Lions have shot to fill a hole at de­fen­sive tackle

UM’s Hurst, Payne, Bryan may be there with 20th draft pick

The Detroit News - - Sports - BY JUSTIN ROGERS The Detroit News

Allen Park — Over the next sev­eral days, lead­ing up to the NFL Draft, we’ll take a po­si­tionby-po­si­tion look at the Detroit Lions’ ros­ter sit­u­a­tion and eval­u­ate how the team might ad­dress these po­si­tions dur­ing the event. To­day: De­fen­sive tackle

Cur­rent ros­ter: A’Shawn Robin­son, Akeem Spence, Sylvester Williams, Jeremiah Led­bet­ter, Chris­tian Ringo, Toby John­son

Top prospects: Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne, Maurice Hurst, Taven Bryan

Mid-round op­tions: Har­ri­son Phillips, Nathan Shep­herd, B.J. Hill, Tim Set­tle

Late-round fits: Folorunso Fatukasi, Dee Liner, Bi­lal Ni­chols, Poona Ford

Short-term need: Five out

Long-term out of 10

Anal­y­sis: In the not-sodis­tant past, the Lions had the league’s most dom­i­nant de­fen­sive in­te­rior. But long gone are the days of first-round picks Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fair­ley wreak­ing havoc on the in­side.

The cur­rent col­lec­tive is led by A’Shawn Robin­son, a foun­da­tional piece who still is scratch­ing the sur­face of his po­ten­tial. In his sec­ond sea­son, he led the group with 53 tack­les, while de­fend­ing six passes at the line of scrim­mage, in­clud­ing his first ca­reer in­ter­cep­tion, which he re­turned for a touch­down against New Or­leans.

Robin­son was de­cently dis­rup­tive as a pass rusher, gen­er­at­ing 27 pres­sures, but lacked plays in the back­field. He fin­ished the year with a half-sack and five to­tal

need:

Nine tack­les be­hind the line.

Join­ing Robin­son are a cou­ple of free-agent ad­di­tions and a de­vel­op­men­tal project.

The Lions inked Akeem Spence to a three-year deal last off­sea­son. In his first year with the fran­chise, he flashed some abil­ity as a pass rusher, tal­ly­ing three sacks and 29 quar­ter­back pres­sures. Ide­ally a ro­ta­tional piece, he was thrust into a start­ing job in the mid­dle of last sea­son when Haloti Ngata was lost to a sea­son-end­ing el­bow in­jury.

Ngata is gone now, hav­ing signed with Philadel­phia this off­sea­son. To fill the hole, Detroit reached a one-year deal with for­mer first-round pick Sylvester Williams. More of a space-eat­ing nose tackle with plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence de­fend­ing two gaps, the per­son­nel swap points to a schematic shift up front un­der in­com­ing coach Matt Pa­tri­cia and co­or­di­na­tor Paul Pasqualoni.

The fi­nal piece to the Lions’ in­te­rior is 2017 sixth-round pick Jeremiah Led­bet­ter. He had min­i­mal pro­duc­tion as a rookie af­ter bulk­ing up to take on the role, but his ath­letic pro­file sug­gests in­trigu­ing po­ten­tial if can de­velop in this sec­ond off­sea­son.

Over­all, it’s a group ca­pa­ble of hold­ing its own, but likely to hover around or just be­low league av­er­age both against the run and rush­ing the passer with­out fur­ther up­grades. For­tu­nately, this draft of­fers plenty of po­ten­tial through­out.

Start­ing in the first round, the Lions should have the choice of mul­ti­ple de­fen­sive tack­les at pick No. 20. Vita Vea, a Ngata clone, is the most likely to be off the board at that point, but Detroit could be look­ing at a choice of Maurice Hurst, Da’Ron Payne and Tavon Bryan.

Hurst, a for­mer Michi­gan stand­out, is an un­der­sized 3tech­nique, but fits any scheme with his abil­ity to get af­ter the passer. Bryan of­fers more size with elite ath­leti­cism. He might have the high­est ceil­ing of the three if you trust your coach­ing staff to max­i­mize po­ten­tial. Payne, mean­while, would pro­vide a long-term re­place­ment for Williams. The Alabama prospect is a brick house who should be a qual­ity run stop­per out of the box, with more pass-rush po­ten­tial. On Day 2, for­mer wrestler Har­ri­son Phillips, who racked up a stag­ger­ing 103 tack­les as a se­nior last sea­son, or de­cep­tively ath­letic 315-pound B.J. Hill both make sense. Nathan Shep­herd, out of lit­tle known Fort Hays State, also car­ries in­trigue start­ing in Round 3.

Spilling into the third day, less tra­di­tional body types come into play. The Lions have shown plenty of in­ter­est in Poona Ford dur­ing the pre-draft process, de­spite the for­mer Texas Longhorn mea­sur­ing just 5-foot-11 at the com­bine.

It could be ar­gued de­fen­sive tackle was one of the Lions’ big­gest needs head­ing into free agency. The loss of Ngata and ad­di­tion of Williams rep­re­sent tread­ing wa­ter, at best. This draft of­fers a real op­por­tu­nity for the Lions to im­prove a be­low-av­er­age area of the ros­ter.

Michael Con­roy/As­so­ci­ated Press

Maurice Hurst, a for­mer UM stand­out, is an un­der­sized 3-tech­nique, but fits any scheme with his abil­ity to get af­ter the passer.

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