Detroit Lions radio analyst Lomas Braown speaks to Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett on Super Bowl radio row on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
Za’Darius Smith’s name doesn’t spring to mind when thinking of the NFL’s best pass rushers, at least not in the same way DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney and Frank Clark do.
But while Lawrence, Clowney and Clark are likely headed for the franchise tag this offseason, Smith is the type of quality pass rusher who fits much of the criteria general manager Bob Quinn laid out last week when explaining what the Detroit Lions will be looking for in free agency.
The Lions want more playmakers on their roster, on this Quinn has been clear. Their offense lacked an explosive element last season, and defensively they were among the worst in the league at turning the ball over.
But “playmaker” is the type of loosely defined term that can get decision makers in trouble, which is why Quinn said at a fan forum for season-ticket holders that he and his staff have specific criteria to help them identify who really is ready to make plays.
“When we’re going through the evaluation process, making sure we’re taking a close look at game-changing plays that the guys that we’re looking at in free agency and the draft, I think that’s something that’s crucial,” Quinn said. “Third down, red area are two really critical areas. So we kind of break down defensive players by kind of area of the field as well and see how they do on third down, see how they do in crucial situations, see how they do in the red area.”
Whether it’s due to the rise of analytics in sports or just good ol’ fashion common sense, we know that not all statistics are created equal.
Just like a basketball player who scores 20 points a game on 10 shots is more valuable than one who needs twice as many shots to arrive at the same result, in football, one player’s 10-sack season may be far superior to the next.
Smith had a career-high 8.5 sacks last year for Baltimore, which ranked just 29th in the league, but using the Lions’ “crucial situation” metric, he had a much more impressive season than others who put up similar or better numbers.
Seven-and-a-half of Smith’s sacks came on third down, and he had another half-sack on a second-and-8 play on the opening drive of overtime in an early-season game against the Cleveland Browns.
One sack knocked an opponent out of field-goal range, two more came with an opponent on the precipice of field-goal range, and Smith also forced a fumble on third down.
None of that means the Lions will go hard after Smith in free agency, and there are other factors to consider if they do. Smith, who turns 27 in September, made just eight starts last season, which matched his total from his first three years in the NFL. He played on one of the NFL’s best defenses, which helped his pass-rush production. And while he played all over the Ravens’ defensive line and at outside linebacker, the Lions would have to be sure he could play right end in their system, which is their biggest position of need on defense.
But at a minimum, Smith checks off several of the boxes the Lions are looking for in their free agents, and unlike Lawrence, Clowney and Clark, there’s a chance he reaches the open market.
Smith isn’t the only pass rusher who fits that criteria, either, which is good news for a Lions team that’s expected to be active in free agency and has two defensive ends up for new contracts in Romeo Okwara (a restricted free agent who the Lions are expected to bring back) and Ziggy Ansah (an unrestricted free agent who’s expected to hit the market).
Okwara is just 23 years old and coming off a career-high 7.5-sack season, so there’s plenty of upside to dream on at right end. While many of his sacks early in the year would be considered coverage sacks, he showed more pass-rush prowess as the season went on. Still, just three of Okwara’s 7.5 sacks fell into the third-down or red-zone category (though he did create a fourth third-down sack for Kerry Hyder with a good pass rush late in the year).
Ansah, who turns 30 in May and has an extensive injury history that could limit his free-agent options, was the Lions’ best pass rusher last season even though he played just seven games and 146 defensive snaps.
All four of Ansah’s sacks last year came on third down or in the red zone, with three leading to punts and one helping to force a Minnesota Vikings field goal. In 2017, when Ansah played more than just as a situational pass rusher like he did last year, seven of his 12 sacks came on third down or in the red zone.
New England Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers, who many assume will be the Lions’ top defensive end target if he hits free agency — and for now, he’s not expected to get the franchise tag — had four of his 7.5 sacks in the red zone or on third down last season (including two split sacks). Flowers, who played for Lions coach Matt Patricia in New England, is arguably the best run defender on this list. He forced three fumbles last season, all on running plays, knocked one quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) out of a game and had two more sacks in the playoffs.
Two more pass rushers who could interest the Lions, Dante Fowler and Preston Smith, both fared well in Quinn’s “critical situation” criteria.
Fowler, who was a first-round bust in three seasons in Jacksonville but still has plenty of upside at 24 years old, recorded three of his four sacks and both of his forced fumbles on third down or in the red zone. Fowler, who was traded from Jacksonville to the Los Angeles Rams at midseason, had his fourth sack on a first-and-10 play just outside of the red zone in a December win over the Lions, on a series that ended in a field goal. He also had 1.5 sacks in the playoffs, including one that knocked the Dallas Cowboys out of field-goal range.
And while Smith had just four sacks for Washington last season after recording two eight-sack seasons earlier in his career, three (including two half-sacks) came with his opponent in field-goal range and 1.5 of those came inside Washington’s 5-yard line.
Add it all up and, even with the best pass rushers expected to get the franchise tag, the Lions should have plenty of options to upgrade their defense.
“Bottom line, for a defense in the NFL, I’m OK if we give up 500 yards a game as long as we don’t give up any points,” Quinn said. “Ultimately it comes down to scoring so we just want more players that take the ball away.”
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