How do you replace Ndamukong Suh? Lions tackle the issue early at camp
“Just replace a Hall of Famer with a Hall of Famer,” Walker says.
The respective Hall merits of both Suh and Ngata aside, Detroit's task along the defensive line for 2015 is not as simple as that.
It's not quite Moneyball—not when Ngata is set to make $8.5 million in the final year of his current deal—but the approach Detroit took this off-season after Suh and Nick Fairley departed in free agency does have elements of the Oakland Athletics' mindset in filling roster holes on a budget.
In the film version of the acclaimed book, A's GM Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) explains that the front office has no chance of replacing free-agent departure Jason Giambi with a one-for-one player swap. Instead, he offers, “we might be able to replace him in the aggregate.” In other words, find multiple players who collectively could match Giambi's stats.
Once Suh accepted that a six-year, $114 million offer from the Dolphins, finding an exact replica of the game's most dominant defensive tackle was a non-starter.
Instead, Lions GM Martin Mayhew traded two draft picks (a fourth- and fifth-rounder) to Baltimore for Ngata. A couple of days later, he signed Walker after New Orleans opted not to protect its potential restricted free agent. Then for the second straight year, the Lions used a Day 3 draft pick on a defensive tackle—this time, Auburn's Gabe Wright.
Does any of the tinkering get Detroit back to even? In reality, probably not. There is a chance, though, that the Lions can downgrade impact of Suh's departure from catastrophic to inconvenient.
“When you lose a guy as talented as Ndamukong Suh, to have the ability to replace him with a guy like Haloti Ngata really alleviates a lot of the concern about the defensive tackle position,” Mayhew said in a press conference after acquiring Ngata. (The Lions placed Ngata on the non-football injury list Monday due to a minor hamstring issue, and he did not meet with the media following practice.)
The 31-year-old, 340-pound Ngata remains a force against the run and should help cover Suh's absence on early downs. What happens when the down and distance are in Detroit's favor remains to be seen. Ngata likely will not match Suh's high snap count (around 82% of Detroit's defensive snaps last season), nor would anyone pretend that the former Raven is even in the same ballpark as a pass rusher.
Suh was responsible for 37 quarterback hurries last season, the most among defensive tackles. Walker may be Detroit's brightest hope in that area. Last season, he posted 2.5 sacks and 14 hurries in just 306 snaps, a productive rate the Lions pray carries over to his new home.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin also added a wrinkle up front during OTAs and utilized it again as training camp opened, lining up 6'7" defensive end Devin Taylor inside at a tackle spot. With Ngata and fellow veteran Jason Jones unavailable Monday, the Lions opened their 11-on-11 drills with Taylor and Walker paired together inside, flanked by Larry Webster and Ziggy Ansah at the DE spots.
“We shouldn't have to change anything,” Walker says. “You shouldn't change what you do just because a person's not here, and I don't think we are.”
“That's the job of the media, when people leave questions have to be answered and we can't really answer those until we get on the field of play,” Jones says. “Suh was a great player for us. He's now with the Miami Dolphins, so we're moving on. This year could be a new year for the D-line.”
The Lions' hands were tied on Suh—they bypassed using the franchise tag (under it, Suh would have counted nearly $36 million against this year's cap) and could not reach Miami's record-setting stratosphere on a contract offer. They had much more say over Fairley's future, only to cede their leverage last off-season by declining the fifth-year option on his contract.
The goal was to motivate Fairley, who had been inconsistent at best over his first three seasons. It worked: Fairley played the best ball of his career before suffering a Week 8 knee injury. Free to test the market in March, Fairley signed with the Rams.
While Detroit has vowed not to start from scratch minus Suh and Fairley, it may make tweaks outside of simply changing the personnel. One possibility is for Austin to throw more blitzes from an athletic linebacking group.
In 2013, the final year of Jim Schwartz's Detroit regime, the Lions blitzed on just 18.3% of their snaps, per Pro Football Focus, the second-lowest rate in the league. Last year, under Austin and head coach Jim Caldwell, they raised that mark to 24.9%. Consider that the baseline for the blitz figures this season, particularly if 2014 second-rounder Kyle Van Noy can contribute at linebacker after a rookie year mostly lost to injury.
“I feel like the whole team could [bring pressure on the QB],” Van Noy says. “Same safeties as last year, we still have the same defensive ends. Too many people are focusing on the loss of a D-line, but we've got guys who can fill those roles.
“We've got Haloti, we've got Gabe Wright, we've got Tyrunn. I think we can bring damage to any team. I think we match up well.”
What else are the players going to say at this point, right? “We're doomed without Ndamukong”? Training camp provides an annual restoration of confidence, and this is no different.
The Lions should be fine without veteran defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, who followed Suh to Miami, and they thrived on defense last season even without Fairley in the lineup. Replacing Suh is out of the question, even with the Ngata addition. The best Detroit can hope for is to piece together a Suh-like impact from a variety of sources.
“Whoever gets put in there, with the philosophy and schemes that we run, anybody can excel,” Van Noy says. “Focusing on our individual jobs and mastering that ... everything will fall into place.”
Easier said than done.
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