Names to know: A’Shawn Robinson, Sylvester Williams, De’Shawn Hand, Ezekiel Ansah, Kerry Hyder, Anthony Zettel
Defensive line may have been the weakest unit of the Lions roster in 2017. They regularly failed to create any sort of pressure as pass rushers last year and after Haloti Ngata went down with an injury they failed to effectively stop the run either. Ngata left for greener pastures in Philadelphia and left a giant hole in the Lions defensive line behind him.
Ziggy Ansah, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft, registered 12 sacks last season. While that is a number that jumps off the stat sheet, nine of those sacks came in three games and he was fairly ineffective in the other eleven he played. He is playing on the franchise tag this season, and another inconsistent season could be his last in Detroit.
The pass rushing position opposite Ansah may be a bigger question mark. Kerry Hyder had a great 2016 season but blew out his Achilles early in the Lions first 2017 preseason game. He should be ready for next season but injuries like such can have a huge negative effect on the explosiveness necessary to become a great pass rusher. Anthony Zettel filled in for Hyder last season but he was not great either. Zettel was a liability setting the edge against the run and rarely was an effective pass rusher.
The interior defensive line presents problems of its own. A’Shawn Robinson is the best player on the Lions defensive line but his skill set makes him more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. Sylvester Williams was signed from the Titans but he wasn’t very good against the pass or the run. 4th round pick Da’Shawn Hand is a project who may not become a regular contributor for a few years.
Detroit struggled to create pass pressure last season and that will likely be an issue again this season. Their best interior penetrator, Akeem Spence, is now in Miami and there is no one on the roster that can be depended on filling his role. Ansah is the teams best chance at an elite pass rusher but he hasn’t been able to contribute on a regular basis for years. Unless some of the younger players step up in a huge way the defensive line may be another source of issues in 2018.
*As of the publishing date of this article the Lions have not added any additional defensive tackles. They have been heavily linked to Rick Jean-Francois and may sign him after the day this is published. Francois is not a great pass rusher and is an average gap stuffing run defender at best*
Names to know: Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Christian Jones, Jaylen Reeves-Maybin
Linebacker proved to be another weakness for the Lions last season. Two starters from last years linebacking group, Paul Worrilow and Tahrir Whitehead, left as free agents but neither loss is anything that Lions fans should lose sleep over. Detroit invested in replacing them in free agency signing Devon Kennard and Christian Jones.
The Lions invested a first round pick in Jarrad Davis last season and are still waiting to see a return on their investment. The middle linebacker was a great run stuffer at the University of Florida but his capabilities stopping the run have not yet translated to the next level. He was even worse dropping into pass coverage last year. It was so bad that towards the end of the season he was regularly taken off the field on passing downs and replaced by cornerback Teez Tabor.
Kennard was the biggest free agent signing for the Lions last spring. The former New York Giant is a versatile defender who can play strongside linebacker, edge rusher and even line up as a 3-tech defensive lineman. The issue is that he isn’t exceptionally good at any of the three positions. He is also a liability in coverage and lacks the speed and explosiveness to regularly contribute as a pass rusher. Kennard can play the run better than Davis, though.
Jaylen Reeves-Maybin and Jones will compete for snaps at weakside linebacker. Reeves-Maybin was a fourth round pick for the Lions a year ago and was effective in a limited role last season. Detroit will hope that the sophomore linebacker makes a huge leap forward this offseason and can prove to be the coverage linebacker this team desperately needs. Christian Jones was a decent pass rusher but occasionally proved to be a liability in coverage last season.
Linebacker may yet again be an issue for Detroit this year. Unless Davis makes huge strides and Kennard begins to show talent we still haven’t seen from them than neither are really enough to move the needle. Reeves-Maybin may be the best linebacker on the roster but he has only played a limited role so far in his short career. The overall depth at linebacker isn’t very good.
For the second straight season, the Lions will enter the season praying that they can get away with having one of the worst linebacking corps in the league.
Names to know: Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson, Teez Tabor, Deshawn Shead, Quandre Diggs, Jamal Agnew
The Lions secondary stepped up in a huge way in 2017 and no one deserves more credit for it than Darius Slay. The corner has officially solidified himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and earned himself a first team all pro honor. He went toe to toe against some of the best receivers in the NFL in Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and AJ Green last season and held his own for the most part. He led all cornerbacks with 8 interceptions last season. Slay is an incredible playmaking corner and leaves the Lions defense with nothing to worry about on one side of the field.
The Lions may have a lot to worry about on the other side of the field. Nevin Lawson has been a liability in coverage and a penalty magnate the past couple of years. Detroit added Deshawn Shead in free agency but his best seasons may be behind him as well and he has never been the same since he tore his ACL in Seattle. Teez Tabor was an oft maligned second round pick out of Florida in 2017 that was inactive for much of last season, but did show a few flashes towards the end of last season. He has impressed reporters in OTA’s and the Lions may be prepping him to take over the starting role.
All three could be the answer at CB2. All three also are question marks and may prove to be liabilities if given a major role in the defense.
Quandre Diggs is the Lions best nickel corner. Diggs also played the latter half of the 2017 season at safety and a permanent move may be on the cards for him. Jamal Agnew or Tabor may fill the nickel position for Detroit if Diggs moves.
Agnew adds values on special teams as well. The rookie was named first team all pro last season after taking off as one of the leagues most effective return men last year.
Cornerback was one of the stronger positions on Detroit’s defense last season despite the lack of talent beyond Slay. There are still questions to be asked of the rest of the unit entering this season but they have three current options on the roster who all have shown flashes of greatness in the past. The nickel position may be figured out already depending on what the coaching staff chooses to do with Diggs. Corner should be one of the Lions strengths yet again this season.
Names to know: Glover Quinn, Tavon Wilson, Tracy Walker, Miles Killebrew
Safety was yet another strength for the Detroit Lions in 2017. Glover Quin remains one of the most underrated free safeties in the league and was rewarded this offseason with a contract extension to keep the Lions single high in Detroit for a long time. He should play almost all of the Lions snaps at free safety this season.
Detroit has many options at strong safety. Tavon Wilson is the projected starter and will take majority of the snaps there. The Lions like to use a lot of three safety sets, especially on third downs. Miles Killebrew seemed to fall out of favor late in the season. When Wilson went down with a shoulder injury Diggs replaced him while Killebrew rarely saw the field.
Tracy Wilson was the Lions third round selection in last springs draft. The Louisiana Lafayette product is a playmaking box safety that could play a limited role this season and should take a lot of snaps as a box safety.