*NOTE: VIDDLER HAS TAKEN DOWN ALL MY FILM CLIPS AND BANNED ME. WORKING ON IT.
Here are my “bottom line” summaries of each of the defensive tackles on the roster, as of the end of the 2008 season:
Cory Redding: The Lions are committed to Redding, money-wise, for at least 2009 and maybe 2010. Look for him to be starting as a 4-3 UT or 3-4 DE/NT in '09.
Shaun Cody: 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: 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 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: 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 will probably be the first guy cut . . . if he sticks around, he'll be 4-3 DT depth.It’s obvious that Mayhew and Schwartz saw the exact same thing that you and I do in this list: six players who have no business starting in the NFL, all of whom barely flirt with 300 pounds. Of these, only Fluellen and Cohen remain on the roster. Redding, of course, was flipped for Julian Peterson in a truly excellent trade. He played 15 games for the Seahawks, starting only 3, and managed just 18 tackles (16 solo) and two sacks.
I had very high hopes for Andre Fluellen—but they still can’t figure out if he is an end or a tackle. He was cycled between the two spots constantly, filling in wherever needed. I said in last year’s breakdown that:
I see him as a replacement for Cory Redding: a big, lean defensive tackle with a motor and tackling skills . . . 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.Shockingly, Fluellen’s 2009 production was almost identical to that of Redding’s: in 14 games (3 starts), Flu garnered 18 tackles (9 solo) and 1.5 sacks. I no longer think he has NT potential in either alignment; he lacks the natural bulk to be a run-stopper. His body may yet mature, but he’s just not built like a natural 1-technique DT.
We saw evidence of this in Week 8, against the Rams. Here are two plays where Flu is asked to line stop the run as 1-technique:
On the second play, it's a simple affair: he gets blown off the ball. Flu’s manhandled by the guard, technically doubled by the tackle—who hardly needs bother—and keeps getting pushed back until Jackson slams into him, seven yards downfield. Not what you want from your nose tackle on a first-and-10 run up the middle.
On the other hand, Fluellen’s athleticism tantalizes:
Here're a couple of very interesting clips from the Redskins game:
On the first play, Gun has the linebackers do a presnap dance all up and down the line, suggesting several different blitzes. When the snap does come, the linebackers all drop back into coverage, and Fluellen ends up mostly one-on-one with giant guard Derrick Dockery. After a decent initial push gets stymied, Flu keeps the motor going, and manages to get upfield—even forcing a mild hold!
On the second play (and other plays on that drive that I didn’t clip), the ‘Skins took no chances. Flu is triple-teamed, while the ends are merely blocked one-on-one. Though the third guy is mostly there for moral support—the center and right guard pretty much neutralize Fluellen—it’s nice to see another team make absolutely sure Flu doesn’t get free while the QB is waiting for deep routes to develop.
This is the duality of Fluellen: he's a very interesting inside-outside prospect, an undeniably talented player who’s far more athletic than a man his size has a right to be. However, he’s a very, very long way from being a complete defensive tackle. He cannot consistently hold the line against big guards, and is consistently neutralized by double teams. However, the Lions’ lack of depth along the defensive line is such that his versatility and potential nearly ensure his roster spot for 2010.
Bottom line: Fluellen is a very versatile, high-effort player only two years removed from being a third-round draft pick. Whether he plays inside, outside, or both in 2010, Flu should get plenty of rotational snaps next season.
One of the biggest surprises of training camp was Landon Cohen. Coming out of college at 6’-3 1/2”, 278 pounds, the Lions picked Cohen in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, and immediately threw him on the Rod Marinelli Under Tackle Pile. A year later, he added over twenty pounds of pure muscle, proved he could bench 225 pounds fifty times in a row, and earned a spot in the rotation.
Cohen is extremely lean, and very athletic—he ran track during all four of his years at Ohio University—and yet he’s powerful enough to play DT in the NFL. I happened to bump into him at the “Lions Uncaged!” fan event, and I was completely blown away by his physique. At his bigger weight, he’s not just lean—he’s cut, especially in the upper body.
Let's bring up my scouting report from last year again:
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.Up to a listed 300 pounds from his original 278, Cohen has indeed "added a lot of bulk", and the Lions have used him as both a 1-tech nose tackle and a 3-tech under tackle in their 4-3 alignment this year. I'm not sure he'll ever have the junk in the trunk needed to be an immovable run-stopping 1-tech, but if he hasn’t yet maxxed out his frame, his potential is great.
What I like from Cohen is his patience—much like a tailback who waits for a hole and then explodes, Cohen has a great sense of where and when a crease in the line will open up. Watch these two runs from the Rams game; see how he first moves laterally, then bursts past the center:
This is a good example of how you can't scout body types by listed size: Fluellen is theoretically 6’-2”, 302, and Cohen is listed at 6'-3", 300. But look at Cohen in that last clip: as the camera zooms in from behind the Lions’ line, you can see Cohen’s shoulders are so wide, his jersey has to crease to stretch over his pads. He’s built like a DT, he’s just not yet a finished example of one.
Bottom line: Cohen is rapidly developing from a seventh-round flier into a useful rotational DT. While he'll never be a 320-pound line-clogger, he's only 23. If he focuses on lower-body development, improves his leverage, and continues to hone his technique, he’ll be a very nice complement to/backup for/situational replacement of Sammie Hill.
The Lions’ biggest free agent signing—in at least three senses of the word—was former Raiders, Saints, Packers, Falcons, Jaguars, and Falcons DT Grady Jackson. Standing 6’-2”, 345 pounds, Jackson’s picture may as well hang in the dictionary next to the word stopgap: “something that fills the place of something else that is lacking”. Obviously, there was a big, empty space in the middle of the Lions’ defensive line—and Grady Jackson, at least partially, filled it.
The excitement when the Lions snagged Jackson was palpable. Jackson was an immediate infusion of legitimate run-stopping ability, something the Lions had absolutely none of in 2008. I gushed that he’d be worth a half a yard-per-carry all by himself! Actually, this might have been true; the Lions’ opponent’s gross YpC for 2009 was 4.42, down from 5.14 last season (-0.72 YpC).
Jackson was brought in explicitly as a situational player, not a full-time starter. As a line-clogging run stopper, he really isn’t much use in passing situations anyway. He was even deactivated for the Seattle game, because their running scheme is mostly draws and stretches—as Schwartz put it, "That's sideways chasing, and that's not his forte".
Unfortunately, even in his specific niche, Jackson wasn't an instant hit. He was in and out of training camp--first battling an illness, then dealing with his brother's stunning, bizarre, depressing murder case. Grady also had a four-game suspension hanging over his head, thanks to the well-known tale of the NFL and StarCaps.
Right up until the end of the preseason, it was unknown whether the Lions would have Jackson available. Fortunately, Jackson wasn’t forced to serve that suspension at the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, he didn’t help all that much either:
The second play on that clip is a little more like it--Grady's briefly doubled, and gets pushed back--but then he stands his ground, gets an arm out and ends up making the tackle. This is hardly an amazing play, but it's one that would never have been made if Cory Redding and Andre Fluellen were our starting tackles.
While reviewing the film, I found a disturbing tendency: a positively Rogers esque tendency to be unblockable when the Lions are already winning. Check out these two plays from the Redskins game:
Here are two clips that are exactly what the Lions expect of Grady--no more, and no less:
The Rams game also bolstered my play-when-he-wanna-play theory. Here are two plays, both classic DT situations with the Lions still in the game:
In the second one, the Rams are backed up on their own 1-yard-line. It's a tie game, and Grady smells two points. Again, inexplicably, the Rams try to block him with only a guard--and if their tailback was any less of a juggernaut, Grady'd have gotten his man.
It's clear that the 10-to-15 snaps per game that Grady Jackson can contribute will not make for an effective run defense. However, he was absolutely critical to the improvement the Lions’ run defense made this season—from “apocalyptically terrible” to merely bad. Grady’s under contract for two more years, and as a situational/rotational guy, he’s still useful.
Bottom line: Jackson turned in a B- performance in doing exactly what the Lions asked—stop the run on 1st and 10. Even if the Lions draft or sign a three-down starter, Jackson can still contribute in that role. I expect to see him back on the roster in 2010, though hopefully not as a “starter”.
Outside of Matthew Stafford, no 2009 Lions draft pick was more talked-about, or more important to the future of the team, than DT Sammie Hill. A 6’-4”, 329-pound man-child from tiny Stillman College, Hill came to the NFL a tabula rasa, a natural born defensive tackle with zero coaching or technique base.
Jim Schwartz immediately compared Hill—and scouting hill—to Leon Lett, the small-school big man who helped anchor the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the mid-90s:
He was playing teams like Northern State and some of these others; I can't even remember some of the schools. The film was real grainy. You don't have the nice sideline and end zone (views), you got end zone that looks like it was filmed from the moon. And you just saw one guy that was twice as big as everybody else and then there'd be a pile and then you'd see somebody get knocked out of the pile the other way and you'd know that Leon was there.The consensus was that Hill was a 2-3 year project, an intriguing prospect with the tools to, someday, with the right coaching, develop into a special player. Instead, the desperately undersized Lions plunked Hill into the starting lineup from Day One.
With Sammie, it was a lot of the same thing. Part of the film – literally, they took it from the booth and you can see the reflection of the guy filming it more than you can see down on the field. But then again, you see guys get knocked backwards a lot. You see him show up around the quarterback. He played end in a 3-4 and they used him to sort of shut down half the field.
Hill—despite never having attended an NFL game prior to being drafted—walked onto the field and did pretty well for a rookie. He still took his lumps, though:
To be fair, this is to be expected from a guy who was playing 3-4 end at a D-II school against guys half his size nine months before the above clip was shot. To be fairer, the guard doing the blocking in that clip is 2010 Pro Bowl starter Jahri Evans; it's not like Hill was getting dominated by a scrub.
Even having taken his early lumps, Hill's natural talent was apparent. Here's a beautiful clip of him holding his own against a true double-team, fighing them off, and then contributing to the play. This isn't a chip, or an assist, this is a center and guard both blocking Sammie with everything they've got. Yet, after initially getting pushed back, he recovers, and holds his ground:
Frankly, folks, I think Sammie Hill is going to be seen as one of the sharpest late-round picks since Cortland Finnegan—a Schwartz-polished seventh-round diamond in the rough. Hill is the Lions' only quality tackle, and we're only seeing the beginnings of what he could develop into.
He only mustered 14 solo tackles, and 12 assists, in his 12 starts. He’s no pass rusher—he didn’t have a single sack—but he showed strength, power, and athleticism in a perfectly-sized package. My hope is that a full offseason of NFL nutrition, strength training, and technique coaching with DL coach Bob Karmelowicz, the man who tutored Jared Allen in Kansas City, will help him take that next big step.
Bottom Line: Sammie Hill is already the Lions’ best defensive tackle, and should prove to be much better in 2010 and beyond. He has the size, strength, and athleticism to become a perennial Pro Bowler, and his steady improvement from preseason to the end of the season shows the effort and coachability he’ll need to get there. He’ll start for the Lions this season, and for many more to come.
In order to continue building the defense that Schwartz and Cunningham envision, they'll have to acquire another starting defensive tackle, one with some real explosion and pass-rush ability. Cohen is showing that he could develop into that player—if a little too small—but he won’t be that player next season. Fluellen just isn’t built big enough to be an every-down DT in this system—and though the tools and potential are there, I haven’t yet seen anything from him that shows he can actually rush the passer, from either the end or tackle spot.
Reader SomeChoi commented that there’s a disconnect here between the highlights and warm fuzzy words above, and the apparent lack of production from the defensive tackle spot during the season. As I said in the comments, this is because you’re seeing highlights and lowlights; it wasn’t feasible to show you all hundreds of snaps of our defensive tackles failing to be awesome.
Another factor, however, was that apparent weakness in the defensive line play turned out to be errors by the linebackers or secondary. Yes, Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and DeAndre Levy are all massive upgrades from last season, when street free agent Ryan Nece was arguably our best linebacker. Still, the LB play was wildly inconsistent throughout the season—often playing well when the line did not, and vice versa.
All that having been said, the run-stopping is still inadequate, and the interior pass rush is nonexistent. Though flawed linebacker and safety play exacerbated the insufficiency up front, the insufficiency is real.
Bottom line: There’s no doubt that the defensive line is much stouter this season than last—that 0.72 YpC improvement in the run defense had to come from somewhere!—this is still a D+/C- line. The Lions absolutely must add an impact starter. Whether that is an elite DT talent in the draft—as in, with the #2 overall pick—or, by trade for a veteran starter, or by making a splash in the free agent market, it must be done.