To analyze the defensive line properly, we're going to have to briefly review whether the pentagonal peg that is the talent is going to be hammered into a square or round hole: a scheme that utilizes four or three down linemen. Schwartz and Cunningham have actively evaded this question as they're going to try to fit the scheme to the talent and not the other way around. Since they've only just begun the process of evaluating the talent they currently have, in theory they have no better idea whether they will run a 4-3 or 3-4 than you or I. Let's evaluate the talent from both perspectives.
Cory Redding: Redding is the highest-paid defensive lineman on the Lions' roster. Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, he was a strongside DE at the University of Texas, and a linemate of Shaun 'Big Baby' Rogers. He was drafted as a DE/DT 'tweener, a guy who could dominate against the run on first and second-and-short, and then move inside and rush the passer on second-and-long and third down. This past season was his sixth, and at 28 he should just be entering his prime. He's listed at 6'-4", 295, though I thought he looked at least 15 lbs. heavier than that this season. When Rod Marinelli came to town to install the Tampa 2, Redding was tabbed as an 'under' tackle in the making, a one-gap pass rushing DT in the mold of a young Warren Sapp. As many know, Redding had a breakout season in 2006, playing like a stud in Shaun Rogers' absence, garnering 8 sacks. However, when Rogers came back in 2007, rather than pick up where he left off, Redding mostly disappeared. He took another step back in 2008, even though Rogers was gone once again. Playing in only 13 games due to a late-season knee injury, Redding was completely pedestrian, getting 38 tackles and three sacks. Redding is nothing like the force the Lions thought they were getting when they signed him to a monster deal after the 'o6 year. He's definitely got the athleticism to be a disruptive presence in the middle, but either he has quit on the Lions or he's lost something. Out of shape? Less weight work, more twelve-ounce curls? It's difficult to say. Of course, it's significant that he's the only Lions lineman that ever commands a double-team, so that can account for some of it--but then he rarely beats the double-team like a premier DT can. In a 4-3, he is definitely too big and too slow to play defensive end, but with the right motivation he could still be a solid starter at the smaller tackle spot. In a 3-4, he would make a very good defensive end--he'd just stand there and take up two blockers so the LBs behind him can make a play! As a 3-4 nose tackle, however, I think Redding would be overmatched. He could take up a double-team, but not regularly shed it or split it to make plays. From an off-the-field perspective, Redding is extremely popular in the locker room and is typically voted a captain. As one of the few holdovers from the pre-Marinelli era, Redding is a rare Lions veteran and a strong, vocal leader. Even if his play on the field doesn't justify his exorbitant salary, now is not the time to start ditching positive locker room leaders. Bottom Line: The Lions are committed to Redding money wise for at least 2009 and maybe 2010, so look for him to be starting as a 4-3 UT or 3-4 DE/NT in '09.
Shaun Cody: Four years ago, Cody came into the league as the star of the not-hit reality TV show "Super Agent", a second-round pick in the draft, and the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. Listed at 6-4", 310, Cody played both inside and outside at USC. Lacking the speed to be a full-time pass rusher, yet lacking the bulk and strength to throw people around, Cody was prized for being a hardworking, talented football player who was productive at the highest level of college football--sure to find a place in the NFL. After being drafted by the Lions, Cody immediately got into the rotation, playing in every game, and even started two. He got 27 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his rookie year . . . up until Redding went down with a knee injury in late 2008, it was Cody's most productive year. Shaun Cody has been mostly invisible in his tenure with the Lions, not exactly what you want out of a highly touted second-round pick. Until late 2008, he didn't flash much heart or motor, and even when he did he failed to make an impact. This year, however, as he matured and his opportunities grew, he was starting to get upfield, make solid tackles, and collapse the pocket. He didn't get any sacks, but he did get 36 tackles (25 solo) and three passes defensed--all three numbers are career highs. Of course, these are still very mediocre numbers for a DT that played in every game and started four--but at least the needle moved. Moreover, Cody's body type and game are ideally suited for the end position in a 3-4 alignment--if the Lions were to move to a 3-4, keeping Cody would make sense--however, this being the offseason after his fourth year, Cody is now due to be an unrestricted free agent. Bottom Line: the Lions' interest in retaining Cody will probably depend on the chosen defensive alignment. If they choose a 3-4, they may pay to keep him as an end. If they stay in a 4-3, he could be allowed to walk.
Andre Fluellen: Fluellen was a rookie this year, a 6'-2", 296 lb. third-round pick from Florida State. At FSU, he was a tenacious and disruptive interior run stopper--when healthy. The coaching staff has repeatedly claimed he's a better player than any recent FSU DT, including guys like Darnell Dockett and Broderick Bunkley. In the NFL, his height, frame, and athleticism projects him as candidate to see time both inside and outside (detecting a theme yet?). As I posted earlier, "Flu" really started to flash his talent towards the end of the year:
"Andre Fluellen, on the other hand, barely saw the field until the bitter end, but when he did I noticed something. Andre Fluellen was bringing guys down in the secondary for eight yard gains. He was forcing running backs out of bounds. He was wrapping up wideouts on WR screens, after said WRs juked the corners. He wasn't ever collapsing the pocket or throwing guys around, but Fluellen-at 296 pounds mind you--was frequently the second or third guy in on every tackle, everywhere on the field. That speaks volumes about A) his level of effort, and B) his athleticism."
I really like Fluellen's future in the two-years-out timeframe. His motor and hustle would let him contribute as a 4-3 strong side end, but after adding bulk and strength, I see him as a replacement for Cory Redding: a big, lean defensive tackle with a motor and tackling skills. In the 3-4, his size would make him seem like an end prospect--but I am not sure he has the point-of-attack strength and bulk to keep the linemen behind him clean. Also, he wouldn't be used much on stunts or traps, where he could use his lateral and deep speed to get upfield and disrupt. I think if he could add 20 or 30 pounds over the next several years and work on his strength and technique, his short, wide frame and high motor could allow him to be a pocket-collapsing nose tackle. Bottom line: a talented natural one-gap player who could blossom into a force as he goes through NFL training and nutrition. In 2009 I see him as a 4-3 SDE/UT, or a 3-4 DE.
Landon Cohen: Cohen was a seventh-round draft pick last year from Ohio. Not the Buckeyes, the Bobcats. He was a destroyer up the middle--despite his relatively light 6'-4", 278 lb. physique. Interestingly Cohen was a 4-year letterman in track at his high school in Spartanburg, SC. Track! At Ohio, Cohen played the nose tackle position despite being a little undersized for that, even by MAC standards. And yet, he was 2nd-team all-conference his senior year, with 59 tackles (27 solo), 12.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks, starting all twelve games. Despite being a little taller and notably thinner than fellow rookie Andre Fluellen, Cohen is listed on the Lions depth chart as a nose tackle. He saw time against several teams, setting his career high in tackles against the Colts (4). I didn't get to see much of him, but from what I can find in scouting reports, he has excellent technique and leverage, helping him make up for his lack of beef. He seems to excel in initial burst and shedding blocks with quick moves, but doesn' t have the range or athleticism to run around making plays on the edge or in space. According to the info I can find, he's at his best as a one-gap upfield rusher. Bottom line: Cohen is a true 4-3 one-gap nose tackle who was born a little too small. If he could add a lot of bulk he could stay at NT--otherwise, he's another 4-3 UT/3-4 DE project.
Chuck Darby: The "War Daddy" was one of the system players brought in by Rod Marinelli. Darby was an undrafted free agent NT who spent 2000 on the Bucs' practice squad, then got signed in 2001, and finished the 2002 season by starting in the Super Bowl. Darby left for Seattle as a free agent, and they were happy to get him. By all accounts, Darby was a valued teammate whose intensity and relentless drive helped rally everyone around him. Seattle wanted to keep him, but Marinelli pushed hard to get him signed first. Not ideally sized at 6'-0", 297" (DETECTING A THEME YET?), Darby plays with great passion and motivation. When able to get the edge on his opponent, Darby can be a disruptive force up the middle on both passing and running downs. However, he is unable to maintain his extraordinary effort for a great number of snaps, and with the Lions defense often being hung out to dry by the offense, Darby became a situational player. Also, when facing elite interior linemen, Darby is erased--he posted just three total tackles in two games against Minnesota's Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson--at some point, effort cannot overcome a lack of size and talent. Bottom line: Darby could make a good 3-4 end, but would be a liability at NT. No matter the alignment, Darby is a valuable rotational player who brings emotional leadership on and off the field--and comes at a low cost. If he'll stay, we should keep him.
Langston Moore: Moore is a 4th-year veteran still coming into his own. He's made an impression ever since the Lions signed him late in the 2006 season. A former sixth-round pick of the Bengals, he's on his third NFL roster--which is odd because for a sixth-rounder who's bounced around so much, he's seen plenty o f action. At 6'-1", 305 lbs, Moore is a little shy on bulk for an NT (is there an echo in here?). Moore has been an effective rotational body at NT, enough so that he was one of eleven defensive linemen kept on the original 53-man roster. Moore is an intelligent, enthusiastic young player with burgeouning business interests off the field, but he's already behind Cohen on the depth chart, and I don't see that changing any time soon. Bottom line: Moore will probably be the first guy cut . . . if he sticks around, he'll be 4-3 DT depth.
Going by listed height and weight, and the roles they typically play, the Lions have 4 guys who are somewhere between a 4-3 strongside run-stuffing DE, a 3-4 DE, and a 4-3 'under' or 'three-technique' DT. The only natural 4-3 nose tackles they have are both sub-300-pounders. In case you didn't notice, there is a recurring theme of 'undersized'. The Lions do not have enough bulk up the middle, and were regularly pushed around in the run game. This was most evident in the Thanksgiving Day debacle, where Tennesee's excellent offensive line and running backs were absolutely gashing the Lions for 7-, 10-, 20-yard chunks just by running up the middle. It really looked like the Titans put it in the cooler before the first quarter was out--but just running the same four or five run plays was absolutely blowing holes in the Lions defense. If the Lions stay with a 4-3, they are going to need to improve upon Chuck Darby as a starting NT, and either Redding is going to have to recapture his 2006 form, or Fluellen is going to have to take big strides and make an impact, or both. If they move to a 3-4, the Lions will be absolutely destitute at NT. The biggest body they have is Cody, and IMO he would be worthless as a two-gap tackle. Redding could pound some cheeseburgers and be subpar there, but nobody else--Darby, Cohen, Fluellen--could even hope start at NT in 2009. They would have to acquire a starter--either a proven veteran free agent, or a rookie acquired with one of their first three picks. The good news is that there would be a surplus of young, interesting 3-4 DEs. If you had a rejuvenated Redding, Cody, and Fluellen rotating between two DE spots, with a big fat dude in the middle, THAT could be an effective DL.
On the free agent market, the "big fish" is Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, a monstrous talent who is practically a run defense unto himself. Many Lions fans hope that Haynesworth is looking to move with his defensive coordinator, new Lions HC Jim Schwartz, but that runs counter to everything Lewand and Mayhew have openly said about their plans to build through the draft instead of free agency. Mayhew even explicitly said that the Lions won't be making the huge-money deal for the splashy guy at midnight the first day . . . which seems exactly the kind of deal Haynesworth will be looking for. There are a few intriguing veterans who may get a look, like Tampa DT Jovan Haye, but I don't see a quick fix out there. In the draft, the premium talent is a guy I suggested people watch a while ago, Boston College man-elephant B.J. Raji. Raji is an honest 350 and is exactly the sort of dominating bulk you want as a 3-4 two-gap tackle--yet he shows burst and athleticism too. His downfall appears to be consistent effort and motivation, but then many physical freaks run into those issues. How many of you out there are clamoring for Shaun "25 Snaps and Four Tanks of Oxygen" Rogers back right now? If Raji were available at the 1.20 spot, he'd be very hard to pass up--no matter the defensive alignment we choose.
Next up, defensive ends . . .