Lions Analysis | Defense
After a big investment in the defense in the 2021 NFL Draft, could we see some different faces starting for the Lions in 2021?
Interior Defensive Line
Defensive tackle Nick Williams agreed to a pay cut to stay with the Lions for 2021. He registered 23 tackles and 1 sack for the team last season while making 13 starts.
Well, this is awkward. Not long after the Rams traded for Stafford, Michael Brockers said the Rams “leveled up” at quarterback. He was then traded to the Lions during free agency and reunited with his former QB. Brockers declined to cut his pay, which prompted Los Angeles to trade him to free up salary cap space. He started all 15 games he appeared in during 2020 and amassed 51 tackles, 5 sacks, and 10 QB hits.
The Lions invested heavily in the defensive tackle position in the 2021 NFL Draft. The addition of Levi Onwuzurike could see Brockers with a new starting partner when the season begins. He will compete with Williams and fellow draft pick Alim McNeill. Those four could make a fantastic combination as a rotational combination on the interior of the Lions’ line.
Entering his fourth season, all with Detroit, Da’Shawn Hand started just one game in 2020. He finished the year with 19 tackles in 10 appearances.
The Lions managed to bring back one of their depth chart’s most productive players last season in Romeo Okwara. Signed to a three-year, $39 million deal, Okwara cashed in after a career year in 2020. He generated 61 total pressures, fifth-most among edge rushers, to go along with a career-best 10 sacks.
Trey Flowers is entering the third year on his massive contract, but it may be his last. The Lions have a potential out after this season that would reduce his cap hit over the next two seasons from $46.85 million down to $18.46 in dead cap. Flowers fractured his forearm in Week 8 and missed the final nine games of the 2020 season.
In 2019, Flowers totaled 7 sacks and 51 tackles in his 15 starts but saw a drop to just 2 sacks and 22 tackles during his injury-shortened campaign. Dan Campbell and the Lions will need to decide if Flowers will be a part of this rebuild or another cap casualty.
A 2017 first-round pick for the Miami Dolphins, Charles Harris joined the Lions on a one-year deal during free agency. The Falcons traded for him in 2020 but chose not to exercise his fifth-year option.
It’s now a family affair in Detroit, with Julian Okwara joining his brother Romeo on the Lions’ depth chart. Entering his second year in the NFL, Julian played in six games while totaling 3 tackles last season.
Coming into his ninth season in the NFL, Jamie Collins led Detroit’s defense in tackles with 101 last season. The Lions lowered his cap hit by $4 million this year as they restructured his contract in the offseason. Collins is a versatile linebacker who can cover well over the middle and rush the passer.
Jahlani Tavai is in limbo as the Lions seem unsure how he can work into their new defensive scheme. A second-round pick in 2019, Tavai has not made the impact fans hoped for, accumulating 58 tackles in 31 games with 2 sacks.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin re-signed with the Lions for a fifth season. In 55 career games (three starts), he produced 59 total defensive tackles and 31 total special-teams tackles.
The competition for starting roles at inside linebacker could be fierce in training camp. Alex Anzalone started nine games for the Saints, while Derrick Barnes comes in as a fourth-round pick. They will compete with Shaun Dion Hamilton and Anthony Pittman to be the primary backups initially. However, an impressive camp from any of the four could see them pushing for a starting role heading into the season.
Due to injuries that hampered his development, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft struggled as a rookie. In nine games with six starts, Jeffrey Okudah registered 1 interception, 2 passes defensed, and 47 tackles. Despite giving too much cushion at times, Okudah should be a playmaker for the Lions as a physical corner who can play downhill in run support with the best in the league.
After the flurry in free agency, the Lions were not done tinkering with their depth chart. On April 3, the Lions signed CB Quinton Dunbar to a one-year deal as they hope to shore up their secondary, which struggled mightily last season.
Dunbar appeared in six games for the Seattle Seahawks last year as knee problems required season-ending surgery. He finished 2020 with 1 interception and 5 passes defensed.
A fifth-round pick out of Penn State in 2019, Amani Oruwariye started 15 games last season. Oruwariye racked up 53 total tackles, 7 passes defensed, and 1 interception. He will compete with Dunbar and third-round selection Ifeatu Melifonwu for a potential starting role on the outside.
The competition for the starting nickel back is also intriguing. Corn Elder has filled that role previously in his career, but the Lions may very well try out Melifonwu, Dunbar, and Oruwariye in that role during camp. There are likely two starting positions at corner up for grabs in the coming weeks and months.
Addressing the safety position will be a hot topic for Detroit as they attempt to stabilize their depth chart.
Will Harris played in 15 games last year but only recorded 35 tackles and 1 pass deflection. After playing on 67% of the defensive snaps in the first two games, his playing time saw a drastic downturn midseason.
Tracy Walker saw a dip in production in 2020 following a switch from free to strong safety. During the 2019 season, he logged 843 snaps, 1 interception, 7 pass breakups, and 103 tackles. In 15 games last year, Walker posted 87 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and zero interceptions.
There is very little in the way of depth at the safety position. If a veteran safety becomes available as a trade candidate or in free agency, the Lions could be in the market to add more.
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