The Detroit Lions have made a lot of headlines after all the changes they have made this offseason. From hiring a new coaching regime to trading away franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford, Motor City will look a lot different than it has in previous years.
The biggest offseason move that will change the future of the Lions is the hiring of Brad Holmes as general manager. Holmes previously served as the Rams’ director of college scouting since 2013 and has proven to have a keen eye for talent after helping to turn the Los Angeles roster into one of the best in the NFL.
One of the toughest parts of Holmes’ job is having to make roster cuts. This is not only to create cap space but also to establish a winning culture that the Lions have been lacking for quite some time.
A few defensive players who struggled in 2020, such as cornerback Desmond Trufant, cornerback Justin Coleman and linebacker Christian Jones, are likely cuts, being that cutting those struggling players will save the Lions a combined $13.4 million in cap space.
One cut that would be a little more surprising than the potential ones above would be Danny Shelton, a massive run-stopping defensive tackle who was a key part of former head coach Matt Patricia’s defensive game plan.
While he only played in 12 games last season, Shelton was a key part of the Lions defense in 2020, posting 37 combined tackles, two tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and a sack.
While the 345-pound defensive/nose tackle did not make a lot of plays by himself, he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league at creating pressure and helping teammates, racking up assists (14 last season, tied for 12th among defensive tackles, per Pro Football Focus).
While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page at you, much like other defensive tackles, Shelton’s impact on the game goes a bit beyond the box score.
Shelton was a key part of a 2019 Patriots defense who ranked towards the top of the league after a historic start. That dominance started with Shelton, who gobbled up double teams to create lanes for linebackers to make plays in the backfield.
In that 2019 season, Shelton set his career-high in sacks, using his sheer strength quick-twitch speed off the snap to be a menace for offensive lines.
Shelton did not play up to his expectations with the Lions in 2020 but plays like the ones above prove that if the former Washington Huskie can stay healthy, he can be an important part of a 3-4 defense.
As good as Shelton has been in the past, if he is not a part of new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defensive scheme, it makes sense to cut him and save about $4 million in cap space.
Losing key veterans like Shelton hurts the Lions’ depth, but they can use young pieces to cover the loss of what Shelton brings to the Detroit defense, specifically in the run game.
The Lions got similar production out of rookie John Penisini, as per Kyle Meinke of MLive, Penisini showed the capabilities to eat double teams and stuff the run, which is what Shelton has made a career out of.
“The Lions needed someone to eat snaps up front because of all the injuries, and Penisini proved capable. He worked his way into the starting lineup after the bye in Week 5 and never left, logging 12 straight starts to finish the season. He recovered one fumble, logged his first career sack and had four tackles for loss overall.”
Penisini did not show star flashes in 2020 by any means, but if anything, he proved he can be an important part of the defensive line rotation for at least the next few seasons.
Cutting Shelton also gives the Lions a chance to draft a playmaking defensive tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft, as talented players like Alabama’s Christian Barmore, USC’s Jay Tufele, Florida State’s Marvin Wilson and Indiana’s Jerome Johnson would make excellent editions to the Lions’ defense.
Rebuilding a defense that was statistically one of the worst in NFL history should be the main priority for the Lions this offseason.
Detroit might miss Shelton’s talents in the trenches, but if cutting them saves them more than a few million dollars and gives them a chance to embrace the youth movement, so be it.