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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The Lions’ defense was a tale of two teams in 2022. There was the team that opened the season and was horrible; then there was the team that finished the season playing much better. Just how big was the contrast between the two?
Over the first seven games, the run defense was among the worst in the league. They surrendered eleven touchdowns while giving up 5.3 yards per carry and 899 yards on 171 attempts. Over the final ten games, Detroit cut those numbers significantly to 4.3 yards per carry, 830 yards on 193 rushes, and three scores.
The pass defense turned things around similarly. After allowing a league-worst 69.3% completion rate, 1937 yards, and twelve scores, while interception just two passes and getting to the opponent’s quarterback for eleven sacks in the first seven games, they cut the completion rate to a league-best 58.7%, with 15 scores while picking off ten passes and recording 28 sacks over the final ten contests.
There were several contributing factors to the turnaround, from coaching changes to personnel decisions, but mostly, it was a matter of the unit, rich with good young players, coming together in the second year under head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. The cake is not done baking just yet, as there is still room for improvement, but the once laughable Detroit defense has turned the corner.
The turnaround started when the Lions selected defensive end Aidan Hutchinson second overall in 2022. He paid almost immediate dividends with a three-sack performance versus Washington in week two, then disappeared for a while before finishing with six and a half sacks after the team’s bye week, including a pair in the week 18 game that kept the rival Packers out of the playoffs.
With a final tally of 34-18-9.5, Hutchinson’s numbers were modest in comparison to the game’s elite edge defenders, but keep in mind that he was a 22-year-old rookie. What Hutchinson showed everyone in his first season was nothing short of impressive by rookie standards. And that is even before talking about the three interceptions and five total takeaways he accounted for over the last nine games. He is a game-changing talent that has only scratched the surface of his potential. It won’t be long before we are talking about Hutchinson in the same breath as guys like Nick Bosa and Myles Garrett. That might even happen before the 2023 season is over.
Hutchinson is the cornerstone, but it takes more than one player to change fortunes. The Lions have now turned a defensive end position that was a glaring weakness into a strength. Statistically, last year’s second-round pick, Josh Paschal, had a rather quiet rookie season with fifteen combined tackles and two sacks. There is more to the story, however. The path for rookie defensive ends is always a steep climb. Paschal’s became a mountain when he missed much of the offseason program and the first five games while recovering from hernia surgery. He is a talented player that had a lot of college success at Kentucky and is expected to make a big jump in year two.
As a potential three-down starter, Paschal’s strength is against the run, where NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein once described him as “a block of granite at the point of attack”. The career best of five sacks as a senior for the Wildcats in 2021 is a strong suggestion that he is never going to be a great pass rusher, but Paschal has a great motor and will contribute.
Considering the rest of Detroit’s options on the edge, the best fit for everyone might be Paschal on the edge for early downs, then sliding inside for passing situations. That would allow yet another young player, last year’s sixth-round pick, James Houston IV, to enter the game as a pass rush specialist.
At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, there is no chance Houston will see significant action on early downs. On the other hand, the eight sacks he racked up on a mere 140 snaps over the final seven games last year will make it hard to keep Houston out of sub-packages. It will be no surprise to see Houston excel in the sack column in 2023, but the limitations of situational playing time is all but certain to render him no more than a spot stream-play for IDP managers.
Then there is the wildcard in the mix, Romeo Okwara. He missed most of the last two seasons after suffering a torn Achilles in week four of 2021. The recovery took a little longer than expected, but Okwara was able to get back on the field in a limited role for the final five games in 2022. After going 32-12-10 with 3 forced fumbles and a recovery in 2020, it didn’t take him long to get back in the swing with a two-sack performance against the Jets in week 15. The Lions were high on Okwara before the injury, and if he gets back to the player he was in 2020, it will be hard to keep him off the field.
The Lions should be looking good on the edge, but they are without a difference-maker on the inside. The projected starters are Alim McNeill at the one-technique and Isaiah Buggs at the three-technique. McNeil checks in at 325 pounds and does a good job anchoring the run defense. He takes up a lot of space and is hard to move. McNeill does not have much to offer in terms of pass rush and comes off the field in sub-package situations. The 2021 third-round pick does the dirty work, but his contribution to the success of his team doesn’t translate to help for ours.
Buggs is a smaller version of McNeill. Because he works from the three-technique, Buggs sees fewer double teams. He was stuck behind some excellent players over three years with the Steelers and did not get on the field much. As a starter for Detroit last season, Buggs turned in respectable tackle totals with 46 combined but only got to the quarterback once. The 46 stops might give him a little value as depth in tackle-heavy formats, but there is not much upside.
Benito Jones backs up McNeill at nose tackle and is a virtual clone, right down to the part where he has little to offer statistically, even if McNeill misses time. Likewise, free agent addition Christian Covington shares a lot of similarities with Buggs and will give him a breather once in a while, but has no upside in IDP terms.
- DE Aidan Hutchinson – Rising star with elite DL1 ceiling and priority DL2 floor
- DE Josh Paschal – Late-round sleeper with low DL2 potential
- DE Romeo Okwara – Target late as DL3 with mid-DL2 ceiling
- DE James Houston IV – Pass rush specialist with 12+ sack potential.
- DE Charles Harris - Injury depth with marginal upside
- DE John Cominsky – No impact expected
- DT Alim McNeill – No impact
- DT Isaiah Buggs – Marginal value at best
- DT Christian Covington – No impact expected
- DT Levi Onwuzurike – No impact
- DT Brodric Martin – Rookie nose tackle that’s buried on the depth chart
The second level of Detroit’s defense remains a work in progress. They were the only team to use a first-round pick in this year’s draft on a linebacker, but the selection of Jack Campbell with that pick might stir up more questions than it provides answers.
At six foot five and 249 pounds, Campbell is a big, physical throwback middle linebacker that is built for life between the tackles. He can stack and shed blockers to make plays in traffic and is a dependable tackler but is not particularly rangy. Campbell is a capable zone defender that can stay on the field in most sub-packages, but coverage is not among the strengths of his game. Everything about him screams middle linebacker, which is where Campbell started and was highly productive at Iowa.
Campbell passes the college production test with flying colors. In 27 starts for the Hawkeyes over his last two seasons, he racked up 265 combined tackles, a pair of sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, and a pair of scores. The question is, With Malcolm Rodrigues entering the second year of his rookie contract and the team recently signing Alex Anzalone to an extension through the 2025 season, what are the Lions going to do with three middle linebackers in a scheme that fields one?
Campbell has been the first defensive pick in a lot of dynasty rookie drafts this summer because most believe he will land the lead role right away. There is little doubt he will eventually end up there but counting on it happening immediately might be a mistake. In recent years we have seen a lot of good young linebackers start out in limited roles as rookies, often on the strong side where there is less to think about, so they are not bogged down with thought before reaction. Under the circumstances, that might be the best option for Detroit.
Alex Anzalone has been the team’s middle backer for the last two years and has been adequate. Anyone that reads the EOTG column knows I am not a fan. To give credit where it is due, however, the 2022 season was the best football Anzalone has played since coming into the league in 2017. The Saints tried to make him a starter a couple of times during his four seasons there, but he was never able to hold the job for long. Injuries were a factor at times, but mostly, it was a case of Anzalone always being a step late to the party.
It is hard to tell if last year’s success was due to improvement on his part or simply a case of the Lions’ shortage of talent at the position. Whatever the reason, it was the first time in his career that Anzalone was able to sustain useful production. At 77-48-1.5 with 3 turnovers and 6 pass breakups, he set career marks in nearly every category, making the top 30 for the first time.
Chances are, Anzalone will get one more year at the helm in Detroit before being bumped by the upstart. That said, it is worth mentioning that he has worked at both the strong and weak side positions during his time in the league. Whenever the time comes for Campbell to take over in the middle, Anzalone might still be able to contribute in a different role, though a move out of the middle would all but certainly end his IDP value.
A sixth-round selection in last year’s draft, Malcolm Rodriguez quickly became a favorite of both coaches and fans in Detroit. Part of his appeal was the underdog story of an undersized (short) late-round pick, but it was his never slowing motor and tenacious play that kept showing up. Rodriguez eventually landed a starting role in training camp and earned roughly a 75% share of the playing time over the first seven games. Just when we were all expecting an increase in playing time to include sub-package opportunities, the Lions went the other way, cutting his role significantly. As a result, Rodriguez saw more than 60% of the action one time over the final ten games.
His skill set is that of a weak side linebacker, where he would be more free to pursue the ball carrier, but the limitations of his average cover ability will once again make it hard for Rodrigues to land a role that keeps him on the field enough to produce fantasy value.
Campbell was the team’s only significant addition at linebacker. While his presence should help to improve the unit, the Lions remain thin at the position, with third-year man Derrick Barnes and journeyman Jalen Reeves-Maybin providing the depth. Both are adequate spot replacements that could get the team through in a pinch if needed but are not NFL starters.
- MLB Alex Anzalone – LB3 with little upside
- MLB Jack Campbell – Somewhere between marginal and a good LB2, depending on his role
- WLB Malcolm Rodriguez – Marginal IDP value expected, but worth keeping an eye on
- WLB Derrick Barnes – No impact
- WLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin – No impact
- SLB Julian Okwara – No impact
The biggest change for Detroit comes in the secondary, where the team will sport at least three new starters and possibly four. This is the one place where Detroit, at least on paper, has a good problem, too many quality options.
Free safety Tracy Walker returns from injury after missing all but the first three games in 2022. He is joined by last year’s third-round pick, Kerby Joseph, who performed well as a rookie, former New Orleans and Philadelphia starter C.J. Gardner-Johnson, longtime Steelers starter Cameron Sutton, former San Francisco starter Emmanuel Moseley, and second-round pick out of Alabama, Brian Branch. That is six quality options for five spots.
What really muddies the waters is the position versatility in this group. Sutton and Moseley are outside corners. Everyone else is capable of playing at least two positions, and in the case of Branch, they can put him virtually anywhere in the back seven.
This is what we know, or at least think we know, heading into camp. Sutton and Moseley are the starting outside corners. Both are proven commodities at those positions and are considerable upgrades over last year’s starters. Sutton has been an iron man, missing no games since 2018. He is a good cover corner, though best suited to be a number two. In three years as a starter in Pitsburg, Sutton never put up big numbers but was rock solid on the field.
Moseley was in and out of the starting lineup over his four years with San Francisco, largely due to being plagued by injuries. He missed at least four games in each of the last three seasons and played sparingly in many others. When he is right, Moseley is a quality corner. Like Sutton, however, he has never been very productive on the stat sheet.
Tracy Walker is a versatile safety, capable of playing either strong or free. His best production came as a strong safety in 2019 when he missed three-plus games but still ranked third among defensive backs with 83 solo tackles. Walker’s average of 12.3 points per game was seventh that year. He shifted to free safety in 2020 and was again highly productive before landing in Matt Patricia’s dog house. Patricia did everything he could to keep Walker out of the lineup, but he wouldn’t go away. Despite being limited to 755 snaps that year, Walker managed 87 combined tackles. When Dan Campbell took over the reins in 2021, he quickly recognized Walker as his starting free safety, resulting in another productive season. He totaled 11-9-1 with a pass breakup in just over two games of action before being lost to a torn Achilles in week three last season. The recovery went well, and he was cleared for full activity in mid-June.
When Walker was lost, it opened the door for Kerby Joseph, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Over the final twelve games, he was 52-20-0 with 8 pass breakups and 7 takeaways, for an average of 12.2 points per game. Joseph may be best suited for the free safety spot, which allows his ball-hawking skills to shine, but his versatility would allow a move to strong safety if that best fit the needs of the team.
It was a bit surprising when the Lions inked Gardner-Johnson to a free-agent deal. Not so much from a skill set perspective, but because they were already strong at safety. As it turns out, the plan is to have Gardner-Johnson work as the third safety/slot defender. It’s a role he is very familiar with from his time in New Orleans when Aaron Glenn was the secondary coach there. Gardner-Johnson was productive though a little inconsistent, while with the Saints, which may not be the case in Detroit, where he will be deployed similarly to how the Chiefs and Rams played L’Jarius Sneed and Jalen Ramsey over the last couple of seasons.
Then there is the rookie. Brian Branch was arguably the best defensive back in this year’s draft. He was primarily the slot defender at Alabama but is capable of playing any position in the secondary with equal success. He is quick, fast, strong, and physical for a guy that comes in at 190 pounds. Branch can match up with shifty speed receivers, big possession guys, and receiving tight ends. He is not afraid to put a shoulder into a ball carrier in run support and is no stranger to the big play. As a senior for the Crimson Tide last year, Branch totaled 90 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 7 passes defended, so he checks the box for production. The only question is, where will he play? While that is to be determined, it is a safe bet that Coach Glenn will find a way to get him on the field.
- FS Tracy Walker III – Solid DB3 with some upside
- SS Kerby Joseph – High DB2 ceiling with a little risk until we confirm his role
- Slot C.J. Gardner-Johnson – High ceiling but a fairly low floor
- SS/Slot Will Harris – Injury sleeper with marginal potential
- CB/FS Brian Branch – Could be this year’s rookie sensation but be careful until we know his role
- CB Cameron Sutton – No IGP impact
- CB Emmanuel Moseley – Injury risk with marginal upside
- CB Jerry Jacobs – No impact expected
- CB/FS Ifeatu Melifonwu – No impact
That’s a wrap for Part 16. I’ll get started on the AFC South next.
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