Old Mother Hubbard: the Defensive Tackles

>> 3.04.2011

Let’s start with the good news! First, let me quote the “Bottom Line” summary of last year’s defensive tackles, from last year’s Old Mother Hubbard:

Andre 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.

Landon 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.

Grady 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”.

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.

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.

There was a lot of praise for each individual player, but the Bottom Line for the unit as a whole said it best: “This is still a D+/C- line.” The Lions needed more consistency against the run than Jackson or Hill were managing, and much more penetration up the middle than Fluellen or Cohen were providing. They needed someone to demand double teams inside, to free up the ends outside.


Grady Jackson was released after one year in Detroit. Landon Cohen didn’t quite make the final 53 for 2010; he was let go just days before the season opener.


Ndamukong Suh, or course, was the Lions’ top draft pick, #2 overall. The Lions traded a fifth-round pick to the Browns for Corey Williams and a seventh-round pick. This is what is technically known, to people in the industry, as a “filthy steal.”




This is a star chart, showing the Pro Football Focus player grades Of the Lions’ four active-roster DTs. If you’re unfamiliar with PFF’s grading methodology,  just follow that link. They painstakingly review every player’s performance on every snap in every game, grading their performance on each play from -2 to +2, where “zero” is a typical, “he did his job” level of performance. For context, I’ve included the best- and worst-graded DTs who played at least 25% of their teams’ snaps: the Bills’ Kyle Williams, and the Colts’ Daniel Muir, respectively. The black line shows the league average.

First, we see just how ridiculously good Kyle Williams graded out this year, especially against the run; he was nearly unblockable. This was a good chunk of the reason why the Lions’ runningbacks couldn’t get to the line of scrimmage, let alone past it, when they played the Bills.

Though he played just 372 snaps, Sammie Hill graded out as the Lions’ most effective overall DT, and eleventh-best in the NFL. He was the Lions’ best, and most consistent, run stopper. Hill also went the whole season without a penalty, the cleanest of the Lions’ DTs. Surprisingly, he was also an above-average pass rusher.

Initially, Hill’s performance was underwhelming. He turned in weak grades throughout the beginning of the season, especially against Minnesota. However, after the Jets game Hill turned a corner, and graded positively against both the run and the pass for the rest of the season. His best performance was against Tampa Bay: he played about 40% of snaps, and logged a sack, three tackles, and an assist. I admit, I winced when I re-read my line from last year about Hill having the talent to be a “perennial Pro Bowler,” but his upside is high, indeed—and he’s getting there fast.

Bottom Line: A natural big body who is slowly fulfilling his top-flight physical potential, Hill will remain a big part of the Lions’ rotation as his technique and body develop.

Ndamukong Suh played almost a thousand snaps this year, leading all defensive tackles. In the middle of the season, PFF tried to defuse the Suh hype bomb, explaining that his performance was quite rookie-like. Yes, despite undeniable physical talent, and some monster games and plays, Suh was all over the place in 2010. Sometimes, he flashed truly elite pass-rushing skills;  sometimes, he was blown off the ball. Just as I saw with Sammie Hill in his rookie season, Suh struggled against trap and seal blocks. If the man blocking him wasn’t the man directly across from him, Suh was often taken out of the play.

His awesome closing ability means he’s sort of the anti-DeVries: he gets an awful lot of sacks per pressure. However, just as Jared DeVries put a lot more heat on the QB than his sack numbers suggested, Suh’s impacting the game much less than the sack totals would suggest, especially given a thousand snaps to work with.

Let me be clear: a rookie starting, playing a thousand snaps, and getting stronger throughout the year—his best grades were in weeks 8, 11, 12, 14, and 15—is phenomenal. That he successfully brought down the quarterback ten times is amazing. But, remember about the “instant impact” rookie: “amazing” for a rookie is still only “really good” in absolute terms. You can see on the chart above, Suh is nowhere near the best defensive tackle in the NFL. But his floor is “above-average NFL starter,” and his ceiling is . . . well, through the roof.

Bottom Line: Suh is an incredible physical talent, with almost unlimited upside. As a rookie, he performed like an above-average starter, while carrying the heaviest workload in the NFL. If he continues to improve, Suh will become one of the best in the NFL—and maybe one of the best ever.

For all the smart moves, solid trades, and wise decisions Martin Mayhew has made over his two-and-a-half season tenure as Lions GM, none has gotten a higher yield with less of an investment than Corey Williams. By overall grade, Williams was the “least good” of the Lions’ three DTs with enough snaps to qualify for PFF’s rankings. However, that’s almost entirely due to his worst-in-the-NFL grade for penalties, something every Lions fan knows full well about. Williams was the Lions’ best pass-rushing DT, which is saying something; the Lions’ line consists entirely of above-average pass rushing DTs. He was also strongly positive against the run and in coverage.

At the end of the season, Gunther Cunningham said that he thinks Corey Williams is just as deserving of Pro Bowl honors as Suh. Outside of the ridiculous penchant for penalties (several of which kept critical opponent drives alive), the PFF grades agree.

Bottom Line: Williams was a two-way force for the Lions in 2010, and an incredible addition to the roster. With his natural size (6’-4”, 320 lb.), great acceleration, and sometimes-too-quick snap anticipation, Williams is a difficult assignment for any offensive lineman. It would be really, really, really nice if he could cut down on the penalties.

The only other player to earn snaps at DT for the Lions in 2010 was Andre Fluellen. With much fewer snaps than any of the others, he didn’t make the 25%-or-more cut.  He was very slightly above “average NFL starter” level in pass rush, but was a liability against the run. Combined with a picking up a penalty, his final PFF grade put him as far below “average NFL starter” as Ndamukong Suh was above.

Bottom Line: Flu is still very young (two years older than Suh), and has developed into a decent pass rusher. He still has a hard time anchoring against the run, and is more of a “pursuit” guy. He’s not, then, an ideal fit for this defense. But anyone with his frame, athleticism, and ability to penetrate will keep getting chances as long as they keep working hard. Flu is a perfectly fine rotational/situational DT—and still has room to grow.

Practice squadder Robert Callaway, fresh out of Saginaw Valley last season, didn’t see any action. I’m sure the 6’-5”, 312-pound local boy will get at least a camp invite this summer.

SHOPPING LIST? As a unit, the Lions’ defensive tackles are complete. They join the Giants, Eagles, Raiders, and Vikings as the only teams where every member of the active DT rotation was graded above average. The oldest, Williams, is 30; Fluellen just turned 26, Suh and Hill are both 24. Unless the Lions want new blood to replace Fluellen (unlikely, as they just tendered him an RFA offer), the Lions should make no moves here.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,defensive tackles,defensive line,nfl draft,nfl free agency,ndamukong suh,corey williams


Matt,  March 4, 2011 at 10:01 PM  

"Unless the Lions want new blood to replace Fluellen (unlikely, as they just tendered him an RFA offer), the Lions should make no moves here."

Starting with the easy position. . .slacker.

Angus Osborne,  March 5, 2011 at 1:36 AM  

Chill Matt. Maybe the man has to ease himself into it.

Anonymous,  March 5, 2011 at 3:44 PM  

Bottom line...PFF is a joke. I'm not trying to be a hater but they say crazy stuff just to bring attention to their name. They said McCoy had a better rookie year than Suh. HUH??? They said Tom Brady this year was not a top 5 QB. HUH??? They said Matt Ryan is the best QB in the league. HUH??? The things they come up with are borderline comical. Anyone who understands the DT position (scouts, former players, current coaches) will all tell you Suh is already top 3 in the league at his position. Also, I find it funny that PFF said that Chicago used exotic blocking schemes to account for Suh and it worked. Well ask yourself this....if he was not a top DT, then why did Chicago have to go through all that? Secondly, everytime a team pays extra attention to Suh, it frees up the rest of our line. The sign of a great player is one who makes everyone around them better and that's what Suh does. PFF uses these crazy grading systems as an excuse and cover up to their actual lack of knowledge.

Ty,  March 5, 2011 at 4:05 PM  

Matt, Angus--

As, c'mon, guys, I always start with the DTs!


Ty,  March 5, 2011 at 4:14 PM  

Well, I'm not going to make a huge blanket defense of PFF. Here are a couple of points:

1) They watch very player, every snap, every game. You don't. They grade on production, not reputation. They also note that means they grade production--not scheme or stats or "talent." just because one player graded higher than another doesn't mean he's a better player in an absolute sense.

2) The only real disagreement I have with their methodology is how heavily hey weight penalties. Look at he chart--Corey Williams would have been top 10 by pass rush and run stop grades alone, but instead he was in the high thirties.

SomeChoi,  March 5, 2011 at 7:48 PM  

For all the gushing about his rookie year, it's eye opening that Suh was only a little better than average. Wow. I thought he already had a tremendous impact on our defense. A bit deflating yet also growing expectations about how much more impact he could have if he works out the flaws in his game. Hopefully the probowl selection doesn't diminish his desire to improve.
It also makes me wonder how it's possible the Bills defense could be that bad with a DT that if they have a DT that good.

Anonymous,  March 6, 2011 at 8:49 AM  

Go to that Suh article written by Sam Monson of PFF. In the comments section in response to commentor "55salaam", he writes:

"I think you’re dramatically overestimating the amount that Suh is ‘drawing’ double teams. Detroit rush just 4 guys almost exclusively, and as such a 5-man O-line is going to double team somebody every single play that happens, and the way they fall, it’s going to be one of the DTs. Very very rarely will a 5-man line double team a defensive end if the opposition is just rushing a base front four.

Now Corey Williams is seeing a tonne of double teams too, but it’s not because he’s a frightening force that people are game-planning to stop with double teams, it’s just because that’s how the blocking assignment for that play falls.

Put another way, I’m not convinced Suh is seeing any more double teams than any other DT doing the same things from that system on any given play."

This contradicts Jim Schwartz, who was quoted as saying this season that "I've never seen a guy like Ndamukong that's come in and not only physically not had an issue, but he's gotten better every week," Schwartz said in a conference call. "You see offenses treat him the way that they do perennial Pro Bowl players. You see the respect already on film from offenses, so you know they think he's a good player.

PFF dismisses any extra effort given to containing Suh yet Schwartz claims they treat him like one of the best in the game.

Anonymous,  March 7, 2011 at 10:17 AM  

Give Suh a few years' experience, and his performance will render as a hexagon surrounding that pentagon graph. He's that awesome.

BenderCU,  March 7, 2011 at 5:34 PM  

"It also makes me wonder how it's possible the Bills defense could be that bad with a DT that if they have a DT that good."

This is my issue with their grading system as SomeChoi pointed out.

Also if u look at Football outsiders grades for D-Lines http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/dl, u'll see that Buffalo is at the bottom for run stopping and that the majority of runs were mid/guard, I can't see how buffalo has the best run stopping DT and finishes in the bottom 5 let alone last.

jack sprat,  February 22, 2012 at 5:27 AM  

Just went looking for help backing up my opinions of the Lions' DTs. I am impressed and grateful for the assurance that my eyes did not deceive me when I managed to get a glimpse of Sammie. Keep up the good work. Thanks.

jack sprat,  February 22, 2012 at 5:39 AM  

I especially liked the seeming contrast between your praise of the individual players and your poor marks for them as a unit. It points up something that I noticed immediately with Mayhew, even before he hired Jim. He doesn't lie to himself, not even to the extent of whistling past the graveyard. In short order, he let go guys who had proven that they were no better than the 1400th-2000th best football player available for guys who still might step up a couple of hundred places.

It's the difference between being alone in a remote wilderness at the bottom of a ditch in winter on the one hand and on the operating table on the other. "Hope is the best thing; maybe the only thing."

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