ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There are three clear needs for the Lions that, if addressed over the offseason, could push the franchise to the next level. While other areas could also use upgrading and tinkering, these three position groups are more critical than others: defensive line, running back and offensive line.
It starts with the lack of productivity. For the second straight season, Detroit’s pass rush has been close to invisible. Injuries have played a role -- Kerry Hyder was lost for the season in the preseason opener and Ezekiel Ansah hasn’t been healthy all season.
The Lions have 23 sacks this season -- 19 of them coming from defensive linemen. As a team, they’ve had more than two sacks in only four games this year compared with five games with one or fewer sacks. The pass rush has not been present for the second straight season. With Ansah a pending free agent, the Lions have a big decision to make there.
It’ll be tough to give Ansah an expensive, long-term deal and it might make more sense for Detroit to start somewhat fresh. That could mean signing a bigger-ticket free agent, though the makeup of the class is still to be determined. But the draft is a place to start.
NC State’s Bradley Chubb had 10 sacks this year and is likely the best defensive end available. Arden Key is another pass-rusher who could provide immediate help. He had 24 career sacks at LSU. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he has the measurable traits defensive coordinator Teryl Austin likes in his rushers.
Boston College’s Harold Landry -- like Chubb and Key -- is likely to be gone by the time the Lions pick.
Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, both from Clemson, could be available in the range where the Lions will be picking and would be good adds as edge rushers. Bryant has 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss while Ferrell has 8.5 sacks and 16 TFL along with 12 QB pressures.
Detroit’s defensive line issues go beyond the edges. The interior is also in flux. Haloti Ngata is a free agent and there’s no guarantee he’ll be returning -- or that the Lions could count on him considering his age and injury history. A'Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence have been decent, but the Lions were at their best defensively when they had a pair of dominant tackles in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.
A player such as Michigan’s Maurice Hurst might not be at Suh’s level, but he’s good against the run and pass with 32 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Washington’s Vita Vea is more in the mold of Ngata at 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds and he’s more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, but he’s the type of space eater who could replace Ngata in the middle and give Robinson the chance to use his speed to get in the backfield.
Either way, this is a need.
Ameer Abdullah is entering the final year of his contract. Zach Zenner is a restricted free agent and Theo Riddick has no guaranteed money left for 2018. Dwayne Washington has done little with his opportunities and there are still many questions about rookie Tion Green. Plus, the Lions have one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL. The Lions would benefit from a dynamic rusher.
They are the second-worst team in the league in yards per game (78.3) and yards per attempt (3.35). Only the Cardinals, who lost star rusher David Johnson in the opener against the Lions, have been worse.
So using a first-round pick on one could make sense considering Detroit’s needs. While Penn State’s Saquon Barkley probably won't be around when the Lions pick, this is a reasonable draft for Detroit to snag a back in the first two rounds.
Bryce Love from Stanford is a pure runner who had 1,973 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Notre Dame’s Josh Adams is the type of complete back the Lions haven’t had in a while. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry after contact this season, 7.82 yards per carry overall and 121.5 yards per game. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Adams might have the right combination of size, speed and strength for the Lions to use in three-down situations.
Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson could be another option. He had 1,320 yards this season and 17 touchdowns and also caught 23 passes for 188 yards. At 6-foot, 212 pounds, he's a bigger option than Abdullah or Riddick.
For as much money as GM Bob Quinn poured into the offensive line this offseason, it still needs work. Injuries caused problems. Three starters have missed at least a game and a fourth, Rick Wagner, was injured against Baltimore.
Detroit is likely set at tackle for now with Taylor Decker and Wagner. The interior of the line needs work, though. Travis Swanson is a free agent and if the Lions don’t bring him back, Graham Glasgow would likely slide to center. The Lions signed T.J. Lang at right guard and when he’s been healthy, he’s been great. His health, though, has been an issue. While Lang will be in Detroit for the foreseeable future, having a strong interior lineman as a backup who can learn from him is key.
If Swanson leaves, the Lions could have an open competition at left guard with Joe Dahl and others, which could include a rookie. Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is the best guard prospect out there, and if the Lions decided to go with a guard for the second time in four seasons, he could be the guy. Another player to watch there would be Ohio State’s Billy Price, who can play guard and center and is familiar with Decker from their days together with the Buckeyes. So if the Lions like Glasgow at guard over center, drafting Price could create a two-way competition for whoever fits better at each spot.