The Detroit Lions report to Allen Park, Michigan, at various points this week to start the 2017 season -- rookies early in the week and veterans on July 29, leading up to the first day of practice on July 30. To get you ready for that, we’ll give a little bit more insight into each position group as camp gets going throughout the week.
Now, we’ll look at the defensive line.
Players: Ends -- Ezekiel Ansah, Kerry Hyder, Armonty Bryant, Cornelius Washington, Brandon Copeland, Alex Barrett, Jeremiah Valoaga, Anthony Zettel, Pat O’Connor. Tackles -- Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Khyri Thornton, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jordan Hill, Bruce Gaston, Ego Ferguson.
Roster locks: Ansah, Ngata, Robinson, Hyder
Where will the sacks come from? This is the biggest question the Lions have defensively. Detroit had major issues with quarterback pressure last season with 26 sacks, tied for 30th in the league. The Lions attribute the lack of production to opponents getting rid of the ball quickly against them and settling for short passes, but it doesn’t fully explain the lack of production. Without the necessary pressure, quarterbacks from the great (Aaron Rodgers) to the average (Sam Bradford) to the journeyman (Case Keenum) all played well against the Lions. Detroit didn’t do a lot to increase the pass pressure from a personnel standpoint in the offseason, only adding Washington at end and a bunch of rotation players at tackle, led by Spence. Bryant was thought to be a help, but he’ll miss at least four games to suspension. The hope for Detroit is Ansah plays more like the Pro Bowl player he was in 2015 than last year, when he struggled with injuries.
What do the suspensions mean? Remember the sack question from a second ago? The suspensions of Bryant (four games) and Thornton (six games) hurts the Lions mostly from a depth perspective. Both Bryant and Thornton seemed like they had good chances at making the 53-man roster with a rotational impact and now they’ll miss a good chunk of time. Depending how the Lions are faring when they are eligible to return, they might not end up with the Lions at all. Bryant’s suspension could open up a chance for an undrafted player such as Barrett or Valoaga to push harder for a roster spot. The Thornton suspension provides a clearer path to the roster for rookie Ledbetter. Either way, there will be tight competition for depth at both spots and particularly at tackle, where the Lions have veterans Hill, Gaston and Ferguson fighting for spots. Spence could be listed there, too, but he’s close to a roster lock. Just didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable going there yet, but he’s really close. As is Washington. The suspensions aided that.
Will Ansah return to form? This is the key for Detroit’s entire defense. Ansah returning to dominance forces opposing offensive coordinators to scheme against him and send extra help to his side -- either in the form of an extra tight end or running back. This should open up more one-on-one matchups for Hyder on the outside and Robinson on the interior to get to the passer, theoretically leading to more sacks. Ansah didn’t do much in spring workouts, but the Lions were likely being cautious with him. He’s not on the non-football injury or physically-unable-to-perform lists, so he should be ready to go. Don’t be surprised if Detroit continues to be careful with him during training camp because there’s an injury history there -- particularly with his shoulder and ankle. He’s also in a contract year, so this is a huge season for Ansah both on the field and in his finances. A return to his 14.5-sack form from 2015 could mean a massive payday (and it might mean one anyway if the Lions sign him to an extension before the season).
Will Robinson break out? He seems the most likely candidate among the defensive players to take the leap after a decent rookie season. He progressed throughout the season, finishing with 30 tackles, two sacks and seven passes defended -- an impressive number for a defensive tackle. He had his most productive games at the end of the season, with four tackles and a run-stuff each in games against Green Bay and Dallas. In the playoffs against Seattle, he had a career-best seven tackles. With a full offseason in an NFL program and another year to learn from Ngata, he has a chance to become a real presence in the middle of the Lions line. He’s the future of Detroit’s defensive line, particularly if he shows expected improvement.