Key Lions Defensive Position ‘Most Improved’ in NFL After Draft

Alim McNeill

Getty Alim McNeill celebrates a big play for N.C. State.

The Detroit Lions came into the 2021 NFL Draft with needs everywhere, and yet still many were surprised to see the team target the trenches for a move.

Still, Detroit stepped up and managed to find a few players in the early rounds to help solve their problems. The Lions managed to improve their fortunes in a big way by drafting Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill so much that their interior is amongst the most improved in the league according to PFF.

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Writer Seth Galina picked out some of the most improved spots on rosters across the league, and the Lions’ defensive line made the cut thanks to what they added early in the 2021 draft.

Galina wrote:

“They lost Danny Shelton and added Michael Brockers this offseason, but that wasn’t going to move the needle much. In the draft, the Lions added both a nose tackle and a 3-technique with their second and third picks.

Washington product Levi Onwuzurike, their second-rounder, posted two really productive seasons in 2018 and 2019 before not playing in 2020. He’s the 3-technique who will compete with Brockers for starting reps. And there’s a good chance he wins the starting job by Week 1. He is an explosive player, although he needs to develop more pass-rushing moves.

To solidify their nose tackle position, the Lions took North Carolina State’s Alim McNeill. He is the modern nose tackle, as teams don’t necessarily want their nose tackles to be big-bodied run stuffers. He stops the run with quickness and agility. He doesn’t have the pass-rush moves right now, but with the physical profile, you would think he can become an above-average pass rusher at the position to go along with being an elite run defender.”

Detroit’s line was beyond bad last season, so it’s refreshing to see the team’s new front office realize the problem and fix it. Whether or not the players pan out is anyone’s guess, but the Lions took major steps right off the bat to address a major problem and may have had big success.

Onwuzurike and McNeill’s Fit With Lions

The Lions needed some major help in the trenches and Onwurzurike can theoretically provide it. He collected 95 tackles in his time in college to go with 16 tackles for-loss and 7 sacks. Onwurzurike opted out of the 2020 season, but he showed well in 2019 when he last played. Teams looking to draft Onwuzurike were likely looking at his ability to be physical and tough in the trenches and develop into a great player in the middle.

While playing for N.C. State, McNeill collected 77 tackles, 17.5 tackles for-loss, 10 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 5 passes defended. He also scored 1 touchdown in his career. Obviously, those are the type of numbers that point to a guy who can move around and make a lot of plays along a front, which is just what he will be asked to do with the Lions and their very needy defensive line.

Both players are amongst the top at the interior spot, so it’s tough to see how Detroit’s line didn’t get better with these moves.

Lions 2021 NFL Draft Recap

Detroit came into the draft and was wide open for the most part after selecting Penei Sewell in the 2021 NFL Draft and even after Levi Onwuzurike in the second-round. In the third-round, the Lions selected defensive lineman Alim McNeill and cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu. Day three, the Lions picked wideout Amon-Ra St.Brown and linebacker Derrick Barnes. Finally, the team closed out their draft by grabbing running back Jermar Jefferson in the seventh-round. Sewell’s addition feels huge given what the team needs, as are the defensive fill-ins at key spots.

No matter whether it was offense or defense, the Lions seemed to fill their needs very confidently as the weekend rolled on. The class had good balance overall overall offense to defense.

The team’s first draft with a new regime seems to be off to a good start in the minds of many league experts, and it could start on the defensive side of the ball in the trenches.

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