Updated: Apr 17, 2020
My first article in a build up to the draft is an in-depth look into the state of the Lions franchise, looking at the roster as it stands after the first wave of free agency. This is the second part and focuses on the defense & special teams.
The roster and my grades on defense & special teams currently stand as follows:- (players listed according to my perception of the depth chart as it stands)
Trey Flowers outperformed his stats last season, with 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 51 tackles including 8 for a loss and 21 QB hits. He took the attention of the offensive line because there wasn't much pressure elsewhere and this production is in line with previous years. On his own this would be a B+. Unfortunately, the rest of the DEs lack quality. Hand is a tremendous player who got 3 sacks in his 2018 rookie season but injury restricted him in 2019 to only 3 games. Romeo Okwara filled in well but will not be more than a serviceable backup. Bryant played 4 games last year and made 8 tackles but asking him to be elite in 2020 seems unreasonable. Wynn and Herron will both struggle to make the roster, before injuries inevitably affect the team.
Danny Shelton (FA signing from NE)
Nick Williams (FA signing from CHI)
Danny Shelton is a free agent signing from New England. He is a 4 year starter in the league after being drafted in 2015 by the Browns. He had a career high 3 sacks and 1 forced fumble last year with the Patriots. The numbers don't jump off the chart but he is a run-stuffing DT who will replace 'Snacks' Harrison's run blocking ability. Detroit was awful against the run in 2019, conceding 4.1 yards per attempt for 1855 yards on the season, or 116 yards per game so Shelton is a welcome addition. Nick Williams played 16 games for Chicago (5 starts) last year, his first year above 5 games since 2015 with the Chiefs, logging 6 sacks and 42 tackles (24 solo). 6 sacks is an impressive return, but when you're on the D-line with Mr Mack you're bound to get some favourable matchups. Strong was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and played in 8 games (0 starts) for 5 tackles (3 solo) and may make the roster as the bottom ranked DT. Atkins and Sagapolu will struggle to make the roster. Clearly there is room for improvement here with only two starting calibre DTs and only one of these have played more than one full season in their recent history. There's a distinct lack of sack ability, which makes EDGE such a priority in the draft and the rest of free agency.
Jamie Collins Sr. (FA signing from NE)
Reggie Ragland (FA signing from KC)
Elijah Lee (FA signing from SF)
Steve Longa (now released per Pro Football Talk)
Jamie Collins is a high profile free agent signing also from New England, his second stint with the team. He's played 96 games, starting 86. Last year he played 16 games, with 15 starts, and had 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 81 tackles (58 solo) including 10 tackles for a loss with 7 sacks. He has struggled to produce away from New England, with his Cleveland adventure going awry, but there are high hopes that Patricia's NE "Culture" should allow him to produce in the Motor City. Jahlani Tavai had a positive rookie year after being a surprising (and underwhelming) 2nd round pick. He played 15 games (6 starts) and made 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 2 sacks, with 5 tackles for a loss. Jarrad Davis is in a make or break year, having been one of the worst MLB starters in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2017. The numbers look good, 41 games (41 starts), with 1 inteception, 5 forced fumbles (3 TDs) and 10 sacks with 18 tackles for a loss, however his passer rating allowed and missed tackle percentages betray the headless chicken that he can be in coverage. Don't expect Detroit to pick up the 5th year option without a big upturn in production this season. Ragland is a 3 year rotational player from Kansas City who started in the Super Bowl in February and is slated to be a rotational piece behind Davis this season. Jones is a two year starter in Detroit but hasn't set the world alight, whilst being consistently average. Reeves-Maybin is a special teams mainstay of the last couple of seasons but isn't likely to hit the field in defense this season without significant injuries. Lee, Cabinda, Pittman and Sam will all be in a tight battle to make the roster, even without upgrades via the draft or free agency.
Desmond Trufant (FA signing from ATL)
Darryl Roberts (FA signing from NYJ)
Tony McRae (FA signing from CIN)
The CB core has gotten significantly worse with the trade of Pro Bowler Darius Slay. Justin Coleman was a high profile free agent signing from Seattle last season and performed well in a bad defensive unit. He was playing at an elite level early in the year before falling away badly and Lions fans will hope he can recapture the early season form in 2020, although his fumble making ability was exciting to watch throughout. He goes into the season as the starting nickel corner. Desmond Trufant is a high profile signing from Atlanta who is a 7 year starter but missed 7 games through injury last year. He still managed to record a career high 4 interceptions last year despite this. His passer rating allowed breached 100 however last year, perhaps as he was playing without being 100% fit. He slots in as a good 1b corner but probably isn't the solution as a lone CB1. Amani Oruwariye has many fans clamouring for him to take the CB2 slot, showing promise in his 9 games (2 starts) with the Lions last year. His missed tackle % was very low at 5%, but that's probably because he wasn't in good positions to make tackles with a passer rating allowed of 108.5. CB is one of the harder positions to transition to the pros from college, another year in the system should see him improve, but I'd be happy to see him take the CB3 role on the outside, or CB2 nickel. Darryl Roberts is a 4 year man out of New York, starting most games in the last 2 years. He was a serviceable player, recording passing ratings allowed of 100.7 and 103.9 with an interception in each year, and he should vie with Oruwariye for a rotational spot on the team. Tony McRae is a backup CB from Cincinnati who was exposed last year with a passer rating allowed of 130.2 on 19 targets. Mike Jackson is an athletic monster but has struggled to make the teams in Miami, Dallas and Detroit in 2019. Agnew is the league's best return man once again but it would be best if he was not on the field for defense.
Overall, a starting level CB is seen by many as a must, whilst CB1B and nickel are locked up, with good rotational pieces.
Duron Harmon (Traded from NE and 7th round pick for a 5th round pick)
Jayron Kearse (FA signing from MIN
Duron Harmon was traded to Detroit as part of a salary dumping exercise and is known as "the finisher" for his ability to make game sealing interceptions. He's only missed 1 game in 7 years with the Pats, recording 17 interceptions in that span, including 2 last season. He will slot straight into the starting free safety position. Tracy Walker and Jayron Kearse will battle it out to feature alongside Duron at the strong safety spot. Tracy has been solid, but not spectacular start 12 games from free safety in 2019 for Detroit, whilst Jayron was a rotational player in Minnesota the last four seasons but only missed two games in that span and showed flashes. Will Harris will continue to improve in his second year and should see snaps in 3 safety looks, whilst Killebrew and Moore will contribute on special teams.
Detroit gets this high a grade as a solid special teams unit in general with one of the best kickers in the league, especially from long distance in Matt Prater and long snappers in Don Muhlbach, but doesn't go any higher than this as the long standing punter Sam Martin was not re-signed and Fox and Wile are both signed to reserve/future contracts. Of the two, Wile has some experience, playing in 22 games for various teams as punter and kickoff starter, with an average of 45.5 yards per punt and has the best shot of making the roster, although I would not be surprised for the Lions to bring in plenty of competition post-draft or make a 6th or 7th round pick a punter.
The whole unit has gotten better in free agency despite losing its best player in Slay, as well as Snacks and Daniels on the line, especially with the signings from New England who should fit well in the scheme, but there are gaping holes at corner and EDGE. Beyond that, the team needs to function better as a unit which comes from the coaching staff, and it is worrying that the team has been so poor considering Patricia was an excellent DC in New England (or perhaps he was benefiting from a certain Bill there). I believe in Matty P, I like the moves he's made thus far even if they haven't entirely worked out, but the draft needs to be very successful in order to contend with Green Bay and Minnesota for the division title - more on the draft letter.
Please leave any comments below, I'd appreciate the feedback!