Defensive tackle help for Lions available, but won’t be cheap

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Sheldon Richardson

This is the fifth 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 – While it’s easy to focus on the Detroit Lions’ needs at defensive end, the team arguably needs more short- and long-term help at defensive tackle.

A’Shawn Robinson is the foundational block of the group. A second-round pick two years ago, he’s been a solid starter, and still offers plenty of room for growth. Being reunited with his college defensive line coach Bo Davis should help with Robinson’s development.

Additionally, last offseason, the Lions signed Akeem Spence to a three-year deal. Thrust into the starting lineup following Haloti Ngata’s season-ending injury, Spence showcased good burst off the ball, flashing the ability to be a disruptive pass rusher.

Jeremiah Ledbetter is the third player under contract to see snaps in 2017. A sixth-round choice last year, he packed on nearly 20 pounds before his rookie season to handle the demands of an interior lineman. He offers some intriguing athleticism, but expectations are muted after a nondescript campaign where he tallied just 14 tackles and 10 pass-rush pressures while playing 350 snaps.

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The simple, short-term solution is re-signing Ngata. The veteran has expressed interest in playing a 13th season and the price tag will be modest. No one is going to confuse the 34-year-old as the player named to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2009-13, but he’s still capable of being an effective starter, while offering invaluable leadership and guidance to the team’s younger players.

But if the Lions are eager to move on, and willing to open up the checkbook, there’s some excellent talent at the top of the market.

If you can get past the red flags with his character, Sheldon Richardson is the most talented name available. Traded to the Seahawks last season after a tumultuous four-year run with the New York Jets, the former first-round pick has been a highly productive run stopper and effective pass rusher his entire career.

But for all the talent, he’s been suspended twice for a total of five games, publicly feuded with teammates and got in trouble for skipping team meetings. That’s a lot of risk for such a big investment.

Also available is Richardson’s former teammate, Muhammad Wilkerson, who was released by the Jets last week in a cap-saving move. Not having to wait until free agency opens, he’s currently making the rounds, visiting with Green Bay, New Orleans and Kansas City.

If the Lions are looking for the biggest option, Dontari Poe fits the bill. Coming of a one-year deal with Atlanta, the 6-foot-3, 346-pounder has recharged his value after tallying 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks for the Falcons last season.

Finally, an underrated name is Tennessee’s DaQuan Jones. Playing a little more than 400 snaps in 2017, he proved to be an outstanding run stopper, all while chipping in 3.5 sacks. And at 26 years old, Jones is just entering his prime.

A quality interior defensive lineman isn’t going to come cheap, but it’s a position group the Lions must address this offseason. The draft is always a possibility as well, but with a number of quality free agent options, this might be one of the best places to invest cap space.

Lions DTs under contract: A’Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Toby Johnson

Lions free agents: Haloti Ngata, Jordan Hill

Top free agents: Sheldon Richardson, Dontari Poe, Star Lotulelei, Muhammad Wilkerson, Bennie Logan and DaQuan Jones


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