Justin Durant is a Lion; Another LB In The Works?

>> 7.28.2011

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. . . and with that, the Lions secured the services of Justin Durant. When we went shopping for outside linebackers in the Old Mother Hubbard series, this is what we found:

The dark horse of the OLB free agent class is Justin Durant, a 6’-1”, 240-pound wrecking ball from the Jaguars—a wrecking ball with a couple of cracks. Just look at the radar chart above: Durant’s stonking +15.5 against the run is second-best in the NFL. His missed tackle rate, one per 8.1 made, is right in the middle of the pack. This suggests, like Bulluck, Durant is slicing through blocking to get to the correct lanes, over and over and over again, showing veteran savvy in just his fourth year, even if his finishing isn’t top-notch.

There are two big concerns about Durant: one is his inability to stay healthy; he’s missed at least two games in each of his first four seasons, plus six games last season. Second, he graded out as poorly against the pass as he did well against the run. His appalling –13.2 on coverage put him fourth-worst in the NFL, and his –1 in pass rush is below-average, too. He’s allowed a slightly-better-than-average 75.6% of his targets to be caught, and his passer rating allowed is dead on NFL average: 98.6, vs. 98.8 . . . but you don’t earn a –13.2 on only 491 snaps without being consistently poor in coverage. Durant has the physical tools to be an impact player, but so far it’s more potential than production.

Where this leaves us is a little bit uncertain. Mike O’Hara reported that the Lions love Durant’s ability to play inside or outside, and certainly his skill set lends itself to a move inside. However, Durant agreed only to a two-year deal; it seems unlikely that he’ll be tabbed to be the new quarterback of the defense.

Indeed, reports indicate that the Lions have laid a massive offer on Stephen Tulloch’s table, which wasn’t retracted when they landed Durant. If Tulloch eventually lands with the Lions (Dave Birkett of the Freep indicated that’s unlikely), he would doubtlessly take over the middle, and Durant would move outside.

Ideally, I think that's the role the Lions envision for Durant: a big, fast, athletic tackler who can shut down half the run game and rush the passer a bit. A good comparison might be Julian Peterson, circa 2009—only Durant will be entering his prime, not past it. Unfortunately, the Lions still need to add either a coverage OLB and keep Levy in the middle, or add a complete MLB and shift Levy outside. I don’t see Durant contributing to the nickel packages, either—he’ll be a two-down beast on the outside if he can stay healthy.

One of the best Jaguars sources out there, Alfie Crow from Big Cat Country, talked with Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus about the Jags’ free agents. Here are some of the things he said about Durant:

Khaled: Though he's more a two down player, you watch Justin Durant sometimes and think he could be one of the top ten linebackers in the league. Granted, in space he can look like one of the worst ten, but give him a two down role and he can really put himself about.

Alfie:As far as Justin Durant, he looked to me a classic case of missed potential. Physically he's what you ask for in a linebacker, but his instincts left a lot to be desired. He'd run himself out of plays and just couldn't stay healthy. More often than not, availability supercedes ability, especially at the linebacker position. He wound up being just average, and average is easily replaceable at linebacker.

Perhaps Justin Durant is, all things considered, an “average” all-around OLB—but as the PFF data shows, that “average” is a tantalizing mix of brilliant and cringeworthy. It’s true that you can get “unremarkable” linebackers anywhere, but brilliant is tough to come by. If the Lions can deploy the “brilliant” for 50% of the snaps, and take him off the field the other half, they might have gotten an incredible value. This jibes with the general approach the Lions have taken: get players with outstanding tools, put them in roles that maximize their talent.

The situation is changing rapidly; I’ve rewritten this post to reflect the latest news several times. But, if the Lions can add Tulloch (or another 3-down ILB like the Packers’ Nick Barnett), they will have massively upgraded the linebacker corps, and the defense as a whole. If they can’t add another top-notch all-around LB, they’ll have two athletic young players in Durant and Levy who can both play inside or outside. Considering they were starting special-teamers last season, even the worst-case scenario looks pretty good.

7 comments:

Jon July 28, 2011 at 12:20 PM  

Jacksonville LB has never been graded well in coverage according to PFF, but watching him live, it's obvious to me that he can drop back in coverage with proper depth. His footwork is smooth and can transition in change of direction. On top of it, he's very athletic and has good size. Perfect fit in the defensive scheme in which they ask the LBs to be multidimensional and have the ability to stop against the run as well as drop back in coverage. Durant fits that mold to a tee. Tulloch, on the other hand, isn't a great cover LB and is more of a 2 down LB. He was taken out of the field on obvious passing situations and his athleticism is average at best. Doesn't quite possess the smooth footwork that Durant has.

Not sure if PFF use "All 22" tape or they graded by watching games on TV. If they are grading by watching games on TV, it's completely different because it doesn't show everything the "All 22" tape shows. It doesn't show the whole offense and defensive plays as well as player's responsibilities.

A Lion in ViQueen Territory,  July 28, 2011 at 12:30 PM  

Thanks, Jon. Interesting ideas. Are you encouraged by this signing?

Anonymous,  July 28, 2011 at 1:53 PM  

First of all, I am not much of a tape watcher. But the Lions LB's look much better after this. My concerns are that they sign SOMEONE for #1 CB, Houston or better quality, and resign Avril. Sure, I would like more. We will see.

Ty July 28, 2011 at 1:57 PM  

Jon--

Great stuff, as always. I can tell you PFF grades using TV footage; both they and I are well aware of the limitations. I would LOVE access to the All-22 film, and so would they, but they do a pretty good job even without it.

My extensive use of PFF data stems from my inability to watch every game. I'd rather watch them all myself to inform my own opinions, but I simply cannot. I certainly hope your assessment is more accurate; if so the Lions got a major asset who only needs to stay healthy to make an every-down impact.

Peace
Ty

theicon77,  July 28, 2011 at 7:57 PM  

"Now everybody from the 313..."

At least we know Durant likes the movie 8 Mile.

telemakhos,  July 29, 2011 at 12:22 PM  

This free agency period has been like a sugar rush. It started off really exciting and interesting and I thought it was the most interesting NFL offseason I had seen. Somewhere along the way, I started crashing, getting sick of checking twitter constantly and yelling at my computer screen that the lions neeeeeeed to sign Tulloch or Barnett. Combining it with the MLB trade deadline doesn't make it any easier. I'm constantly nervous that my two favorite sports teams will either chicken out at the last moment and go with some average bum or destroy the future of their organization by giving away all of their good players. I need a nap.

Matt,  August 1, 2011 at 1:11 AM  

First, Ty, thanks for remembering that I mentioned Barnett as a possibility back BEFORE the lock-out. :-)

Kudos to Anonymous for mentioning something Detroiters seem to be avoiding: Cliff Avril is still technically unsigned. I'm sure the Lions are just waiting to see what kind of offers they might have to match, but it remains an unresolved issue.

Now we know that we've got Tulloch AND Durant. I'm over the moon about these signings. It seems like the Lions are going for an "Omni" front seven where you basically have "Defensive Lineman" and "Linebackers" (as opposed to DE, DT, NT, MLB, WLB, SLB, etc.). Almost all of our defensive lineman COULD line-up almost anywhere along the line and attack in almost any/every way. I'm now seeing a vision of a similar situation at LB. Tulloch, Levy, and Durant give us three starters any of whom COULD line up at any LB spot in a 1-, 2-, or 3-linebacker set. They can all blitz a little, cover pretty well, and flat out tackle. They are 26, 24, and 25 years old, respectively. This then leaves the Lions free to pick and choose back-ups from Caleb Campbell, Zack Follett, Doug Hogue, Ashlee Palmer, Korey Bosworth, Isaiah Ekejiuba, Quentin Davie, Daunte Akra, DeJuan Fulghum, Cobrani Mixon, and the remaining free agents (I'd still like to see Bobby Carpenter return).

There are still wrinkles to be ironed out in the secondary, but the Omni 7 up front dampens those concerns.

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