Projected Starters: LDE Cliff Avril / RDE Kyle Vanden Bosch
Although he'll have competition entering training camp, Avril should be recognized as a rising talent on Detroit's roster. The former third-round pick has put together back-to-back five sack campaigns his first two years. While the numbers aren't mind-blowing, they're certainly enough to wonder how he'll perform on an upgraded unit. Part of that upgrade, certainly, is Kyle Vanden Bosch, the productive veteran and former Titan that will start opposite Avril. Each player has the versatility to switch sides and still play effectively, giving defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham flexibility with the unit.
DeVries is quietly becoming a story. One of the longest tenured Lions, many wondered whether the 11-year veteran could return from an Achilles injury suffered during last year's training camp. Evidently, he did. DeVries rejoined the Lions in April, a month after they cut him for a cap savings, and the coaching staff loves his work ethic and leadership. DeVries is also the team's best run defender on the end, and will enter games on those situations. McBride, meanwhile, is a favorite of the coordinator; the former Chief was acquired last season at the behest of Cunningham. McBride is versatile, too. He can play inside if necessary, but is effective at defensive end. And his cap price ($550,000) is easier to swallow than Jason Hunter's ($1.8 million). Speaking of Hunter: if the Lions elect to keep an extra DE (a possibility), it would almost surely be Hunter, who had 5 sacks of his own last year. But the depth on the line is solid, and the camp roster includes seventh-round pick Willie Young, a player Detroit was high on when they drafted him in April.
Lions defensive end Cliff Avril
It was a perfect storm of ineptitude that landed Detroit's defense in the cellar of the league. Not one position or player was an exception. But if there is ever a common thread among poor (or strong) defenses, it's the trenches. The Lions could not reach opposing quarterbacks in 2009, collecting 26 sacks (29th in the league), and allowing opposing QBs to play pitch-and-catch every Sunday to the tune of a 107 average QB rating. Because the Lions could not effectively pressure the quarterback, the already lackluster secondary was left scrambling to cover open receivers. It affected everything, including ball control, handing opponents the green light to dictate both the tempo of their own offense and, ultimately, the game. With DeVries lost to injury, and the dispatched Dewayne White struggling with injuries and production, Avril (5.5 sacks) and Hunter (5 sacks) were the only talents that rose to the surface.
The Lions made one of the biggest splashes in free-agency when they recruited Kyle Vanden Bosch. It wasn't difficult. Any time the BRINKS truck shows up on your front lawn with $10 million, you're either joining a team or looking for a PCH van and cameras. But beyond KVB's onfield exploits, the 10-year veteran is also a leader and a name synonymous with Defensive Skill. Every Detroit defensive end is keeping a notebook on Vanden Bosch, who is adept at both run and pass support, with a knack for making life difficult for opposing tackles. Although his days as a double-digit sack master might be over, he remains an every down presence that must be accounted for; the presence that has been missing in Detroit since Robert Porcher. KVB makes others around him better, and with significant improvements across the line, he might be the key that unlocks what the coaching staff feels is untapped potential within Avril.
Well, duh. But both have had double-digit sack years, and both are ripe for a big campaign in 2010. And neither is going away any time soon. Umenyiora and Tuck each have time on their side, whereas Vanden Bosch is clearly not a long-term solution, and Avril, while talented, remains a question mark. Although it might be much to ask the Lions to have bookend, talented defensive ends (and New York should consider it a luxury), just one half of that pair is still a quantum leap from what Detroit will field at defensive end. Certainly, 2010 already looks better on paper for Detroit, and it should be considered 'good enough for right now' -- but not necessarily acceptable. A close second to this would be Jared Allen and Ray Edwards of Minnesota.
But They're Better Than ... Anything The Packers Will Field
Certainly, a 3-4 defense might be a poor comparison, but the loss of Aaron Kampman (Jacksonville) and Johnny Jolly (suspension) affects the team's defensive fortitude. Green Bay will field just Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins at defensive end. While Jenkins managed five sacks last year, Pickett is moving over from defensive tackle. The Packers will toss in reserves Mike Neal and Jarius Wynn via rotation, but none of these names instill much fear in opposing offenses. Granted, Green Bay's linebackers are a formidable group, but don't think that the loss of Kampman and Jolly are insignificant. Point: Detroit.
Everything about Detroit's defensive end position is questionable until they hit the quarterback. Last season (and in the words of Patches O'Houlihan), they couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat. Beyond sacks, they need to register hurries and hits. They need to attack the quarterback with reckless abandon, otherwise the 4-3 defense becomes ... well, what everyone witnessed last year in Detroit. Cliff Avril has talent, and Kyle Vanden Bosch has experience. But that can translate into overrated and washed up just as quickly as every down threat and productive. Detroit's entire defensive philosophy revolves around its ends, and applying pressure. They don't have a choice but to be successful.