. . . 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.