As the Lions prepare to open up training camp for the 2015 season, they must do so with a bit of an adjustment from the past.
This will be the first time since 2009 that the Lions will kick off training camp without the services of former second-overall draft pick Ndamukong Suh.
The highly productive defensive tackle left for a mega-money deal with the Miami Dolphins during free agency, in what was a highly publicized move.
It’s not to say that the Lions can’t overcome the loss but, after losing a player of that caliber, there will definitely be affects throughout the team’s positional groups.
Today, let’s focus on the most obvious area of impact – the defensive line.
The Lions acted quickly with their best-case-scenario solution after facing the worst-case scenario of Suh leaving by trading for proven commodity Haloti Ngata. The team also added tackles Tyrunn Walker (free agency) and Gabe Wright (draft).
At defensive end, the team has a potential star in third-year pro Ziggy Ansah.
So, on paper, the line still has star potential, it still has depth and should still be effective. Sounds like it should be a smooth transition away from Suh, right?
One thing to consider is the voluminous workload Suh accounted for. Last season, Suh didn’t miss a game for the Lions and was on the field for an inhuman 81.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. That’s a total of 926 snaps. Ngata, appearing in 14 games (2 postseason and 12 regular season) accounted for 646 snaps or 66% of his team’s defensive plays. Walker had 306 snaps.
So, looking at last season’s contributions, Ngata and Walker combine to essentially match Suh’s playing time. It’s suffice to say the Lions will need to test their depth in an effort to properly supplement Suh’s departed playing time.
Enter Caraun Reid, a fifth round selection last season who had modest playing time as a rookie (112 total snaps). The Lions may look at Ngata and Walker as starters but will need to lean on Reid. If Reid is unable to take a noticeable step forward in his sophomore season – and early indications are that he may be able to after a strong minicamp where he showed he might push for starting time – the Lions could have an uphill battle against them on the interior of the line. Wright, the Lions fourth-round draft pick from this year’s draft, will also need to contribute as a rookie.
Of course, it’s not just the playing time, it’s the productivity. Suh registered 10 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries – not having a single game where he didn’t register a hurry (stats are inclusive of the playoffs). All those pass rushing numbers while still be dominant against the run.
Ngata should be able to help fill in from a run stopping perspective but, simply put, will not come close to matching Suh’s productivity as a pass rusher. Ngata totaled 20 quarterback hurries a season ago with two hits and three sacks. Walker is intriguing because he was productive as a pass rusher in a limited sample, registering 14 hurries in his 306 snaps, if he can scale those numbers, that would be a big step towards finding the answer to the lost production.
Outside of the tackles, the Lions will count on increased production from the ends, namely Ansah, who totaled 37 hurries, 23 hits and 11 sacks in 17 appearances last season. It’s a very real possibility that Ansah will be the focal point of the opposition on many downs in 2015. Still, the Lions will count on him to take the reins of the defensive line’s best player and he will need his productivity to match.
In addition, growth out of young defensive ends like Larry Webster and Devin Taylor would help.
In summary, Suh leaves behind the type of workload and production a single player will not be able to offset. Rather, the lions will need to test their depth and count on contributions from intriguing but unproven commodities. The opposition’s attention will shift as well and the line’s budding star, Ansah, needs to become a bonafide presence in the NFL.