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.