The Detroit Lions needed to make a move like this, although it came in a most unexpected way.
The Lions were silent for days after Ndamukong Suh agreed to leave and head to Miami in a record deal. Other free agents were making deals all over the place and hardly any were linked to Detroit.
Then five minutes before the new league year started, Detroit made a splash that could start healing the wounds for losing Suh.
In picking up Haloti Ngata from Baltimore, the Lions picked up a former All-Pro just leaving his prime to help replace Suh, who is an All-Pro in the middle of his prime. While Ngata isn’t going to replace the production or the consistent need for a double-team that Suh brought to the Lions, he is going to be a good player and a known quantity who can give Detroit flexibility on the line.
But the trade is just as important in its symbolism as it is in Ngata’s actual play. Ngata was an All-Pro five times and is still considered among the best defensive tackles in the league. Ngata was rated as the ninth-best 3-4 defensive end in 2014 by Pro Football Focus with 14 quarterback hurries.
That type of production doesn’t come close to Suh, who had 37 quarterback hurries, but he is at least a short-term solution for the Lions as they try to replace the player and save face from losing Suh. So don't mistake this as a massive move that will take the place of what Suh would have brought. It won't.
But the Lions had to make a move like this after allowing Suh to walk out the door after spending over a year boasting confidence they would be able to bring him back to Detroit on a long-term deal. They had to be able to do something to convince their fan base that they had a plan beyond Suh. While it is unknown when thoughts of making this deal first materialized, at least it allows the Lions to save face in the short term for losing one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
Ngata isn’t Suh -- at least not now at age 31. He isn’t going to have as many productive years left as the 28-year-old Suh will. Ngata hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2011, although the four games he missed last season were due to a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
The Lions know what they are getting in Ngata, though, more than some other teams that make trades. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and head coach Jim Caldwell were both around Ngata in Baltimore. Austin, specifically, would know if Ngata would be a fit in his defense since he watched him work daily from 2011 to 2013.
The trade for Ngata, though, once again raises the question of whether Detroit is headed to a scheme switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Ngata was a 3-4 defensive end with the Ravens almost his entire career -- only playing in a 4-3 in his rookie season, when he was the right defensive tackle. So he has some familiarity with the 4-3 if the Lions stick with the defense they have run the past handful of years.
But what the Lions do in terms of scheme will likely be dictated by the other signings and moves the team makes, not just the trade for Ngata that kicked off the new league year for the Lions.
Ngata won’t solve all of Detroit’s issues but, at least in the short term, he is a start for a franchise recovering from the loss of its best defensive player.