Detroit Lions defensive line breakout candidate isn’t who you might think

A young Detroit Lions defensive line could have several breakout candidates, but one that might be easy to overlook has surfaced.

The Detroit Lions are committed to building things in the trenches. Their first three picks in the 2021 draft were a lineman, with a defensive lineman as the bottom two. Two of their top three draft picks this year were also defensive linemen.

If you were to tag candidates along the Lions defensive line as breakout candidates for this year, Aidan Hutchinson would be a no-brainer as a rookie. Internal expectations would see Levi Onwuzurike as another. Taking it a step further Julian Okwara could be one, as could Jashon Cornell.

The Detroit Lions defensive line breakout candidate is surprising

The Draft Network is rolling out the most likely candidate for each NFL team. For Leos, Justin Melo named defensive tackle Alim McNeill.

McNeill, a third-round pick (No. 72 overall) from NC State in 2021, played in all 17 games as a rookie last season with 39 total tackles (15 solo tackles, three tackles for loss) and two sacks from the nose tackle in Aaron Glenn’s 3-4 scheme. He’s played 37% of Detroit’s defensive snaps (422 total snaps), so a bigger role should naturally be in store this year.

McNeill (330 pounds) is faster and more athletic than you might think, and he showed it at times during his rookie season. Going into his second season, consistency will be a clear key for him.

The Lions’ move to more defensive front-fours this year should create chances for McNeill to be more than a space-eating anchor-type nose. Part of Melo’s assessment is pointing up.

McNeill’s hands are technically refined and he wins by initiating first contact. He plays with tremendous arm extension and when most effective, McNeill can control reps at the point of attack. His pass-rush traits remain raw, but McNeill flashed quick swimming moves and the ability to slip through gaps to penetrate and collapse the pocket.

The Lions defensive line will be better and deeper in 2022 as young players step up and step into leading roles. McNeill is lined up to benefit as much as anyone from the best of circumstances.

Charles P. Patton