Lions need to mine free agency, draft for DL help even with Ezekiel Ansah's return

Dontari Poe could be a possible free-agent replacement for Haloti Ngata on Detroit's interior defensive line. Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the defensive line with the Detroit Lions.

2018 cap hits of top returnees:

DE Ezekiel Ansah: $17.143 million

DT Akeem Spence: $4.25 million

DE Cornelius Washington: $3,471,875

DT A’Shawn Robinson: $1,427,356

DE Anthony Zettel: $660,931

Pending free agents: DT Haloti Ngata, DE Dwight Freeney, DE Brandon Copeland (restricted), DT Jordan Hill

Key stat: The Lions had 35 sacks last season, with 34.2 percent of those sacks coming from Ansah, who was franchise tagged last week. Detroit had sacks on 6.1 percent of passing attempts last season but in general struggled to maintain a pass rush.

Money matters: Ansah is the big number here and the Lions are hoping for similar production out of him (perhaps more diversified, though, as nine of those sacks came in three games). Otherwise, this is a position needing both talent and having the room to spend. Besides the players listed above, Kerry Hyder returns as an exclusive rights free agent. Even Ngata and Copeland could come at reasonable prices relative to their talents if Detroit chooses to bring them back.

Big picture: The Lions need pass rush help and should find a run-stuffer as well whether or not Ngata returns for 2018. If he does, Detroit has to find his eventual replacement -- probably through the draft. If he doesn’t, this is a spot where free agency and the draft could come into play. The combination of Robinson and Spence is OK, but neither one is going to command double teams or the type of attention even Ngata does entering his mid-30s.

The Lions also have to find pass rush. Zettel had a decent year with 6.5 sacks and Hyder was looking like a breakout candidate before an Achilles injury ended his season in the preseason opener. It’s not clear what type of player he’ll be like recovering from what is a difficult injury.

The big picture here, too, is the Lions have to start planning for life without Ansah. There’s no guarantee he’s around -- or that the Lions want to keep him -- past 2018. So finding edge rushers for Matt Patricia’s multiple defense should be a paramount concern over the next two-plus months.

The game plan: Likely a combination of free agency and the draft, although neither one has much depth on the interior, Atlanta’s Dontari Poe (age 27) and Carolina’s Star Lotulelei (age 28) are the two most attractive options as possible replacements for Ngata. Both, though, should have decent markets for their services. If Seattle’s Sheldon Richardson somehow hits the market, he could be another high-end option but it’s not clear Detroit will go that direction. Muhammad Wilkerson is out there, too, but his likely cost should be too high for Detroit.

There are some cheap-to-mid-range options that could make sense for Detroit, though. Aaron Lynch, the defensive end from San Francisco, is a player who could make sense for Detroit as a low-cost, high-upside flier after missing 14 games over the past two years. Geneo Grissom is a player with New England ties (i.e. understanding what Patricia will likely run) and should be fairly inexpensive. Dominique Easley is another player with New England ties but is a high, high-risk player after missing 2017 with a torn ACL. The 25-year-old has missed games in three of his four NFL seasons.

The draft is not a big-time class here, either, but there are some intriguing players in the first two rounds, particularly at defensive end. UTEP’s Marcus Davenport and Boston College’s Harold Landry are possible first-round picks with ties to the Lions staff as their position coaches last year are now with Detroit (Paul Pasqualoni for Landry, Bo Davis for Davenport). Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard is another potential Round 1 pick.

On the interior, Washington’s Vita Vea is a possibility at No. 20 if he’s still there and there’s a little more depth, with Alabama’s Da'Ron Payne (another player who was coached by Davis), Stanford’s Harrison Phillips, Florida’s Taven Bryan, Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle and Florida State’s Derrick Nnadi players who are likely to be picks within the first two rounds.

The one thing that is obvious, though, is that the Lions need to find at least one player on both the interior and on the edge to fix what was perhaps Detroit’s biggest issue over the past two years. It would also help the Lions prepare for the future.