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.


Commissioner Goodell: Prove it.

>> 3.03.2011

A fortune, from a fortune cookie.

Dear Commissioner Goodell:

Last night, I took my children out to a local Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal, I opened up my fortune cookie. This is what it said:

You are capable, competent, creative, careful.

Prove it.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Fortune cookies contain meaningless, lexically confused quasi-proverbs that predict or affirm wildly positive things for you, the diner. They don’t call you out. They don’t challenge you to rise to meet your potential. They certainly don’t deploy devices like alliteration and line breaks to maximize beauty and impact.

My next thought, with the expiry of the NFL collective bargaining agreement about 28 hours away, was that this fortune wasn’t just for me. I thought of Peter King’s biopic of you, and all the superlatives he piled upon you: “fit,” “a tough cop,” a “problem-solver,” a “communicator,” a “listener,” and a “rising star.” King spoke of your boldness, and your human touch. He relayed multiple stories describing your wisdom and fairness in solving unsolvable problems. Yet, King’s piece ended with a chilling quote from NBC Sports impresario Dick Ebersol:

""At his heart Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. He's going to show mettle, and he's going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It's what he's always done."

Commissioner, it’s time to show your mettle.

Locking out the players, the administrators, the secretaries, the concession workers, the janitors, the scouts, the trainers, the equipment managers, the parking lot attendees, the beat writers, and all of the thousands upon thousands of other people across the nation who rely on the NFL for their income? It’s not the best thing for the National Football League—in fact, it’s the only thing that could truly derail the NFL’s incredible success.

Three months ago, you sent me, and millions of other fans, an email. Let me remind you of your words:

The NFL is great because fans care deeply about it. Economic conditions, however, have changed dramatically inside and outside the NFL since 2006 when we negotiated the last CBA. A 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all. Fans have limited budgets and rightly want the most for their money. I get it.

Do you get it? Do you really? Do you really understand that the NFL has grown explosively in the midst of a long, deep, and extended recession? Do you understand how far people stretch to afford tickets and jerseys? Do you understand the time, energy, and money invested by millions of Americans in following the sport you control? Even in the midst of double-digit unemployment, sky-high personal debt, and exploding health care and energy costs, fans are investing more in the NFL than ever before. It's got to be a point of great pride for you and the rest of the league . . .

. . . but it’s still our time, our energy, and our money. We gave it to you, and we can take it away. We can, and will, stop caring so much. We can, and will, stop watching so much. We can, and will, stop buying merchandise. The endless haggling and bickering you’re doing over our money will seem silly if it goes away. In my prior email to you, I said this:

It wasn’t long ago that Major League Baseball was our national pastime and passion, and it wasn’t long ago that NHL hockey stood on equal footing with the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Work stoppages were the catalysts for a precipitous drop in interest, passion, ratings, merchandise sales, and revenue for both leagues—and neither has returned to its previous place in the American sports landscape. If you, the owners, and the players cannot find a timely way to divvy up the monstrous sum we fans donate to you every year, the rainbow will vanish—and that pot of gold with it.

Nothing’s changed. It’s time, Commissioner. As I post this, you have twenty-three hours left. If what I’ve read about you is true, you are capable, competent, creative, and careful.

Now prove it.


Drew Stanton and Cliff Avril: Still Detroit Lions

>> 3.02.2011

Drew Stanton of the Detroit Lions in action. Stanton was tendered with an RFA offer, as the Lions plan to keep him on the roster in 2011.Cliff Avril of the Detroit Lions in action. Avril recieved the highest RFA tender offer from the Lions.

One of the “lesser” issues of the CBA negotiations is restricted free agency. It’s “lesser” because it hasn’t gotten a lot of press relative to the yawning chasms between the players and owners on the revenue split and the 18-game schedule. However, the way the NFL and NFLPA agree to handle free agency going forward could radically change players’ careers—and teams’ rosters.

Under the old rules, when a player’s contract expired, if he had four or more accrued seasons he was an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with anyone at any price. Free agents with three years of service, though, were restricted. Their current team could choose to tender them a qualifying offer, after which they could still negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team. But their original team would have the right to match—or let them walk, and receive draft picks from the new team. The higher the tender offer, the higher/more draft picks the original team would receive.

When the salary cap went away, the requirements changed. Suddenly, a player needed six years of service to become an unrestricted free agent—and scads of four- and five-year veterans thinking they’d hit an uncapped open market had to stick around for another year.

Right now, the NFL is in limbo. normally, we’d have the end of the League Year, then free agency would begin. Instead, we have the end of the CBA, and then nothingness. So, just to be safe, teams are operating under the old rules: tendering offers to the three-, four-, and five-year veterans they want to keep around. Who they tender—and at what level—will give a very strong indicator of who team values.

Yesterday, we found out the Lions tendered Cliff Avril at the highest level, requiring a first- and third-round draft pick from any team signing him to an offer sheet the Lions won’t match. Further, Mayhew said at the combine the Lions plan to tender Drew Stanton an offer, saying “We plan on having Drew on our team next season.”

I'm not sure there were two Lions who had more to prove in 2010 than Cliff Avril and Drew Stanton. Avril, a gifted pass rusher whom most projected as a 3-4 OLB coming out of college, had shown flashes in his first two seasons.  But, with only street free agent Jason Hunter to compete with, he couldn’t lock down the starting job in 2009. At this time last year, trade rumors began to surface: the Lions, it was rumbled, were going to spin Avril off to a 3-4 team and draft a more prototypical 4-3 DE in the first few rounds.

With a few quick phone calls, and a timely article, Tom Kowalksi killed that rumor, proclaiming the Lions “thrilled” with Avril’s intensity. Avril, he said, had added ten pounds of muscle and a mean streak . . . we might have been skeptical at the time, but Avril locked his job down, and played out of his mind, in 2011. By Pro Football Focus’ player grades, Avril was the 11th-best DE in 2010 (better than players like Mario Williams and Jared Allen). Avril has proven he’s a key component of the Lions’ defense; with luck he’ll be here for years to come.

I've spilled an awful lot of e-ink on Drew Stanton. I’ve long been one of his most vocal proponents. I’ve told anyone who would listen that with proper care and feeding, Stanton can be at least what Charlie Batch has become, a quality long-term backup who can win games as a starter . . . and maybe more. Further, I’ve pounded the table, insisting that what the Lions did to him was the worst-case scenario for his development. But, with two full years under stable coaching and leadership, we’ve seen him blossom.

Last year, at this time, it was possible, even probable, that these two players would off the team by now. They’d just be two more Millen Draft Picks lost to the ether, two more promising and talented players chewed up and spit out by the Failure Demon that Armchair Linebacker’s Neil says torments this franchise. Instead, they’re going to be important pieces of the roster next year—and, after the CBA is hammered out, they may even be signed to long-term deals, cementing their place as players we can cheer for for years to come. I know a couple little Lions fans who are going to be thrilled.

Drew Stanton of the Detroit Lions at the Lions vs. Lansing Firefighters charity basketball game.Cliff Avril of the Detroit Lions at the Lions vs. Lansing Firefighters charity basketball game.


Should the Lions Draft for Need, or Pick Luxury?

>> 2.28.2011

Last month, I wrote about the “instant impact” NFL rookie. Wunderkinds from Ndamukong Suh to Dutch Clark have conditioned fans to hope, if not expect, that every first-round pick their team makes will set the NFL on fire. At minimum, we think of a first-round pick as a player who will start from day one; a player who will step in and “fill a hole” or “solve a problem” at their position from day one, and for years to come. The problem, of course, is that it almost never works that way.

The three-ring-circus of 2006 top picks Mario Williams, Vince Young, and Reggie Bush should have taught us all a lesson about rookies. Few seem to remember it now, but the pick of Williams over Young and Bush was roundly panned. Moreover, Williams’ 5.5 sacks in 16 rookie starts had people hanging the “bust” sign on him. Meanwhile, Young’s leading of the Titans to ugly-but-gritty comeback wins landed him a spot in the Pro Bowl (despite a 66.7 passer rating). By dividing “all-purpose yards” by “total touches,” many in the media managed to keep the hype train that Reggie Bush rolled in on stoked for a year or two.

Eventually, Bush revealed himself to be what he always was: a third-down back and kick returner with home-run ability. Young’s “ugly” eventually overwhelmed his “gritty,” and got both he and Jeff Fisher run out of Nashville. Williams eventually developed into the dominant, prototypical defensive end the Texans thought they were getting. You’d think, after all this, that we’d have learned about rookies and the short term . . . but of course, the football hivemind never truly learns.

The Lions find themselves in a particularly tricky spot: their “window” is opening this year. To the extent there will be an NFC in 2011, the Lions are expected to contend for a playoff spot within it. They have a few pressing short-term needs, though; any they fill will drastically boost their chances to make the playoffs, and make some noise therein. Unfortunately, they’re stuck in slot 13, and none of the top prospects at the Lions’ need positions figure to be available. Likely, the Lions will have to pick between two poisons: reach for a need, or the dreaded “luxury pick.” Either way, the Lions will have a hard time impressing those who grade drafts by instant impact.

Two years ago, Forbes.com’s Monte Burke dissected the prior three years’ drafts. He assigned a score to each team based on how many of their picks were still on the roster. He added a small boost—but not much of one—for Pro Bowlers and All-Pros (after all, many are granted those awards based on reputation alone). His dubious conclusions: the Texans were the best-drafting team in the NFL, while the Patriots and Steelers were the worst and third-worst, respectively.

He chalks the Patriots’ lack of success up to having to pick late in every round, and suggests their keen nose for value in the free-agent market has made up for their blundering inability to pick good players. Here, however, are all the Patriots’ first-round  picks since Belichick took over: Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather, Laurence Maroney, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson, Ty Warren, Daniel Graham, Richard Seymour, Damien Woody, Andy Katzenmoyer, Robert Edwards, Tebucky Jones, Chris Canty, and Terry Glenn.  Out of 16 picks, that’s at least thirteen solid contributors—and, by my count, ten difference-making pros. I doubt you’ll find another team with a better track record.

How come, then, so few of the Patriots' draft picks stick around? Because it’s hard to make the Patriots’ roster. The Pats have been stacked for a decade, and they’re run by a ruthless dictator who knows exactly what he wants at every position. Every year, their fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round picks must amaze in training camp, or be sent packing. It’s not that the Pats can’t draft; there’s just no room on their roster for long-term backups; either they’ll be starting in three years, or they’re out. Drafting later in the first actually makes it easier on the Pats; they can draft to fit one of their few needs (like Logan Mankins) without blowing a huge amount of salary—or expecting that player to make an impact on day one.

But what about the other poison, the luxury pick?  Turns out, the Steelers are a great example of that, as well. Back in 2007, the Steelers’ linebacking corps—as always, the strength of the team—consisted of James Harrison, James Farrior, Larry Foote, and Clark Haggans. They were 29, 32, 27, and 30, respectively; all in their primes. So, who did the Steelers draft that spring? In the first round, with the 15th overall pick, they chose Lawrence Timmons, an inside linebacker. In the second round, with the 14th pick, they took outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

What on earth were the Steelers thinking?  Well, the year after that, Haggans left as a free agent. The year after that, Woodley had a breakout year in his first as a starter, and Foote was made expendable by the growth of Timmons. They released Foote after winning a Super Bowl with their “luxury picks” leading the way—and the Steelers continued to be great at what they’re great at without missing a beat. By drafting high at a position of current strength, with an eye towards a year or two down the road, the Steelers maintained their perpetual success . . . it’s what great teams do.

So, when the Lions are on the clock—presuming they stay at 13—they’ll be faced with this choice. What they WON’T do is what the Lions did in 2008: gather their list of immediate needs and draft at those positions, crossing them off with a crayon as they go. With the 2007 2.14, the Steelers drafted LaMarr Woodley because they knew they’d need a new outside linebacker in 2008. With the 2008 2.14, the Lions drafted Jordon Dizon because they needed a middle linebacker to start right away. They didn’t “fill the hole” because Dizon couldn’t fill that hole. They didn’t “meet their needs” because Dizon couldn’t meet that need.

Despite the CBA uncertainty putting the kibosh on free agency, the Lions cannot approach the draft as a way to meet immediate needs—not without moving up and getting a true blue-chipper. They may take a good player to fill a less flashy need, like OLB or safety. They may take a talented project who has no chance of cracking the starting lineup this year—like an OT or DE. But what I said last month holds true:

Not every good player is an instant-impact player. Not every instant-impact player evolves into a Hall of Famer. “Great for a rookie” is only “decent” overall. As the Lions round the bend into this draft season, they do so with only a few pressing needs. I trust the Lions leadership not to reach for those needs, but I’m cautioning us as fans to do the same. As this roster matures, the Lions should indeed be drafting to develop, not to start; the second- or third-round pick may not start right away and that’s okay. The likes of Sammie Hill will have to hustle to make the team, and that’s okay. The Lions have a much bigger need for a Mike Williams type, who slowly develops into a quality starter, than a Michael Clayton—who set the world on fire in his rookie year, and has barely moved the needle since.


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