Lions linemen 'excited' by addition of Dwight Freeney to help struggling pass rush

DETROIT -- His space sat empty in the Detroit Lions locker room Thursday afternoon, other than the nameplate above it: Freeney 99. Dwight Freeney would not play in Detroit’s Thanksgiving loss to the Minnesota Vikings, not a surprise considering 24 hours earlier, he didn’t know what team he’d be playing for after being cut by Seattle.

The Lions did something that arguably they should have done long ago -- acquired the potential future Hall of Famer to help with their sagging pass rush. And among defensive lineman, Freeney is the stuff of legend.

Still productive and playing at age 37 -- one year older than the 36 years of age Barry Sanders and Dick Butkus were when they were enshrined in Canton -- Freeney’s signing gave the Lions' defensive front something immediate that they didn’t have before.

Credibility and a burst of old new energy.

“Yeah, I got a chance to meet him. I was excited,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “He has over 100-something career sacks, man. Like, GOAT. He was in Seattle, how many sacks did he have?”

Three in four games, Spence was told, before being asked what he’ll be able to do for Detroit.

“He’s going to do what he’s done his whole career, which is sack the quarterback,” Spence said. “Hey, I’m all for it. We could use a little help sacking the quarterback and, hey, bringing in a guy like that, like you said, three sacks in four games. I’ll take it. I’ll take it.”

That was clearly the Lions’ thought process once Freeney became available.

Freeney will not be the dominant player he once was, the one-man All-Pro pass-rushing dynamo who could have transformed Detroit’s front four. If he was still that player, he wouldn’t have been let go by Seattle. Probably wouldn’t have lasted into the regular season as a free agent.

At age 37, that’s not Freeney anymore. There are pieces of greatness still there, bursts of big-time play that Detroit is lacking, and that’s what the Lions are hoping for during the last month of the season. Freeney certainly will have a role, something accentuated further Saturday when Detroit waived one of its other defensive ends, rookie Jeremiah Valoaga.

“He’s always been consistent,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “He’s been able to pressure the quarterback, even this year he’s been able to do so. He’s one of those guys. He’s unusual because he’s taken great care of his body.

“He’s obviously got some gas in the tank. We’re looking forward to getting him out there.”

His debut should come Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, adding another rotational piece to a defensive line group needing assistance. The Lions entered last week with a sack percentage of 6.1 -- No. 21 in the NFL -- and have 21 sacks, which is tied for 20th in the league.

The Lions have two players with five or more sacks -- Ezekiel Ansah with 5.0 and Anthony Zettel with 6.5. Zettel has been a nice piece, a good addition similar to what the Lions found last season in the now-injured Kerry Hyder Jr.

Freeney can add to that, a pass-rusher who still has some burst -- and someone whom the Lions defensive linemen who got a chance to meet him Thursday all seemed excited about. That’s from both a talent perspective and a learning perspective.

“Freeney’s a beast. He’s a future Hall of Famer,” defensive end Kasim Edebali said. “I remember when I was in New Orleans and played with Kevin Williams, he’s been in the league for a long time, and he came in and to have an OG vet like him come in, everybody’s going to get better.

“If you have somebody like him around, he’s going to elevate everybody’s game, just from learning and talking to him, things you might not see. So I think everybody is excited.”