Lions need pass rush help but free agency unlikely cure

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Adrian Clayborn

This is the first in a series looking at positional needs for the Detroit Lions in free agency. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 12. The signing period opens March 14 at 4 p.m.

Allen Park – Pressuring the quarterback is critical to defensive success and the Lions didn’t come close to generating enough in 2017.

The team finished 20th in the league with 35 sacks, and according to Football Outsiders, 24th in pressure rate, making the quarterback uncomfortable on just 29.2 percent of passing plays.

Pressure can come from a variety of ways, from blitzing to stellar coverage forcing the quarterback to hold on to the ball, but the primary source should be a team’s defensive line, particularly the edges. That’s an area the Lions must improve this offseason, but it appears unlikely to come via free agency.

The Lions already made the most important free agent move they could make, given the alternative, using the franchise tag to retain defensive end Ziggy Ansah. The cost-for-production rate isn’t ideal, given Ansah’s inconsistency the past two seasons as he’s battled through a number of injuries, but it was a necessary trigger for general manager Bob Quinn to pull, even with a price tag north of $17 million for the 2018 campaign.

That’s because there’s not a viable replacement on the open market, which overvalues marginal talent because of the importance of the position. And there’s little reason to believe the Lions can find a plug-and-play replacement for Ansah in the upcoming draft, with the top edge rushers likely long gone by the time the team is on the clock at pick No. 20.

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In addition to Ansah, Detroit is almost certain to exercise the exclusive rights option for Kerry Hyder, who missed last season with an Achilles injury. If he returns to form, having racked up a team-high 8.0 sacks in 2016, it would provide a big boost to the group.

That’s important given this year’s market is setting up to consist of a number of mid-tier players, past-their-prime veterans and cap causalities.

Adrian Clayborn might be the best option on the market, which tells you all you need to know. Sure, the seven-year veteran is coming off his most productive season. The 6-foot-3, 280-pounder tallied 9.5 sacks in 2017, but six came in one game, against the Dallas Cowboys’ backup offensive tackle.

Less productive, but intriguing options include Junior Galette, William Hayes and Aaron Lynch.

Galette missed both the 2015 and 2016 seasons with a torn Achilles, but returned to form last season. He was more effective than his three sacks would indicate. Pro Football Focus notes he recorded 25 hurries and nine quarterback hits, a healthy rate in a rotational role.

Hayes would be a stopgap solution since he turns 33 this offseason. Consistently underrated throughout his career, he’s coming off a down year with the Dolphins, but has always proven capable at both stopping the run and pressuring the passer.

Aaron Lynch

Lynch, on the other hand, is young (24) with physical gifts that have yet to translate. He could be an intriguing project for new defensive line coach Bo Davis.

A personal favorite is Pernell McPhee, who was recently released by the Chicago Bears. The problem, like Ansah, is a steady stream of injuries have hampered his effectiveness. When healthy, McPhee plays with heavy hands and hits like a truck.

Considering the options, and what the Lions already have in the roster in Ansah, Hyder and a rapidly improving Anthony Zettel, the draft looks like the better place to bolster the position. If the team could score a young edge defender, such as a Harold Landry or Marcus Davenport, they could be groomed in a rotational role in 2018 to help ease the potential loss of Ansah next offseason.

Lions DEs under contract: Ziggy Ansah (franchise tag), Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel

Lions free agents: Kerry Hyder (ERFA), Dwight Freeney, Brandon Copeland

Top free agents: Adrian Clayborn, Pernell McPhee, Trent Murphy, William Hayes, Julius Peppers and Junior Galette