The Detroit Lions defensive line is built upon their strength up the middle. The Lions have two first round picks at defensive tackle, and another at right defensive end, and when it clicks it consumes opponents in a brutal fashion.
Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive tackle in the NFL. He is the most intimidating player in the league, his hits are violent, his work ethic is undeniable and he runs with a motor that no other player in the league compares too. It also gets Suh into some trouble with fines and even a suspension to his credit in his five year career. Suh is one of the most controversial players in football, and also one of the most dominant. While his reputation precedes him, he seemed to turn over a new leaf last year. There were a few times that rather than driving a quarterback or running back into the ground, he seemed to just pick them up and set them there. Honestly, that is a bit more intimidating than the punishing hits he’s known for. It’s almost like he’s saying, “don’t try to go anywhere next time, I’m being nice right now.” If Suh is able to hold on to that balance, he’ll be even better than he has been so far. That thought must be terrifying to opponents.
Straight up potential wise, Nick Fairley may have more to offer than Suh. That being said, Fairley has not shown what he can do on a regular basis. It’s very frustrating to watch him destroy his blocker on one play and then on the next play have Fairley look like a liability. Part of it is conditioning, but the other part seems from the outside like a lack of desire. Martin Mayhew did his best to make a point this offseason with Fairley by not picking up the fifth year option that the Lions have on Fairley’s contract. It effectively means that the Lions will not have Fairley on the roster next year. They won’t be able to afford to sign both him and Suh and the Lions will be very unlikely to let Suh go, even if they have to use the franchise tag on him. At this point, until the contract is renegotiated, it would actually be a discount to franchise Suh. The upside for this year though is Fairley will be playing for his first free agent contract. The Lions are only going to get one more year out of Fairley, but it is no doubt going to be his best. If nothing else motivates a person, millions of dollars are a strong incentive. Fairley may even end up in the pro bowl this year.
Ziggy Ansah was a questionable pick in the first round of the draft in 2013. He hadn’t played for long and there were doubts as to how it would translate in the NFL. After a few rough patches though, Ansah turned out a stellar rookie season and made Mayhew look smarter than the average general manager. Ansah is fast, long and works hard and should only improve going forward, and at least for this season will have the advantage of not ever being double teamed because of the interior lineman Suh and Fairley. I would expect 12-15 sacks from Ansah this year and consistent play against the run as well. He is joined this year by his college roommate Kyle Van Noy at linebacker too. The familiarity between the players should enhance their production.
Left end is the question mark on the Lions defensive line. Jason Jones is the projected starter. If he stays healthy, he should have a good season. Suh is actually expected to shift over to defensive end as well some this season. That will provide opportunities for the Lions to use their depth at the tackle position with C. J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen receiving some extra playing time from it. Both players are solid, but not extraordinary.
The Lions should total 40-45 sacks from their defensive line this year. That should be enough to make opposing quarterbacks lose some sleep. If the line does its job, the secondary may end up looking better than it is, which has to be what Mayhew is counting on based on his lack of effort to improve the secondary. The Lions success this season is reliant upon Suh and Fairley being dominant. Unfortunately, there are no second chances, for this defensive line it’s this year and done.