CThe Detroit Lions know what to expect from their star defensive players Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and they believe with both them in a contract year, that this should be their best season to date. After that, the team is full of question marks.
Last year’s surprises on defense came from rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy. Both put up solid numbers and should be able to maintain the level of play they showed last year. Ansah is dealing with a shoulder injury that currently has him sidelined at training camp, but at this point they still expect him to be available at the beginning of the season.
The player the Lions are hinging their defensive success on this year is second year cornerback Darius Slay. Slay began last season as a starter but quickly relinquished that position to veteran Rashean Mathis. Slay found himself back in the starting lineup, but it may have had more to do with Chris Houston’s injuries than his own play. Slay showed enough flashes for the Lions to believe he can reach the next level and reviews so far have been excellent. There is no backup plan. Slay has to succeed and control his side of the field. He worked this offseason with hall of famer Rod Woodson. With Mathis holding down the other cornerback, Slay will be asked to cover their opponent’s top receiver each week. It doesn’t matter what the lineman do if the receivers are wide open.
Kyle Van Noy was selected by general manager Martin Mayhew to take over the other outside linebacker position from Ashlee Palmer. Palmer won’t just give up his spot, he’s a hard worker, but it’s obvious to all that Van Noy has the superior skill level. Van Noy showed in college that he is good against the run and the pass, both in coverage and as a blitzing threat. He was a college teammate of Ansah, and when the two lined up together they were a fast tandem that was difficult to contend with. The Lions are hoping that translates in the NFL as well.
If Ansah is not ready for the regular season the Lions options are far thinner than last season at defensive end. Currently, rookie Larry Webster sits at the top of the depth chart lining up opposite of Jason Jones. Jones is apparently ready to go after being sidelined most of last season and should be fine. Webster will have to step up if Ansah isn’t ready to go. They could use Suh at defensive end some for depth and to make offensive lineman have to account for him in different spots. That could open up some opportunities for backups C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen who have both performed solidly in their rotational spots. The Lions did also draft Caraun Reid and he should be able to shift in as well, especially if Ansah misses significant time.
The player the Lions need to have a breakout season is Darius Slay. Kyle Van Noy probably will, barring injury, and the Lions will happily suffer through a few rookie mistakes if he’s able to play at the level he did in college. Webster will get his shots, as will Mosley, Fluellen and Reid. Hopefully they do well, because going into next season they may become huge parts of this defense if Suh and Fairley both depart via free agency.