Defensive end was one of the big question marks heading into the 2107 season for the Detroit Lions. Ziggy Ansah is on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Not from last year’s injury, but a new injury already this offseason. Another DE was Brandon Copeland who was waived earlier this week because he was lost for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. At this point, it must be understood many experts downgraded the Lions because they didn’t address their defensive line in the draft. That’s the point that gets highlighted because in the first quarter of the Lions first preseason game they also lost their leading DE for the season, Kerry Hyder. When it rains, it pours.
Next man up
In football, as with many sports, when a player gets injured the next sound you hear is, “Next man up!” That is the call of opportunity for a backup who’s just looking for a chance to show what he can do. Anthony Zettel was a rookie last year and played like one. Bob Quinn announced when he first arrived in Detroit that rookies do not have three years to prove themselves worthy of a roster spot, which is typical in the NFL. Instead, they have two years and Zettel has taken that to heart. His work this past winter and throughout minicamp and training camp is paying dividends.
Zettel is leaner and he’s faster off the ball than last season. In short, Zettel has done everything in his power to prove he belongs. Certainly being in his second year and having a better understanding the playbook helps, but taking that understanding and taking it to the field has coaches taking notice.
Another DE is free agent Cornelius Washington. As a veteran, Washington has his own knowledge of the position. Now he has to convert what he knows to what DC Teryl Austin’s defensive scheme demands. He hasn’t had much time to digest everything but what his teammates and coaches have seen so far has lessened the need for Lions GM Bob Quinn to rush right out and sign another defensive lineman. It’s the opportunity he wanted, but with the injuries to Hyder and Copeland, not exactly the way he wanted nor expected.
Two other defensive ends who have shown surprising promise are two undrafted rookies Alex Barrett and Jeremiah Valoaga. Of the two, Barrett is the most intriguing. Even this early he has shown an innate ability to rush the passer. Both Barrett and Valoaga recorded sacks against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend. To be fair their sacks came against the Colts reserves but as a player you don’t get to choose when or who you go up against. Their job was to produce and produce they did. This week they’re likely to see stiffer competition as the Lions front office continues to evaluate where they are with their personnel before they go shopping.
On the other side of the ledger, RG T. J. Lang has returned to the practice field. His surgically repaired hip isn’t 100 percent but it’s far enough along he can begin to get into shape for the regular season. The Pro Bowl RG is a huge investment by the Lions and his return couldn’t come at a better time. We can only hope he’s not being brought back sooner than his hip will allow. In any case, the Lions offense should benefit greatly with his play on the right side of the line.
The only other position group to be hampered by injuries are the tight ends. Once again, Eric Ebron has been out virtually all training camp with a torn hamstring. Darren Fells, a free agent brought in to block because Ebron can’t, is also sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Second-year TE Cole Wick is sitting out practices as well. The one player who needs the most reps to fix his ball security issues is rookie TE Michael Roberts. He fumbled twice in his first preseason game and was admonished on the sidelines which rarely happens on a Jim Caldwell team. Fortunately for Roberts one fumble was overruled because his forward progress had been stopped and the other Roberts fumbled out of bounds. But without the veterans at TE, all of Bob Quinn’s moves this off season may go for naught if these guys can’t stay healthy.
There are three weeks until the first regular season game. There’s plenty of time for Detroit to get things right. Of course, a lot has gone wrong injury wise with only one preseason game in the books. Let’s face it, there’s only so many times you can say, “Next man up!”
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