Training Camp Preview: Reader's Presence Could Unlock D-Line

Is DJ Reader missing piece for Lions' defensive line?
New Detroit Lions defensive tackle DJ Reader.
New Detroit Lions defensive tackle DJ Reader. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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The Detroit Lions' defensive line was one of the league's most underrated a year ago.

Dan Campbell's team boasted a defense that finished second against the run in 2023. Though struggles in pass-rush situations left more to be desired, the Lions' success against opposing ground games was very encouraging.

The defensive line room will have new leadership this year, with a new coach and a steady veteran entering the fold. Time will tell on the results, but the interior defensive line looks to be in a good place.

Here's a breakdown of the Lions' interior defensive line ahead of the start of training camp.

Reason for hope

The Lions added DJ Reader and lost little in terms of significant production from a defense that was one of the best in the league against the run last year. Formerly with the Cincinnati Bengals, Reader has the reputation of one of the league's best nose tackles.

If he can live up to expectations, the Lions' defensive line will be fully unlocked. With the Bengals, Reader was a frequent recipient of double teams and extra attention from opposing offensive lines. If he sees this in Detroit, players like Alim McNeill will reap the benefits.

McNeill could be in store for a big seasons. After a breakout year last year that was hindered by a late-season injury, the Lions believe the N.C. State product has another gear he can reach within the defense.

As a result, expectations for the unit as a whole are rightfully high. If the Lions can find quality and reliable depth, they will be a formidable force in the trenches.

Reason for worry

Reader's health remains a question, as Campbell indicated that he was unsure if the veteran would be able to be ready for the start of training camp. If his progress is slowed, the Lions may have to rely on Brodric Martin to fill early reps at the nose tackle position.

Martin played in just three games as a rookie last season. While he is expected to be a better, more developed player in 2024, he is still quite limited in terms of game reps.

Additionally, the team needs to find reliable rotational pieces. Players like Levi Onwuzurike will have opportunities to emerge as key players, and Detroit will have to find these answers to fortify their defensive line.

Training camp battle

If Reader and McNeill remain healthy, the Lions will have their top two interior linemen set. The battles will be conducted for the rotational spots behind them, and there is plenty of intrigue.

Onwuzurike had a strong spring and is entering the pivotal final year of his rookie deal. His main competition will come from sixth-round Draft pick Mekhi Wingo, who has positional versatility. Wingo slipped in the Draft after being a top-100 prospect by many outlets and could wind up being a major steal.

Detroit will need its depth at points during the season, so finding consistent answers will be an important part of training camp.

Player to watch

Martin is in a unique spot heading into his second NFL season. After being a healthy scratch for much of the year last year, he has a path to playing time as a second-year player. Much of what his role looks like will depend on how he performs throughout camp and the preseason.

Campbell was adamant that it's hard to learn too much about linemen during the non-padded spring workouts, but the team is encouraged with his growth off the field. New defensive line coach Terrell Williams and Reader have also been important influences for him this offseason.

The Lions loved Martin's potential, leading them to draft him last season. In his second NFL season, he'll be tasked with showing off some of the skills that prompted Detroit to ultimately select him.

Christian Booher


Sports journalist who has covered the Detroit Lions the past three NFL seasons. Christian brings expert analysis, insights and an ability to fairly assess how the team is performing in a tough NFC North division.