Rogers: Lions' toothless pass rush gambling on potential

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions defensive end Cornelius Washington has three sacks in four professional seasons.

Allen Park — The Lions established their 53-man roster and 10-man practice squad over the weekend, and the glaring concern that’s lingered all offseason remains unanswered with the season opener a week away.

Where are the Lions going to find a pass rush?

The team is unquestionably better off than it was a week ago, with former Pro Bowler Ziggy Ansah finally coming off the physically unable to perform list, but it was always the expectation he’d be ready for Week 1.

The problem, of course, is Ansah can’t do it alone. And the rest of the team’s defensive ends are, to varying degrees, unproven.

Anthony Zettel shined throughout training camp and the preseason, but Willie Young, another late-round pick who eventually blossomed into a productive pass-rusher in Chicago, used to do the same thing each offseason.

Free-agent addition Cornelius Washington is also more potential than production. Despite showcasing stellar athleticism coming out of college, he’s recorded just three sacks in four professional seasons, after never topping more than six his four years at Georgia.

And sure, Washington rocked Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg and forced a fumble, but that was the result of a breakdown that left him unblocked. The only conclusion that could be reasonably drawn from the play is he has the ability to deliver a punishing hit when he has a clear path.

The rotation is rounded out by not one, but two undrafted free agents. And while Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Valoaga flashed some ability to disrupt the pocket, we have to remember that it came against second- and third-string offensive tackles. It’s a leap of faith to believe the effectiveness will transfer to the next level, against a top-tier lineman.

Rogers: Preseason pays off for many Lions on cut day

So here we are, left wondering what exactly the Lions are thinking. Because without a consistent pass rush, the defense will be stressed at every level. With an extra quarter of a second to survey the scene, NFL quarterbacks will pick you apart. We saw as much last season, when the Lions allowed opponents to complete a staggering 72.7 percent of their passes for a league-worst 106.5 passer rating.

In his second year on the job, general manager Bob Quinn has done so much right. He’s aggressively addressed the team’s longtime weaknesses along the offensive line, drafting Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow last year and signing T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner in free agency this offseason.

And when Decker unexpectedly went down with a shoulder injury in June, Quinn wasted little time providing an adequate stopgap, swinging a trade for Greg Robinson, a former No. 2 overall pick.

In the secondary, where the Lions already had some nice pieces, Quinn significantly bolstered the depth, drafting the likes of Miles Killebrew and Teez Tabor and signing former first-round pick D.J. Hayden, who has looked sharp on the practice field and throughout the preseason. No longer should an injury in the defensive backfield be cause for concern.

And at linebacker, another group that struggled mightily in 2016, Quinn used his first- and fourth-round draft choices to strengthen the unit.

But at defensive end, the moves have been subtler, offering little promise of trend-altering impact. One year after finishing in the bottom-five in sacks and quarterback pressures, the team is content to lean on unproven potential, hoping to find another George Johnson or Kerry Hyder, two players that came out of nowhere in years past.

The Lions claimed two players off waivers Sunday, a pair of offensive linemen. Many were hoping it would be a defensive end, but of the more than 1,000 players cut the day before, there was never going to be a game-changing option available through that avenue. Pass-rushers are simply too valuable. If a team senses even a shred of potential, they’re going to hang on to the player.

The clock is ticking, the Cardinals are coming to town Sunday, but one thing Quinn has done in recent weeks is clear significant cap space. Between quarterback Matthew Stafford’s extension, trading cornerback Johnson Bademosi to the Patriots and guard Laken Tomlinson to the 49ers, and waiving offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas on Sunday, the team gained close to an extra $9 million in funds to work with.

There’s still time to make a deal, especially if Quinn willing to part with a future draft asset. If not, the faith the Lions are putting in potential will be put to the test.

There’s always a possibility the Lions will find they’ve unearthed a diamond in the rough, or better yet, two. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has a knack for getting the best out of his pupils. But if the unit fails to exceed expectations, opposing quarterbacks will be happy to take advantage once again.

Twitter: @justin_rogers