As we saw, several of the defensive tackles (Redding, Cody, Fluellen, Cohen) have a build, athleticism (or both) suitable for flexing to the outside in a 3-4, or even 4-3 alignment. Let's now take a look at the ends . . .
Dewayne White: Signed to a moderately lucrative free agent contract after the 2006 season, White was a Tampa Bay understudy who'd shown promise as a situational pass rusher, but hadn't been able to crack the starting lineup. At 6'-2", 273 lbs, White is a protoypical 4-3 strongside end, reminiscent of Robert Porcher. He possesses the natural size and strength to not be a liability in the run game, while still being athletic enough to be effective as a pass rusher. Initially he was supposed to be a bookend to former Lion Kalimba Edwards--but when Edwards couldn't generate the pressure that the Tampa 2 requires, White was frequently used out-of-position on the weakside. This means that instead of trying to beat bigger, slower right tackles, White was usually lined up against the opponent's best pass blocker. There were doubts that White had enough speed to be consistently disruptive there--yet, in his first seven games as a Lion, White had 23 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 interception and three passes defensed. This included a monster performance against his former team, the Bucs: 8 tackles (7 solo), 3 sacks, and 1 pass defensed. Anyone who watched this game had a hard time not feeling like the Lions might have finally gotten a free agent signing right. At the pivot point of the season, however, when the Lions were 6-2 and riding high, White injured a tricep. He missed the debacle at Arizona, and the brutal home loss to the Giants (two of the worst football games I can remember watching). Though he rushed himself back to help stop the Lions' bleeding, he wasn't as effective. White finished with 43 tackles and 6.5 sacks--five of those tackles coming in the last game of the year. In 2008, it was practically the same story: White roared through the first half of the season, including 5.5 sacks and a monster 10-tackle game against Houston--then got injured, missed 4 games, and ended up with just 38 tackles and 6.5 sacks. White is a fiery competitor and a great 4-3 strongside end, but he has to find a way to stay healthy for 16 games. If he could keep up his typical first-eight-weeks production, he would be an 80-tackle, 12-sack guy; Pro Bowl material. Unfortunately, in a 3-4 White would be lost--3-4 ends take up blockers and stop the run, they don't rush the passer. And at 273 pounds, White may be a good athlete but he's no LOLB. In the 3-4 he'd be asked to cover tight ends in space, keep contain on screens . . . I don't see it happening. As a point of pure interest, White played at Louisville, and his freshman-through-junior seasons were during Scott Linehan's tenure there as the offensive coordinator. Bottom line: When healthy, White is an excellent all-around 4-3 SDE in the Porcher mold, but injuries have hampered his productivity. His contract alone will keep him around for '09, but a shift to a 3-4 would make him a fifth (fourth?) wheel.
Cliff Avril: Avril was drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft. Avril was an outside linebacker at Purdue, though he was pressed into service at the defensive end spot his senior year. He was ranked as an OLB by just about every scouting service--though most noted that his ability to put a hand down, combined with his size (6'-3", 252#), made his a prime candidate for a 3-4 pass-rushing ROLB. He expressed suprise to the media at the time (though can't find a quote right now) that an NFL team saw him as a down lineman, but made the commitment to be the best end he could be. He came through, and then some. Marinelli seemed to be intent on keeping Avril under wraps--he didn't see the field until after the bye week. He got his first sack against Washington in Week 8, and kept it up from there. By Week 14 he was the starting rush end, and he ended up leading all rookies with 5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. Avril displayed the rare edge speed and natural burst--what Marinelli disturbingly calls "get-off"--to blow past left tackles and sack the quarterback. Not only did he get actual sacks, he generated consistent pressure: flushing the QB out of the pocket, forcing a hurried throw, getting him to step up (and be sacked by a DT). THAT is the kind of pressure that the Tampa 2 requires to be successful. Had White and Avril been at their peak production at the same time, and the Lions been able to hold a team to less than five yards per carry rushing, you would have seen a lot more of the defense Rod Marinelli was trying to build. Now, Avril hasn't done it for anywhere near a whole season, and he hasn't had to face double-teams yet. In a 4-3, he must spend all offseason trying to add upper-body strength and honing his technique. He's going to have to be able to get and keep hands off of him, and he's going to have to develop a strong inside move to keep OTs honest. In a 3-4, his upside is practically unlimited--he could easily be the next Lamar Woodley. At Gunther's introductory press conference, he gushed about Avril's potential and how he'll use him in many ways. Bottom Line: Avril is a real gem, and possesses legitimate pass-rush ability, either as a 4-3 rush end or a 3-4 ROLB. He should get double-digit sacks in 2009, almost regardless of scheme.
Ikaika Alama-Francis: The man they call "Five-O" (he's from Hawaii . . . GET IT?!?!?!) is a 6'-5", 280 lb. SDE who, theoretically, possesses a rare combination of size, speed, and strength. He dominated at Hawaii, despite never having played football until then-Hawaii-DC Jerry Glanville (yes, he who used to leave tickets for Elvis at the Georgia Dome) saw him play on the basketball team and invited him to try out for the pigskin squad. Apparently Glanville called him "the most talented defensive lineman" he ever coached, which is saying something. Still, when he was drafted in the second round, the Lions staff made it clear that "Five-O" was a long-term project. Brutally raw in technique and use of leverage, Marinelli thought he could grill this rare slab of meat into a 290-pound DE steak. We have not seen much of IAF--he barely saw the field his rookie year, and played in 13 games with 2 starts in 2008. In those two starts, he garnered a mere three tackles combined. However, he showed up big in two road games, at Houston and at Indianapolis; in both games he had four tackles and half a sack. I'd like to say this shows flashes of his promise being fulfilled, but . . . well, it doesn't. Five-O is still completely green, and it remains to be seen if the light will go on in time. If he somehow put it together, with his frame and athleticism could make him a true force against the run at the 4-3 SDE spot. He could be a great rotational combo with Dewayne White, possibly flexing to under tackle on obvious passing downs. For that matter, IAF's frame and game make him a perfect 3-4 DE; perfect for demanding and occupying blockers. He and Shaun Cody, at the peak of their potential, could be hugely disruptive wingmen if centered by a proper nose tackle. Bottom Line: Five-O might remind MSU basketball fans of Marquise Gray: a potentially devastating talent who hasn't yet put it together--and may not ever. For now, throw him on the "4-3 SDE/UT project who'd make a theoretically ideal 3-4 DE" pile.
Corey Smith: a sixth-year journeyman who started his career in . . . take a guess? Yes, Tampa Bay. At 6-2", 250", he seems undersized, but he plays bigger than that. As the backup rush end, I intially wrote him off, but Smith seemed to have a way of getting in on plays. In just 12 games and 3 starts, Smith racked up 30 tackles, 3 sacks, and an interception; rivalling Cliff Avril's production. Towards the end of the year, it seemed like I was always mumbling to myself, "Hey, there goes Corey Smith again." However, where Avril was a rookie in 2009, at age 29 Smith is in his theoretical prime. Smith appears to be a hardworking, high-motor guy who doesn't give up on plays and has good instincts. He's a valuable reserve who's shown he can come off the bench and rush the passer. I haven't seen him play in space, but he could probably translate to OLB in a 3-4 quite easily. Bottom Line: Smith is a low-cost hard worker--and could probably rush the passer out of any scheme. A depth keeper.
Jared Devries: DeVreis, Iowa's all-time #1 sackmaster, has found a way to stick on the Lions' roster through ten seasons, six head coaches, and an almost unfathomable number of losses. A third-round pick in 1999, DeVries persevered, and started a career-high 10 games in 2007, and 9 in 2008. A quintessential case of effort and heart overcoming lack of talent, the 6'-4", 275 lb. Iowa farmboy has put up just 16.5 sacks in his ten-year career, 6.5 of which came in his breakout year in 2007. However, with Avril and Smith at the rush end spot, Devries will have to go back to waiting for someone (Dewayne White) to get hurt. Unfortuately, he may not have to wait long . . . Bottom Line: a great guy, all effort and heart. One of the very very very few pre-Millen Lions left. I'd love to see him retire a Lion, but he might have to fight for a roster spot next season if the Lions stay in a 4-3 . . . can't see a place for him in a 3-4.
SUMMARY: The defensive ends are a classic case of perspective. If you put on the rose-colored glasses, Dewayne White and Cliff Avril are double-digit sackers when healthy, and could be very dangerous when paired. IAF could play a "Justin Tuck"-ish role in the defense, going both inside and outside to maximize his strengths. Corey Smith and Jared Devries are both high-effort veterans. OR . . . Avril hasn't proved anything, getting five sacks in some meaningless games, Dewayne White is always hurt, IAF is a project and will always bee one, and Smith and Devries are scrubs.
Given all the other holes, I'm choosing optimism here. In the middle of the season, I wanted a blazing 4-3 rush end like Brian Orakpo . . . but I've since become an Avril believer. Considering how all-around awful the defense was, ANY depth or talent added to ANY defensive position would be nice. If a third-rounder was spent on an eventual Smith/Devries replacement, I would consider it wise for sure--but, I don't see a real need to acquire a starter at defensive end this year. At 4-3, we're okay, and at 3-4, we have about six possible 3-4 DEs to fight for two starting spots.