesday: Backup defensive tackles
Wednesday: Backup quarterback