Monday, July 27, 2020

Detroit Lions training camp preview: Trey Flowers leads new-look defensive line

Updated Jul 26, 2020; Posted Jul 26, 2020

Detroit Lions defensive lineman Trey Flowers (90) looks on in the fourth quarter of their NFL game against the New York Giants at Ford Field in Detroit, on Sunday, October 27, 2019. The Lions won the game, 31-26, and are now 3-3-1 on the season. (Mike Mulholland | Mulholland |

We still don't know definitively what training camp will look like due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Detroit Lions are expected to arrive in Allen Park next week and MLive is kicking off its annual camp preview. Today: Defensive line. Previously: Running backs | Wide receivers | Offensive line | Tight ends | Quarterbacks

Roster locks: Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Da'Shawn Hand, Julian Okwara, Romeo Okwara, Nick Williams

Competing: Austin Bryant, Kevin Strong, Frank Herron, Jashon Cornell, John Penisini, John Atkins, Olive Sagapolu, Jonathan Wynn

Notable departures: Snacks Harrison, A'Shawn Robinson, Mike Daniels

Breakdown: To say Detroit’s defensive line failed to meet expectations last season would be a massive understatement. The Lions spent $90 million on Trey Flowers and added Mike Daniels to a group already featuring Snacks Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson and Romeo Okwara. Instead of continuing its ascent into the league’s elite, the group fell to defensive depths not seen ‘round these parts since 2008.

What went wrong? Well, that's a question that will garner you more than a couple of answers.

Trey Flowers, Mike Daniels and Snacks Harrison struggled to get things rolling, while Da’Shawn Hand couldn’t get or stay on the field. Flowers continued to improve as the season progressed, but he was a man fighting on a revolving door without much help coming from the second level or other side.
Lions coach Matt Patricia’s defense rushed only three men on 26% of plays, which was fewer than any other team in the NFL. The Lions also blitzed fewer than anyone else (12% of plays). Detroit lined up in its base defense 19% of the time, while most of its formations were in the nickel (45%) and dime (34%). Detroit seemed to fail to adjust to its crumbling roster and results, as the defensive line was left on an island to create pressure. This data comes from Warren Sharp’s preview for the upcoming season.

The Lions won 24% of their pass rushes, which was by far the worst mark in the NFL. Detroit’s defensive line ranked 23rd against the run and 31st against the pass, according to Football Outsiders.

Even with all of that said, Flowers was still outstanding last season. Maybe not as good as some were expecting for $90 million, but he was still really good. Flowers was at his best when the year was already in shambles. The 26-year-old looked like a different player from Week 7 on, picking up six sacks in nine games after working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. His personal pass-rush win percentage of 20.7% was fourth in the NFL, trailing only Za’Darius Smith, Aaron Donald and Joey Bosa.

Flowers finished one spot behind Jadeveon Clowney in PFF’s pass-rushing marks, and behind Nick Bosa in terms of stuffing the run for those wondering how he stacks up. He ranked among the top 10 edge defenders in pass-rush productivity and led the way in run-stop percentage while finishing 19th overall among edge defenders per the analytics site.

Flowers was far and away Detroit’s highest-graded interior/EDGE defender as the only one with double-digit forced hurries and quarterback hits. His seven sacks tied (now Cardinals) linebacker Devon Kennard for tops on the team.

Now, the team moves forward banking on the likes of Hand and Austin Bryant to bounce back from injury-riddled campaigns. Hand appeared in only three games, while Bryant was limited to four and 133 snaps. Hand’s return from injury would have been one of the primary focuses under typical camp circumstances in the coming weeks, as the darling of Pro Football Focus could be one of the keys to flipping the script.
Bryant was a fourth-round pick and comes with some versatility off the edge, but a shoulder injury kept him off the practice field for most of the year. He’ll now look to develop and find a role without a preseason.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn and Patricia are also banking on Danny Shelton to fill Harrison's spot in the middle of the line. The best argument for the former first-round pick doing so is that he turned in his best season in New England's system after mediocre play with the Browns.
Shelton racked up three sacks and 18 pressures, while ranking 58th against the run among interior defenders per PFF. That’s better than Harrison (70th) or any other Lions defensive lineman or edge rusher finished.
Nick Williams was another free-agent addition, coming over on a two-year deal from the Chicago Bears. Williams went into last season as a 29-year-old without a sack to his name but racked up six while taking advantage of his first consistent playing time. He appeared in only two games in 2018, but then logged a career-high 532 snaps last season.
Another aspect we’ll miss from a typical camp and preseason setting is watching the development and deployment of rookie Julian Okwara.
The Lions took Julian Okwara, the younger brother of defensive end Romeo Okwara, out of Notre Dame in the third round. The 6-foot-4, 250-plus pound pass rusher was considered a first-round prospect by many, but broke his leg late in the college season and missed the scouting combine. He had five sacks in nine games and pressured the passer 32 times on 202 pass-rushing snaps.
Pairing him next to his older brother was a wise move for the field and locker room, with Romeo Okwara just one year removed from a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2018. If the two of them can form a solid rotation on the other side of Flowers with Hand moving up and down the line, this unit could far exceed expectations.
For the Lions and Patricia to turn this thing around, they're going to need players like Hand, Bryant, and Julian Okwara to bounce back from injuries while getting consistent production from Shelton and Williams.
The Lions opened the season with eight defensive linemen last year, and might be wise to enter 2020 with even more after watching the trenches fall apart. John Penisini and Jashon Cornell were the sixth- and seventh-round draft picks. They will compete with Kevin Strong, John Atkins, Olive Sagapolu, Jonathan Wynn and Frank Herron for depth positions.
Strong, Atkins, Herron, and Wynn saw live reps last year, with the former making the roster as an undrafted free agent. Strong will have to hope his progress from last year will be enough to keep him in town while the NFL pushes forward with fewer opportunities for fringe players.
Flowers is a cornerstone player, no doubt about that. The fact that this defense was as bad as it was while he was as good as he was last year is concerning when looking at all the young, unproven faces around him.
In an ideal world, Hand and Bryant stay on the field while Julian Okwara arrives as the disruptor many pictured him as this time last year. Shelton and Williams will also need to prove their respective breakouts aren’t blips on the radar as the new-look defensive line will need them to fill holes as the rookies and those coming back from injury get up to speed. The talent and scheme familiarity are there. It’s just a question of whether or not it can come (and stay) together.
Roster projection: Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Da’Shawn Hand, Julian Okwara, Romeo Okwara, Nick Williams, Austin Bryant, John Penisini, Jashon Cornell

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