From last year’s Old Mother Hubbarding of the Lions defensive ends:
Cliff Avril was pigeonholed by most as a 3-4 ROLB, and I’m certain he could shine in that role. But he’s developed into the fast, athletic 4-3 rush end Rod Marinelli thought he could be. Avril will never be a 270-plus-pound, two-way monster—but he’s already an impact defender, top-flite pass rusher, and a huge part of this defense going forward. Signing this RFA to a long-term deal must be a top priority.
Kyle Vanden Bosch is the ultimate leader, a consummate professional—and as a player, the yang to Cliff Avril’s yin. Had he stayed healthy, he would have had seven sacks and fifteen QB hits, more than acceptable standalone production, besides the undeniable halo effect. Unfortunately, he’s 32, and recovering from a major neck injury. The Lions need to find a starting, impact, two-way end to replace him by the 2012 season.
Lawrence Jackson produced like an above-average starter in heavy rotation, and fron Week 10 on was one of the better 4-3 DEs in the game. I’ll hold off on anointing him the starter of the future for now, because I’d like to see more consistency—but there’s no doubt he’d be the perfect physical fit for the void KVB will eventually leave.
Willie Young is a developmental prospect with a very lean frame, a long way to go, and an undeniable knack for playing football. I hope he has a place on the roster for next season.
And then, the shopping list:
The Lions will need to find an impact two-way defensive end, ready to replace KVB as a starter by the 2012 season. Lawrence Jackson has the potential to be that end. Cliff Avril is an RFA who must be re-signed to a long-term deal. The Lions may look for a developmental speed-first end behind Avril, especially if Willie Young does not take major strides in the offseason.
It's important to restate the design goals of the Lions defensive line: to get consistent, excellent pressure from the without assist from the blitz. To have a pair of bookend DEs rushing from wide alignments, fast enough to turn the corner and strong enough to set the edge against runs and screens. To have two defensive tackles who can rush the passer up the middle of the pocket, one of whom can also collapse the running lane between himself and the nine-technique DE. Most importantly, to have depth all across the line, making sure the above design requirements are fulfilled for four quarters each of sixteen (-plus) games.
Now, that in mind, let’s look at the data:
For the second straight year, Philadelphia’s Trent Cole is the highest overall PFF-graded 4-3 DE. With the #1 overall pass-rush grade of +40.4, and the 11th-best run-stopping grade at +10.3, Cole fulfilled his responsibilities in the Eagles’ own wide-9 alignment perfectly. His two-way dominance was so complete, he kept his top overall mark despite being called for seven penalties in 640 snaps. Interestingly, Cole’s 1.00 +WPA is only ranked 23rd, and his 32.3 +EPA is 27th. For all his consistently positive play, Cole didn’t help the Eagles win much. May have something to do with the rest of the defense behind him.
Bringing up the rear is the New York Giants’ Dave Tollefson, whose –9.4 rush grade and –5.5 run-stopping grade put him at the bottom. His 0.36 and 10.0 +WPA and +EPA rank him 79th and 86th, respectively, out of 125 defensive ends ranked by Advanced NFL Stats.
Important note: Pro Football Focus separates linemen into DT/NTs, 4-3 DEs, and 3-4 DEs. Advanced NFL Stats has one bucket each for DTs and DEs. The two sites do not always agree on who is what.
Cliff Avril is another example of why I added+WPA and +EPA to these radar charts. When you add up all his positive, negative, and nothing-in-particular plays, he’s an average NFL defensive end. His +6.6 overall PFF grade almost exactly matches the NFL average of +6.5. That includes a pretty heavy ding for 11 assessed penalties, but a major boost from his linebacker-like coverage skills (+5.5). His pass rush grade is solid, ranked 19th overall at +11, but confusingly low for a guy who had 12 sacks, 8 hits, and 37 pressures on 822 snaps (one of those pass rush events per 14.7 snaps, 15th-best rate in the NFL).
For comparison, Trent Cole had 11 sacks, 11 QB hits, and 44 pressures on 640 snaps, one every 9.55 snaps (2nd-best). For further comparison, Jared Allen had 24 sacks, 8 QB hits, and 34 pressures on 1044 snaps—one every 15.8 snaps. Just putting that out there.
So from looking at just the PFF grades and stats, we’d mark Avril down as an average overall defensive end, pretty good at rushing the passer but otherwise mediocre. Then, we look at the +WPA and +EPA and whoa.
Avril’s +EPA is an excellent 45.1, 11th-best in the NFL; that’s well ahead of Cole’s 32.3 (Jason Pierre-Paul’s is tops at 83.4). His +WPA is an outstanding 7th overall, at +1.45. The discrepancy comes from his impact plays: 4 passes defensed, 6 forced fumbles, 7 TFLs, and an interception. In terms of +WPA, it’s his knack for making big plays at the right times. He helped the Lions’ win-loss bottom line 45% more than Trent Cole helped the Eagles’.
Just as with the defensive tackles, we see Lions defensive ends—as a rule—make big plays when they matter most, far out of proportion to the rest of their production. Avril, though, takes that to the extreme. Keep in mind, he’s doing it from the left side, too: going against bigger/stronger right tackles and often in the quarterback’s field of vision. Imagine if he were working the blind side . . .
Bottom Line: Cliff Avril, in this system, plays like a top ten defensive end. If he is not re-signed, his production and playmaking ability will not be easily replaced—and his production and playmaking ability is essential to the success of the defense. His re-signing must be the Lions’ top priority.
Willie Young, a.k.a. The Great Willie Young, might indeed be the son of a panther god. His +11.7 overall PFF grade would be the highest of any Lions DE, if his 259 snaps weren’t just a few too few to qualify. His +10.2 pass rush grade is just behind Avril’s +11.0, and his run-stopping grade is far superior, +3.7 to –2.5. In a huge surprise, the not-as-spindly-as-he-used-to-be Young’s run defense was better than all but Lawrence Jackson’s.
Again, this is on limited snaps—and that cuts both ways. Young makes fantastic plays whenever he’s in the game, but he’s in the game most often when the situation is ripe for him to make plays. His 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 19 pressures put his snaps-per-pass-rush at 9.96 which would be third-best in the NFL if he’d played just thirty or so more snaps.
I believe that’s at least part of Trent Cole’s story above: he played 182 fewer snaps than Cliff Avril, and I’d be willing to bet a good chunk of “negative” plays were eliminated because of it. It’s a lot easier to be great against the run when you only have to do it on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long . . .
Still, Young’s +11.5 EPA and +0.47 +WPA speak to just how effective he was when he was in. The average +WPA for qualifying DEs was 0.61, meaning that in just 259 snaps Willie Young helped the Lions win almost as much as an average starter. Nobody put much stock in a sub-260-pound all-legs-and-no-torso seventh rounder developing into a vital contributor, but Young’s already there in just his second year. How much better can he get?
Bottom Line: Willie Young has proven his worth as a rotational end, and should be a big part of the picture for 2012, his make-or-break year. If he can shoulder an increased workload without his rate stats falling off, he’ll be every bit the player Cliff Avril has been. That is an enormous “if.”
Lawrence Jackson had an outstanding 2011, producing at the same level as Avril and KVB when he got reps. The natural big-bodied run-stuffer Avril isn’t, he seemed destined to take over on the left side as Avril transitioned to the right rush end spot.
Instead, Jackson played almost exclusively on the right side, in relief of KVB. He struggled against Tampa Bay, but had strongly positive games in Weeks 2-5. His season crescendoed on Monday Night Football, with a +3.4 overall grade (1 sack, 1 hit, 2 pressures on just 31 snaps). After that game, however, Jackson had three flat games before Week 10—where he graded out very well and suffered a deep thigh bruise that would bench him until Week 16.
You can’t help but feel like Jackson missed his opportunity to stake his claim as the Lions’ third-now-and-second-soon DE. However, Jackson’s 18.4 +EPA is a very positive sign; he nearly matched the NFL average of 21.07 with just 341 snaps. His 0.71 +WPA is an even better one: with less than half the snaps of a typical starting DE to work with, Lo-Jack contributed more to the Lions’ winning games than some other teams’ starters . . . unfortunately, that includes the Lions’ Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Bottom Line: Lawrence Jackson had a chance to prove to the Lions they were set at this position for years to come. Instead, his deep thigh bruise—and midseason lull—leaves us no closer to knowing if he’ll be ready to step in for KVB as a full-time starter when the time comes. However, he also flashed enough of that Secret Superstar form to prove he can play as well as anyone in the NFL when he’s “on.” Like Willie Young, 2012 will be his make-or-break year.
Kyle Vanden Bosch had a fantastic bounceback year, right? With 8 sacks, 6 QB hits, and 26 pressures, this was his best statistical year since the glory days of 2008. Unfortunately, he had a beefy 777-snap workload, meaning he only generated pass rush on one of every 19.4 snaps—35th-best in the NFL and below the 19.0 NFL average.
Vanden Bosch's -11.3 overall PFF grade is absolutely mortifying; it's the fourth-worst in the NFL. He was graded at –1.9 in the pass rush, definitely below the NFL average of +2.5. His run-stopping grade, however, was through the basement: –7.9, worse than everyone but St. Louis’s Chris Long. We saw this time and time again in the games: Vanden Bosch overpursuing like a maniac, and opposing teams scheming to take advantage.
Vanden Bosch improved in this area throughout the season. He got dinged with strong negative run-defense grades in Weeks 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7, but only once more after that. Unfortunately, that coincided with a huge dropoff in his pass-rush productivity. He had only one negative pass rush grade in the first ten games, then was in the red for Weeks 12, 13, 15, and 16.
KVB is the only Lion DE not to add Win Probability far beyond what his snap count and production would project: Despite those 8 sacks, he almost exactly met the NFL average with 0.58 +WPA. His 26.30 +EPA is solidly above-average, but that just highlights the fact that he got it done more often when it didn’t matter than when it did.
Bottom Line: Kyle Vanden Bosch’s time as a premier two-way defensive end is over. His heart, desire, toughness, and leadership are unquestionable, but he’s simply not getting it done as well or as frequently as the rest of the defensive ends. Without finding the fountain of youth, he cannot start and play the majority of every game in 2012 or the defense will suffer for it.
SHOPPING LIST: The Detroit Lions have some serious decisions to make at the Defensive End position, and have little information to go on. Kyle Vanden Bosch must recover his youthful form or play a reduced role in 2012. Cliff Avril is a proven game-changer but not under contract. Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson have played extremely well in limited time but are not proven full-time performers.
If the Lions have complete faith in Young, Jackson, or both they are set for defensive ends. If not, they need to acquire a defensive end who can step in and play at least as well as Vanden Bosch, if not better, in 2012.