Lions might gamble on strong defensive end class


Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Fifth in a series of previews for the NFL draft.

Allen Park— Why in the world would the Lions draft a defensive end with the 13th overall in next week’s draft?

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The defensive line, as a unit, was without question the strength of the defense last season and everybody is coming back. The ends are especially well-stocked with starters Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, productive reserves Turk McBride and Lawrence Jackson, plus developing second-year end Willie Young.

No way the Lions use their first on a defensive lineman, right? Wrong.

“Sometimes when you add a player, it might not make sense on the face of it,” general manager Martin Mayhew said before the Combine in February. “But if you see what’s on the horizon and you look down the road and around the corner, it does make sense.”

All four primary defensive ends were injured at various times last season, and Vanden Bosch will be 33 and coming off neck surgery, so you can’t have enough talent there, especially when it is the foundation of your defensive scheme.

“That has to be the strength of our team in the future and it’s a big part of our defensive philosophy,” Mayhew said. “There are a lot of intriguing guys here (in the draft), a lot of good defensive ends and a lot of versatile guys who can play outside and rush from the inside. That is definitely an area we will look to address.”

The accumulation of talented defensive ends and, more specifically, pass rushers, is becoming a league-wide trend. Former coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden explains why.

“There is a premium on pass rush,” he said in a teleconference last week. “You don’t want to have to blitz five, six, seven guys to get there. You want to be able to get there with four, if you can for sure, and use seven men in coverage.”

That’s especially critical for the Lions, since they have had some well-documented deficiencies in the secondary over the years.

“Defensive ends are a premium in this draft,” Gruden said. “I think this is an outstanding class of defensive end. (Da’Quan) Bowers, providing his knee is healthy, and Robert Quinn at North Carolina, Aldon Smith is special at Missouri. I think J.J. Watt is a physical guy coming off the edge, like Ryan Kerrigan at Purdue. Adrian Clayborn has some excellent tape. There are a number of good pass rushers in this draft.”

The Lions have taken close looks at Smith, Bowers and Cal’s Cameron Jordan. Mayhew talked about Bowers, who led the nation in sacks, on Thursday.

“There is some concern about Bowers’ medical condition,” Mayhew said. “Our doctors have evaluated him and we don’t share that concern.”

Bowers had knee surgery in January and there have been conflicting reports about how ready he will be next season — and beyond.

“He’s not in pristine physical condition, according to our doctors,” Mayhew said. “But we are not concerned about his health in terms of playing football in the future.”

Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have talked about having ends that are versatile enough to rush effectively from the inside and outside. Watt, Bowers and Smith certainly fit that bill, but there is a good chance none will be around by the time the Lions are set to pick.

Smith would be an intriguing choice. He’s only 21 and still raw. He likely wouldn’t make a huge impact next season, but Mayhew made it clear Thursday the draft is for the future.

Smith is listed at 263 pounds, but projects to play at 275 when he grows into his frame. Right now he can squat 700 pounds, so he’s explosive inside and outside.

The talent pool is deep enough that they could get a solid defensive end even in the second or third rounds.

“If you select well, the whole draft is pretty sound,” Mayhew said. “Defensive line is really deep and that’s good. We really have improved our football team by improving our defensive line, but we can still add to that group.”

By most accounts, the cream of the defensive tackle crop — Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, Auburn’s Nick Fairley and possibly Corey Liuget of Illinois — will be gone before the Lions pick.

Long time coming

Before drafting Ndamukong Suh last year, the Lions last took a defensive lineman with their first pick in the 1995 draft. The list:

2010: DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (No. 2)

2009: QB Matthew Stafford, Georgia (No. 1)

2008: OT Gosder Cherilus, Boston College (No. 17)

2007: WR Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech (No. 2)

2006: LB Ernie Sims, Florida State (No. 9)

2005: WR Mike Williams, Southern California (No. 10)

2004: WR Roy Williams, Texas (No. 7)

2003: WR Charles Rogers, Michigan State (No. 2)

2002: QB Joey Harrington, Oregon (No. 3)

2001: OT Jeff Backus, Michigan (No. 18)

2000: OT Stockar McDougle, Oklahoma (No. 20)

1999: LB Chris Claiborne, Southern California (No. 9)

1998: CB Terry Fair, Tennessee (No. 20)

1997: CB Bryant Westbrook, Texas (No. 5)

1996: LB Reggie Brown, Texas AM (No. 17)

1995: DT Luther Elliss, Utah (No. 20)

Top defensive ends J.J. Watt

6-6/292, Wisconsin

There doesn’t appear to be a weakness. He has an elite first step, quick, violent hands, great athleticism, can rush inside and on the edge and has uncanny timing on batting down passes.

Da’Quan Bowers

6-4/280, Clemson

The NCAA leader in sacks and tackles for loss has all the tools, power, strength, leverage. The only question is his surgically-repaired right knee. Teams are split on how long he will last.

Robert Quinn

6-4/265, North Carolina

He is smaller than the other elite players, but he’s faster (4.65 40) and more athletic. Some scouts think he’s too one-dimensional and raw. Others think he is a budding game-changer. Didn’t play last season.

Aldon Smith

6-4/263, Missouri

Scouts love his length, strength and power, but mostly they like his versatility. He is a beast of an inside rusher and explosive off the edge. He has excellent lateral movement, as well.

Cameron Jordon

6-4/283, California

Athletic and disruptive. Has a non-stop motor on the field. His happy-go-lucky demeanor masks a fierce competitiveness. He can play from a stance in a 4-3 or standing up in a 3-4.

Top defensive tackles Nick Fairley

6-3/291, Auburn

This is a mean, dynamic pass rusher with all the tools to be a Pro Bowler. But his bust potential is just as high. Concerns about his motivation and character persist.

Marcell Dareus

6-3/319, Alabama

Probably as complete and safe a top-three pick as there is in the draft. Will draw double-teams whether he plays in an odd or even front. Great power and strength, plus he is technically sound.

Corey Liuget

6-2/298, Illinois

There is concern about his weight, but his ability to penetrate at the point of attack is a perfect fit for a 4-3 system. Some worry he’s a one-year wonder.

Muhammad Wilkerson

6-4/315, Temple

Impressive at stacking and shedding blockers and finding the ball, but he’s raw. He will need a lot of help with technique. Hasn’t had to learn how to use his hands, which he’ll have to do.

Marvin Austin

6-1/309, North Carolina

Not NFL-ready, but he’s thick, ran a 4.83 with a Combine-best 1.64 10-yard split. But he is still a bit immature. High risk-reward quotient here. Like Quinn, he didn’t play last season.

NFL draft

When: April 28-30, Radio City Music Hall, New York

TV: April 28 and 30 on ESPN (8 p.m. and noon), April 29 on ESPN2 (6 p.m.); all rounds on NFL

Format

Round 1: 8 p.m. April 28

Rounds 2-3: 6 p.m. April 29

Rounds 4-7: noon April 30

Detroit News position previews for the NFL draft

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

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