It’s a good year for DTs, wherever Lions draft one
The Relative Athletic Score (RAS) system was developed by Kent Lee Platte in 2012 to provide fans with a contextualized score on a 0-10 scale, making it easier to understand how athletic draft prospects are when compared to their position dating back to 1987.
Following free agency, the Detroit Lions should still be itching for defensive line help coming into the 2018 draft. The team's apparent need for interior help coincides with a draft tailor made to address it.
Interior defensive linemen are plentiful in this prospect class, but it’s also quality as well as quantity that makes this draft ideal.
Unlike previous positions we’ve evaluated from an athleticism perspective, it isn’t as essential to target elite athletes at defensive tackle, depending on what a team is seeking. But if you want a Pro Bowl-caliber player, you almost certainly want a tackle with a great athletic profile. More than half of Pro Bowlers since 1987 have had a RAS of 8.0 or higher, with 77 percent above-average (greater than 5.0).
Since 2010, former Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (9.54 RAS), Aaron Donald (9.66), and recent Super Bowl champion Fletcher Cox (9.0) headline the interior linemen who made the Pro Bowl.
Defensive tackle is a fascinating study, because it’s easy to draw the distinction between the types of linemen. The true prototypes, like Suh, Cox and Gerald McCoy (9.08 RAS), tend to be superb athletes. But nose tackles, like B.J. Raji (4.34), Pat Williams (6.62), and Vince Wilfork (6.76) don't typically measure as well.
Florida’s Taven Bryan (9.90) drew comparisons to J.J. Watt (10.0 at DT) at the combine, and with their similar athletic profiles, that's understandable. Bryan isn’t quite the prospect Watt was coming out of Wisconsin, but Bryan’s similar upside is why he’s an option for the Lions in the opening round. Another possibility, Washington’s Vita Vea (9.49), has drawn comparisons to former Detroit anchor Haloti Ngata (8.42).
Another early-round option is Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (7.57 RAS). He may have fell short of measuring up to other elite, undersized tackles, Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins (9.46), but still posted numbers at his pro day better than similarly-sized Pro Bowlers Jurrell Casey (3.48) and Kawann Short (4.98).
If the Lions wait until Day 2, the team could target a prospect like North Carolina State’s B.J. Hill (8.64 RAS) or Stanford’s Harrison Phillips (8.00).
Phillips has a similar profile to former first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson (7.80), making him a solid second-round choice for Detroit if he’s still available. Another high-end athlete, Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand (8.81), could rejoin his former teammate A’Shawn Robinson (3.45) to add some speed to Detroit's interior rush.
Last month, the Lions signed nose tackle Sylvester Williams (4.86 RAS) to anchor their line, but could easily consider another a longer-term solution at that spot on the third day of the draft.
Like Williams, a typical nose tackle doesn’t necessarily have to be an athletic wunderkind. They are generally shorter and heavier, with a good 10-yard split. South Florida’s Deadrin Senat (3.54) and Arkansas State’s aptly named Dee Liner (5.75) fit the mold.
Two players who measured poorly, but have draftable tape, are Florida State’s Derrick Nnadi (1.02 RAS) and Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle (0.77). While no interior defensive lineman has ever made a Pro Bowl with a score that low, former Lions third-round pick Jerry Ball (1.43) had solid NFL production despite his own poor metrics, even if it was in a different era.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are developmental players on Day 3, such as Sam Houston State’s P.J. Hall (8.73) and Texas’ Poona Ford (8.45). Former mid-rounders like Atkins and Henry Melton (9.15) were able to cultivate their superior athleticism into meaningful production.
Whether the Lions are looking for an athletic pass rusher early, or a space-eating nose tackle in the middle and late rounds, the team has plenty of options this year. While they added some athletic talent in 2017 sixth-round pick Jeremiah Ledbetter (9.31), the entire defensive line could use more quickness and explosion to help improve a pass rush that ranked 20th in 2017.
Kent Lee Platte is a freelance writer.