Aside from Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill had been the prospect I initially was the most excited about from Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes' inaugural draft. As it turns out, Amon-Ra St. Brown appears to be the most significant pick after Sewell, but I still hold out hope that McNeill grows into that interior force he proved he could be during his time at N.C. State.
All summer long, McNeill has looked the part during Detroit Lions training camp. Although during the first preseason game, he didn't exactly flash in a great way playing alongside the rest of Detroit's first-team defense.
The Detroit Lions desperately need their defensive line to control the line of scrimmage to cover up the lack of talent deployed at the second level. Detroit's linebacking group is unappealing despite the emergence of sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriquez. The HBO Hard Knocks star looks like a home run selection by Holmes and co. But that also describes how inadequate the Lions are at the second level.
Detroit hoped that the ultra-athletic Jarrad Davis would snatch a starting spot alongside veteran signal-caller and coach favorite Alex Anzalone. Davis seems to have a role, but it appears to be limited to being a blitzing sub-linebacker on third and long situations. Another name to watch is Chris Board, who joined the Lions via the Baltimore Ravens. Board hasn't been able to solidify himself as a starter, but he's proven his worth with his stellar play on special teams. At the very least, Board appears to be the perfect replacement for Jalen Reeves-Mayin on this team.
Another player I had high hopes for is second-year linebacker Derrick Barnes out of Purdue, who Brad Holmes traded up to draft in 2021. Barnes' growth appears to be stunted, and he hasn't been able to elevate his game as Detroit had hoped. As of now, he remains a backup.
Alim McNeill is expected to elevate his game in year two with the Detroit Lions.
This past week while in Indianapolis, McNeill saw high praise from the Colts beat writers for his work in joint practices leading up to Saturday's game.
Star running back Jonathan Taylor was consistently bottled up by Detroit's defensive front except for one outside rush on a stretch play last week. That is an impressive statement considering Indy, like Detroit, is expected to deploy one of the league's best offensive lines in 2022.
Nate Atkins of the Indy Star had this to say last week;
“The downside to the Colts offense Wednesday came up front. The Lions challenged them most on the interior, as rush lanes swallowed quickly for Jonathan Taylor. Taylor finally ripped off one first-down run on a stretch play, where he was able to get outside of the massive left side of Matt Pryor and Quenton Nelson.
But for the most part, run plays looked like they did in Saturday's one quarter of action against the Bills, when Nyheim Hines had nowhere to run. It's continued an up-and-down camp for new right guard Danny Pinter, who has struggled with his play strength at times.”
Last season as a rookie, McNeill earned an overall mark of 60.1 over 422 defensive snaps courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF). In the first preseason contest this season against Atlanta, McNeill played just eight snaps, earning a grade of 68.0.
In 2021, McNeill posted 36 tackles, ten pressures, and two sacks. He finished the year on a high note with back-to-back impressive performances against Seattle and Green Bay. Against the Seahawks, McNeill earned an overall grade of 75.8, which included a 71.9 mark defending the run. The following week versus the Packers, he posted a 79.5 overall mark, including a 79.8 grade in run defense.
The Detroit Lions haven't had a force inside since Damon Harrison Sr. in 2018. Harrison performed exceptionally well upon joining the Detroit Lions from the New York Giants, posting an incredible 93.7 mark defending the run. Quickly under the guidance of Matt Patricia, Harrison's production sputtered in 2019, and so did his career.
Detroit needs that force in the middle, and a limber McNeill dispute being 320-pounds can provide it. McNeill will start alongside veteran Michael Brockers to being the year. Also, keep an eye on Demetrius Thomas, who played very well in Indy, and Isaiah Buggs. Both have seen opportunities this summer, with rookie Josh Paschal and second-year man Levi Onwuzurike battling injuries.
Onwuzurike, a second-round pick in 2021, has been a massive disappointment for the Detroit Lions. Last season he graded out as one of the worst interior linemen in all of football. And for the second straight year, he missed all training camp. The NFL is like the autobahn, and if not careful, Onwuzurike may find himself left on the side of the road.