Orlando, Fla. — The Lions’ defense is going to look different next season. To what extent, we’ll have to wait to learn until the players take the field in the coming months, but the key word the orchestrators of the unit keep coming back to is “multiple.”
No NFL defense lines up the same way every play, neither up front nor in the back end. Multiple looks and sub-packages are the way of the modern game, but the pieces the Lions have added this offseason don’t look the some as the pieces they’re replacing. And there’s a strong possibility returning players won’t be used the way they’ve been used in the past.
The biggest changes have come at linebacker. The Lions have bulked up at the position, moving on from Tahir Whitehead, the sinewy starter the past few years, to the noticeably more stout Devon Kennard.
“I think big picture with the linebackers, you know, going from a scheme change from (former coordinator) Teryl Austin’s scheme to now coach (Matt) Patricia’s scheme, we’re looking for bigger guys at the linebacker position,” general manager Bob Quinn said. “I think all of them have versatility. They can play on the line, they can play off the line, so I think Matt, once we get into the offseason program, kind of get the guys on the field with their new coaches, we’ll kind of see how they fit in.”
In addition to Kennard, the Lions completed their overhaul of the position group with the additions of Christian Jones and Johnathan Freeny. They’ll pair with Jarrad Davis, last year’s first-round pick, who has more than enough bulk to be the thumper needed in the middle of the defense.
Kennard is the key addition, which is why he earned a three-year, $17.25 million contract, the biggest the team awarded in free agency. As a member of the New York Giants, he regularly lined up on the line of scrimmage, both as an edge rusher and interior defender, even more than he played off the ball, like a traditional outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme.
One of the key components of Detroit’s scouting system is comparing a potential Lions player to someone from the team or coach’s past. So with whom, from Patricia’s coaching experience, does Kennard share similarities?
Patricia was reluctant to compare skill sets, not wanting to put unnecessary expectations on the Lions’ newcomer, but when he limited it to body type, the first two names that came to mind were Kyle Van Noy and Rob Ninkovich.
Lions fans remember Van Noy as the second-round pick who didn’t work out in Detroit, but Patricia turned him into a key contributor after the Patriots acquired the linebacker in a midseason trade two years ago.
The pursuit of size would seem to spell trouble for someone like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a fourth-round draft pick from last season. He’s undersized, even by the previous scheme’s standards, but Patricia intends to find a function for all the pieces he has at his disposal.
“I think a guy like that definitely has a place within some of the schemes that we do,” Patricia said.
Up front, the Lions largely look similar, with the key difference being a swap at defensive tackle. Despite reportedly having a matching offer, Haloti Ngata opted to take a job with Philadelphia because he wanted to continue to play an attacking style. His replacement, Sylvester Williams, has the athleticism to occasionally rush the passer, but is more of a two-gapping. run-stuffer who is an ideal early-down player.
The secondary also remains largely intact, with cornerback Nevin Lawson and Tavon Wilson re-signing with the team and DeShawn Shead replacing D.J. Hayden, giving the team a bit more size and physicality on the depth chart.
And while it remains to be seen how that rotation will shake out, the Lions like the versatility they’ve been accumulating in the back end. Quandre Diggs, a nickel back who made a wildly successful conversion to safety late last season, is a prime example.
“You know, with the way the offenses are nowadays in the NFL, we need to have versatile guys that can cover,” Quinn said. “It’s a passing league and we need to have enough defensive backs that can play multiple positions to help us.”
The Lions are largely done in free agency. The team will continue to re-shape its defense through the draft next month. How they address the roster, particularly the front four, will give us additional context clues on what the finished product might look like come August. Until then, we’ll just have to continue to watch Patricia’s Patriots film and try to imagine how Detroit’s current roster will similarly fill those roles.