Draft offers Lions potential to tap at defensive tackle
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL Draft, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster situation and evaluate how the team might address these positions during the event. Today: Defensive tackle
■ Current roster: A’Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Sylvester Williams, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Christian Ringo, Toby Johnson
■ Top prospects: Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne, Maurice Hurst, Taven Bryan
■ Mid-round options: Harrison Phillips, Nathan Shepherd, B.J. Hill, Tim Settle
■ Late-round fits: Folorunso Fatukasi, Dee Liner, Bilal Nichols, Poona Ford
■ Short-term need: Five out of 10
■ Long-term need: Nine out of 10
■ Analysis: In the not-so-distant past, the Lions had the league’s most dominant defensive interior. But long gone are the days of former first-round picks Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley wreaking havoc on the inside.
The current collective is led by A’Shawn Robinson, a foundational piece who still is scratching the surface of his potential. In his second season, he led the group with 53 tackles, while defending six passes at the line of scrimmage, including his first career interception, which he returned for a touchdown against New Orleans.
Robinson was decently disruptive as a pass rusher, generating 27 pressures, but lacked plays in the backfield. He finished the year with a half-sack and five total tackles behind the line.
Joining Robinson are a couple of free-agent additions and a developmental project.
The Lions inked Akeem Spence to a three-year deal last offseason. In his first year with the franchise, he flashed some ability as a pass rusher, tallying three sacks and 29 quarterback pressures. Ideally a rotational piece, he was thrust into a starting job in the middle of last season when Haloti Ngata was lost to a season-ending elbow injury.
Ngata is gone now, having signed with Philadelphia this offseason. To fill the roster hole, Detroit reached a one-year deal with former first-round pick Sylvester Williams. More of a space-eating nose tackle with plenty of experience defending two gaps, the personnel swap points to a schematic shift up front under incoming coach Matt Patricia and coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.
The final piece to the Lions’ interior is 2017 sixth-round pick Jeremiah Ledbetter. He had minimal production as a rookie after bulking up to take on the role, but his athletic profile suggests intriguing potential if can develop in this second offseason.
Overall, it’s a group capable of holding its own, but likely to hover around or just below league average both against the run and rushing the passer without further upgrades. Fortunately, this draft offers plenty of potential throughout.
Starting in the first round, the Lions should have the choice of multiple defensive tackles at pick No. 20. Vita Vea, a Ngata clone, is the most likely to be off the board at that point, but Detroit could be looking at a choice of Maurice Hurst, Da’Ron Payne and Tavon Bryan.
Hurst, the former Michigan standout, is an undersized 3-technique, but fits any scheme with his ability to get after the passer. Bryan offers more size with elite athleticism. He might have the highest ceiling of the three if you trust your coaching staff to maximize potential. Payne, meanwhile, would provide a long-term replacement for Williams. The Alabama prospect is a brick house who should be a quality run stopper out of the box, with more pass-rush potential.
On Day 2, former wrestler Harrison Phillips, who racked up a staggering 103 tackles as a senior last season, or deceptively athletic 315-pound B.J. Hill, both make sense. Nathan Shepherd, out of little known Fort Hays State, also carries intrigue starting in Round 3.
Spilling into the third day, less traditional body types come into play. The Lions have shown plenty of interest in Poona Ford during the pre-draft process, despite the former Texas Longhorn measuring just 5-foot-11 at the combine.
It could be argued defensive tackle was one of the Lions’ biggest needs heading into free agency. The loss of Ngata and addition of Williams represent treading water, at best. This draft offers a real opportunity for the Lions to improve a below-average area of the roster.