Lions 2020 draft preview: Options to help Detroit's paltry pass rush come with concerns
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Edge defenders.
► Current roster: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Austin Bryant, Jonathan Wynn, Jamie Collins
► Short-term need: Eight out of 10
► Long-term need: Nine out of 10
► Top prospects: Chase Young, K'Lavon Chaisson, A.J. Epenesa, Yetur Gross-Matos
► Mid-round options: Julian Okwara, Jason Strowbridge, Terrell Lewis, Josh Uche
► Late-round fits: Trevis Gipson, Jonathan Garvin, James Smith-Williams
► Analysis: If the Lions are going to turn things around on defense, they're going to need to find a more reliable pass rush. The team made some roster adjustments during free agency, most notably the swap from Devon Kennard to Jamie Collins, but that's not going to be enough.
Let's refresh you on the numbers. First, pressure is a subjective measure tracked differently by the various companies that try. Regardless of the source, the Lions regularly check in near the bottom of the rankings.
According to ESPN, Detroit's defensive line finished last among the 32 teams, winning only 24% of pass-rush reps. Six teams won 50 percent or more, while only four teams were below 35%.
That resulted in opposing quarterbacks having more time to pass, on average, against the Lions than any other defense.
It's highly unlikely Collins cleanly replaces all the snaps Kennard played on the edge. The new addition is a more versatile player who also adds value in coverage. But in terms of generating pressure, Collins was far more efficient than Kennard last season.
The Lions also should get a boost from a fully healthy Trey Flowers, who got off to a slow start his first season with the Lions due to offseason shoulder surgery. In his first seven games, he averaged 2.8 quarterback pressures. That jumped to five pressures the final nine games.
But where else is the pressure going to come from up front? Romeo Okwara saw his sack total steeply regress in his second season with the Lions. He only had 1.5 in 14 games in 2019. And the other options, including last year's fourth-round pick Austin Bryant, are unproven.
Barring an unexpected late push for free agent Jadeveon Clowney, or an equally unlikely trade for one of the franchised players such as Yannick Ngakoue, the draft is the best bet.
Speaking of unlikely, Young would instantly fill the Lions' need, but the Ohio State defender is expected to be gone before the team is on the clock at No. 3. After that, the drop-off in talent is noticeable.
If the Lions were able to score a second first-round pick in one of the speculated trade-down scenarios with Miami, that would put Gross-Matos or Chaisson in play. Otherwise, Detroit is left to hope Epenesa's poor combine pushes him into the second round, or roll the dice on Okwara's younger brother, Julian, who was looking great before breaking his leg last season.
Risk and fit are going to be the issues after the first round. Beyond Okwara, Alabama's Lewis and North Carolina State's Smith-Williams offer high-ceiling upside wrapped in durability concerns.
Then you have Uche, coming off a strong senior season at Michigan and an outstanding showing at the Senior Bowl. Similar to Ngakoue, Uche has some real potential as an edge rusher, but at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds — even with longer than average arms — he's not a great fit for Detroit's scheme, which expects the players on the outside to be able to regularly set the edge against the run.
Paths to improvement seem obvious for so many of Detroit's needs, but pass-rush is not one of them. Regardless on the approach that's settled upon, one thing is clear, the Lions cannot go into the 2020 season without further upgrades, or opposing quarterbacks will continue to pick the defense apart.