Mon, 16 May 2022

2021 position breakdown: Defensive line

Detroit Lions
19 Jan 2022, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: The trade for veteran defensive end Michael Brockers proved to be a nice move for Lions general manager Brad Holmes. Brockers is exactly the kind of leader the Lions needed in the defensive line room to help rookies Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike along. Both rookies credited Brockers and veteran Nick Williams for taking them under their wing and showing them the ropes.

McNeill was a starter Day 1 since arriving in Allen Park, and though Onwuzurike had an up and down first season while battling some injuries early in the year, there were flashes of what he can be when his technique and pad level become more consistent. Improving his lower body strength is big focus this offseason.

The bad: Detroit finished 28th against the run, allowing on average 135.1 rushing yards per game. While that's really a total defense statistic, the first line of defense is upfront along the line, and there were too many inconsistencies against the run from that group this season. Five different times this year the Lions allowed more than 184 rushing yards in a game.

Detroit's 30 sacks on the year were third fewest behind only Atlanta (18) and Philadelphia (29). Only 4.5 sacks were generated by Detroit's nose tackles and defensive ends.

Key stat: Opponents faced a third or fourth and 1 against the Lions' defense 27 times this season and converted 22 of those. That's a 81.5 percent conversion rate, which was the second highest in the NFL behind only Cleveland (91.2).

Detroit's defense generated 28 negative rushes all year, which was tied for the fifth fewest in the NFL. Similar to what we mentioned above with the lack of sacks from the interior of their defensive line, there was an overall lack of playing on the opponent's side of the line of scrimmage. Part of that at times is scheme and playing gap defense, but Detroit could certainly use more disruption from their interior guys in 2022.

Free agents: Nick Williams (UFA)

Williams hasn't been able to replicate his breakout 2019 season where he recorded a career-high 6.0 sacks in his last year in Chicago. He's totaled just 1.5 sacks in 31 games the last two years with the Lions. He has done a good job mentoring some of the young players in that room, however.

2021 position breakdown: Offensive line O'HARA: How Lions have fared with the No. 2 overall pick TWENTYMAN: A look at the Lions' 34 free agents

Draft: The 2022 class of defensive linemen is pretty strong.

Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux are the two best pass rushers in the draft, but they are probably outside linebackers in Detroit's scheme.

Looking along the interior, Georgia's Jordan Davis, Texas A&M's DeMarvin Leal and Alabama's Phidarian Mathis are a few of the top players available.

The Lions will rely heavily on Brockers, Onwuzurike and McNeill next year, but don't be surprised if they opt to add to that group via either free agency or the draft.

MVP: Brockers was a steady presence both on the field and in the locker room for the Lions in his 10th season. While his sacks numbers were down from seasons past, his 52 tackles were the fourth most of his career. He was solid all year.

Most improved: McNeill was a starter from Day 1, but he really played some of his best ball late in the season. He's an athletic big man with a ton of strength. When his experience and technique catch up with his physical traits, he's got a chance to be one of the better nose tackles in the league.

Quotable: "We had a lot of growth. We played a lot of young players. We had a lot of young players have to play and guys that had to step up and their name was called and they had to be ready to play," Brockers said of his takeaways from the season.

"We had a lot of young guys and put them in situations where they might've got beat, might've had something happen, they learned lessons. I think that was the biggest deal about this year, allowing a lot of young guys get the experience they need and then go forward with that. Moving in the future where you've got a lot of second year guys that got a lot of experience and you know can get the job done."

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