Lions’ dominating defensive line could look different next season

Six of the Lions' top eight defensive linemen from the past season are free agents.

Tim Fuller

If you had to identify the biggest reason the Detroit Lions won 11 games and made the playoffs in 2014, it would be the performance of their defensive line.

It all started inside with All-Pro tackle Ndamukong Suh, but a deep rotation also contributed to this unit finally living up to the hype and expectations that were generated when the Lions used the No. 2 pick overall on Suh in 2010, the No. 13 pick on tackle Nick Fairley in 2011 and the No. 5 pick on end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah in 2013.

The Lions’ defense, once considered a glaring weakness, was transformed into one of the best in the NFL this season, largely because of impact made by their front four.

That dominating defensive line, however, could look considerably different next season, which has to be one of the major concerns for this team over the next few months.

Not only are Suh and Fairley both free agents, but so are tackles C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen, along with ends George Johnson and Darryl Tapp.

That’s six of the Lions’ top eight defensive linemen from the past season. The six combined for 20 1/2 of the team’s 42 sacks, including 8 1/2 by Suh and six by Johnson, who was one of the league’s biggest surprises.

Ideally, based off their performance all season long, this would be a unit that would return intact for 2015, but that’s not to happen.

"I think you enter the offseason saying, ‘We’d like to have all these guys back,’" coach Jim Caldwell said. "But the salary cap won’t allow you to do so. It’s just not realistic.

"You have to make adjustments, make assessments and that’s what we’ll be in the process of doing. It’s an ongoing process that will take us a while to get through."

Suh is unquestionable the prized piece that made it all work up front for the Lions. All of other guys were better because of the focus opponents had to put on Suh play in and play out.

There’s nothing more disruptive to a quarterback than pressure up the middle, which is why Suh, Fairley and Mosley were so valuable.

They are three of the top 11 defensive tackles eligible for free agency this year based on rankings by Pro Football Focus.

Suh is No. 1. Fairley, despite missing the final nine games because of a knee injury, is No. 6. Mosley, who filled in admirably in the starting lineup for Fairley, is No. 11.

Fluellen isn’t ranked nearly as high, but he made a strong contribution after being re-signed yet again in early November following Fairley’s injury. Fluellen hasn’t fit into the Lions’ plans to start the regular season either of the last two years, but both times he was brought back in the middle of the season. His reliability assured that the depth of the rotation up front remained solid even without Fairley.

Johnson is only ranked as the No. 19 defensive end available in free agency, according to Pro Football Focus, but he emerged as a quality NFL player in 2014. The perception when he signed with Detroit was that he would be just another training-camp body and had little chance to make the 53-man roster, but he far exceeded expectations.

Johnson, an undrafted player coming out of Rutgers in 2010, turned himself into a better athlete by losing weight in recent years. Don’t assume that his performance this past season was an aberration.

He needs to improve his run defense, but there’s no question that Johnson emerged a legitimate threat as a pass rusher.

Tapp, a nine-year NFL veteran, also filled his role impressively, making some big plays in limited action.

After Suh and possibly Fairley, the Lions need to put their attention on trying to bring back Mosley and Johnson, too, and keep as much of this rotation intact as possible.

More than likely, there will be a significant turnover, though, and the Lions won’t be able to keep all four of them.

There’s even a question whether Jason Jones, a versatile veteran who can play tackle or end, might be a victim of the salary cap. The Lions could create more than $3 million in cap space if they release Jones.

That cap space might be needed if they keep Suh.

As a result, recent draft picks such as ends Devin Taylor and Larry Webster, along with tackle Caraun Reid, are inevitably going to have to play a bigger role going forward.

Taylor, a fourth-round pick in 2013 out of South Carolina, lost some of his playing time because of Johnson’s unexpected rise.

Reid, a fifth-round pick last year from Princeton, got more than 100 snaps as a rookie, but the Lions ended up opting for Fluellen’s experience down the stretch to help replace Fairley.

Webster, who started his college career at Division II Bloomsburg University as a basketball player, is the real wild card of the group.

He was a fourth-round selection a year ago, was active for only two games as a rookie and never even played a down, but coach Jim Caldwell had high praise late in the season for his development.

"At some point in time, you’re going to see that young man take the field for us and perform extremely well," Caldwell said. "Don’t be surprised. He has made leaps and bounds in terms of his ability to rush the passer. He’s tough. The guys (assistant coaches) do some extra work with him after practice and they’ve been raving about what he’s been able to accomplish, just watching him grow and develop."

Depending on how things sort out when free agency arrives in March, the Lions might have to rely on several new faces, perhaps even an unknown like Webster, to help their defensive line remain so productive.

It’s not ideal, but that’s the way it goes in a salary-cap league like the NFL.