NFL combine preview: Defensive players to watch for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
With a need for an edge rusher, Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary is possibility for the Lions at No. 8 in the NFL Draft.

Indianapolis — Just like the Detroit Lions seemingly had a roster need at every offensive position, the team also has its share of holes on the defensive side of the ball. 

We turn our attention to the defense for the second of our two-part previewing this week's scouting combine. 

More:NFL combine preview: Offensive players to watch for Lions

Edge defender

If you can't pressure the quarterback in the NFL, you're going to have a tough time slowing down the high-octane passing games proliferating across the league, and also struggle to force game-altering turnovers. 

Fortunately, there appears to be a good number of edge rushers in this class, headlined by top-five picks Nick Bosa and Josh Allen. 

Despite a decent number of sacks in 2018, pressuring the pocket was a major issue for the Lions last season. If the team doesn't pony up for a top option in free agency — say, Trey Flowers — snagging the best edge defender available remains a realistic possibility with the No. 8 pick. The team could have a choice of Michigan's Rashan Gary, Mississippi State's Montez Sweat or Clemson's Clelin Ferrell at that spot. 

► Player to watch for Lions: Gary, Michigan

A five-star recruit, people long have marveled at Gary's athleticism. It should be exciting to see him be able to put that on full display at the combine. Given the right scheme and coaching, there's a huge ceiling for that combination of speed, strength and size. 

Interior defensive line

If the Lions have a strength heading into next season, this is it. Damon Harrison is a dominant run-stopping nose in the middle, and he's well supported by a pair of former Alabama standouts, A'Shawn Robinson and Da'Shawn Hand. 

It's a shame, in a way, since this year's interior lineman class is stacked with potential contributors in the early rounds. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the undersized but explosive Ed Oliver to the Harrison-esque, run-stopping behemoth Dexter Lawrence. 

If the Lions don't re-sign veteran Ricky Jean Francois, the team will have a need to round out the rotation. And if there's any concern they can't re-sign Robinson, who will be a free agent next offseason, it wouldn't hurt to spend an earlier pick on the spot. 

► Player to watch for Lions: Khalen Saunders, Western Illinois

If ever there was a good time to take a small-school standout who could benefit from being eased into pro football, Detroit's current depth affords this opportunity. 

Saunders is on the short side, at 6-foot-1, but weighed in at a stout 320 pounds at the Senior Bowl. And that's far more muscle than fat. He'll need a lot of grooming with his technique, but he's played multiple spots along the defensive front, which should ease the transition. 

The Lions' depth on the interior of the defensive line could allow them to select a project such as Khalen Saunders of Western Illinois in the NFL Draft.


If you're looking for a weakness with this draft, there aren't many great off-the-ball options. LSU's Devin White is the best this class has to offer, with exceptional speed, range and coverage skills. The drop-off after him could be steep. 

There's a thought he Lions could consider White to pair with Jarrad Davis, but that would require one to shift to the weakside, where Christian Jones played decently last season and remains under contract. 

Detroit seems more likely to consider depth options in the middle and later rounds, seeking a potential long-term upgrade and better system fit to Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Steve Longa. 

► Player to watch for Lions: Tre Lamar, Clemson

It would have been nice to get a closer look at UTSA's Josiah Tauaefa, but there are always going to be a handful of snubs for this event. Lamar is our backup offering. 

Big for the position, Lamar is listed at an exaggerated 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. And we know, based on what the Lions targeted last offseason, bigger is better for linebackers in Matt Patricia's defensive scheme. 

Lamar is long, physical and can be a load to handle in the box. He also would offer meaningful contributions on special teams. 


Cornerback Amani Oruwariye recorded 18 pass breakups and seven interceptions over the past two seasons at Penn State.

Another one of Detroit's glaring needs is a playmaking cornerback opposite Darius Slay. Nevin Lawson has held the starting job much of the past three seasons, and while he limits the number of completions on passes thrown his direction, he rarely gets a hand on the ball and draws far too many penalties. 

There's plenty of debate about the top cornerback in this class, and if any are worthy of being selected in the top 10. LSU's Greedy Williams, Georgia's DeAndre Baker and Washington's Byron Murphy lead the class and all have shown that coveted playmaking ability. 

Williams seems the most likely to be a top-10 choice, but there are concerns about his ability to defend the run. That doesn't matter in every scheme, but would in Detroit. 

► Player to watch for Lions: Amani Oruwariye, Penn State

Oruwariye appears to be an ideal fit for Detroit's scheme, offering the size and physicality Patricia prefers in his second cornerback, while establishing consistent ball skills at Penn State. The corner prospect recorded 18 pass breakups and seven interceptions over the past two seasons. 

As long as he posts a respectable 40 time, Oruwariye makes sense as a second-round option for Detroit. 


After releasing Glover Quin, the Lions look to be heading into the 2019 campaign with Quandre Diggs and Tracy Walker, a third-round pick a year ago, as the team's safety tandem. 

But Patricia had an affinity for the position in New England, and was comfortable utilizing three on the field in several packages. It certainly wouldn't hurt to add another versatile option to the mix, both for those safety-heavy sub-packages or simply reliable depth. 

We likely won't see any safeties come off the board until late in the first round, when Alabama's Deionte Thompson and Delaware's Nathan Adderley are in play. 

► Player to watch for Lions: Darnell Savage Jr., Maryland

Not the biggest option, Savage is listed at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. He's a smart player, with good instincts, and has experience playing man coverage in the slot. Football IQ and versatility always will have value in the NFL. If he can display above-average athleticism in the on-field drills at the combine, it will only bolster his credentials.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers