This is the fourth installment of a multi-part series previewing the NFL Scouting Combine. The event will be broadcast over four days on the NFL Network, Thursday, Feb. 27 through Sunday, March 1. Today, we'll look at the defensive line.
Lions pre-free agency needs
► Edge defender: The Lions didn't come close to getting enough out of their pass rush last season, and the focus of that issue is on the edges. Starters Trey Flowers and Devon Kennard combined for 14 sacks, and according to data tracked by ESPN, both were ranked in the bottom half of the league in pass-rush win rate, defined as beating their block in under 2.5 seconds.
► Defensive tackle: Remarkably, the interior of the defensive line was an even bigger issue in 2019. Injuries played a big part in that, no question. Regardless, the group was average, at best, stopping the run and a complete non-factor pushing the pocket on passing downs. With A'Shawn Robinson and Mike Daniels set to be free agents, and Damon Harrison seriously considering retirement, Da'Shawn Hand could be the last man standing. That's far from ideal, given his own durability issues the past two seasons.
Metrics to monitor
► Bench press, three-cone drill and vertical jump
Obviously speed matters on the edges, but not quite as much as explosion, power and bend. Keep an eye on 10-yard splits in the 40-yard dash for both the ends and tackles. That paired with a combination of a good three-cone time and above-average leaping ability is indicative of a player who can explode off the ball and adjust directions quickly.
► Chase Young, edge, Ohio State
As prospects get picked apart in the lead-up to the draft, don't let anyone fool you, Young is a no-brainer choice if he were to make it to the Lions at No. 3. Like the Bosa brothers before him, the Ohio State standout should have little issue adjusting to the speed and strength of the pro game. Young would give Detroit that edge defender capable of consistently beating his blocker.
► A.J. Epenesa, edge, Iowa
Epenesa would be a good scheme fit in Detroit, but it's difficult to imagine a scenario where he's available for the team to select. Even with a trade down, it would probably be too early for a player with his measurables and skill set. Bigger and stronger than Young, Epenesa won't have any trouble setting an edge at the next level, while his power and hands should allow him to be above-average as a pass rusher.
► Yetur Gross-Matos, edge, Penn State
A couple of steps below Young, Gross-Matos is probably the second-best pass-rushing edge defender in this class, with a solid frame, long limbs (which also help defend the run) and good flexibility to bend around offensive tackles. It's not likely he makes it to Day 2 of the draft, while a solid combine could push him up to the middle of the first round.
► Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
Brown is a complete prospect at his position. He has great size and plays with exceptional technique. A top-tier run-stuffer, he didn't miss a tackle during his senior season. And he's a better pass-rusher than he gets credit for, with an above-average first step and power to push the pocket.
► Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina
Kinlaw's 84-inch wingspan, measured at the Senior Bowl, is the cherry on top of his prototypical 6-foot-5, 315-pound frame. Not nearly as polished as Brown, nor the run defender, Kinlaw's best asset is his ability to get upfield and pressure the passer. He can probably play in any scheme, but would be best suited to be a single-gap defender in an attacking front.
► Ross Blacklock, DT, TCU
He suffered a torn Achilles in 2018, so the medical evaluations will be important for Blacklock, but his 2019 performance proved the injury isn't holding him back. He logged 40 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games for the Horned Frogs last season. Blacklock can absolutely handle the gap-control assignments that would be asked of him in Detroit and his relentless motor would be a welcomed addition to the team's front.
Sleepers to watch
► Josh Uche, edge, Michigan
At first glance, the scheme fit doesn't feel right. Uche, even with his longer limbs, doesn't have the ideal size to play the run the way the Lions want. But as a pure pass-rusher, he was a force at the Senior Bowl, where the Lions got a extended look at the former Wolverine. To get him on the field more, he could always play off-ball on early downs.
► Jason Strowbridge, DT, North Carolina
Another prospect from the Senior Bowl, Strowbridge seemed to hold coach Matt Patricia's attention throughout the week. Measuring in at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds in Mobile, he's more a tweener at that size than he was played inside for the Tar Heels, but he always could pack some pounds back on after he performs the combine drills.
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