Who fills the NT opening for the Lions after John Penisini’s retirement?

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With the unplanned retirement of John Penisini, the Detroit Lions now have a hole at nose tackle. The starting role is in very good hands with Alim McNeill, who is coming off an all-rookie team debut and looks like a player capable of earning Pro Bowl recognition sooner than later.

But after McNeill, the Lions are light — quite literally.

McNeill is 6-2 and 330 pounds, though he wears that weight quite well. He is the only defensive lineman on the roster listed at more than 297 pounds. While the emphasis on being more aggressive and attacking favors lighter linemen, there are times when the defense will require an “immovable object” type of presence in the middle of the line. That was Penisini’s (6-2/335) niche.

Internal options

There are a few internal candidates to step into the role.

During last week’s minicamp, third-year vet Jashon Cornell took a lot of reps in the nose tackle role. Cornell is listed at 297 but he looked visibly stouter than he had in prior years. He’s missed almost all of his first two seasons with injuries since being a seventh-round pick out of Ohio State in the 2020 NFL draft.

In the Lions’ new 4-man line, Cornell’s old spot of 5-technique end no longer exists other than in specific sub-packages. He does have good power and base strength, so it makes sense to see if Cornell can handle the reserve NT role. It might be his best (or only?) shot to make the team.

Undrafted rookie Demetrius Taylor is the most natural nose tackle left in terms of build and mindset. I wrote this on Taylor after Thursday’s practice,

Nose tackle Demetrius Taylor made his mark, as much as can be done by a lineman with no pads on. He’s squatty at 6-1 and 290 pounds but he’s got good lateral quickness. Taylor consistently shot the gap and eliminated backside cuts in the run game. I wish the Appalachian State product was bigger, but he’s got some undeniable skills.

The other heavier players on the current Lions roster don’t really fit as a 0/1 tech line anchor. Bruce Hector, Levi Onwuzurike and Michael Brockers are the only other players over 285 listed pounds and none would ever be confused for being a nose tackle. Onwuzurike could man the job in odd-man fronts against pass-heavy sets. Maybe.

Outside options

The free agent market does have some intriguing names. Two jumped out from the list of unsigned veterans.

Linval Joseph is an absolute behemoth at 6-4 and 330 pounds. Joseph is a very adept run defender with excellent recognition skills. He made two Pro Bowls (2016-2017) for the Vikings and remained an effective player last year for the Chargers at 33 years old.

One-time Lions first-rounder Ndamukong Suh is still unsigned. Now 35, Suh spent the last three seasons in Tampa Bay. He’s never missed a game due to injury and is still a menace as an interior pass rusher (6 sacks in both 2020 and 2021). However, a return to Detroit seems unlikely for Suh, who has been linked exclusively to championship contenders this offseason.

Larry Ogunjobi is another interesting name. He had agreed to terms with the Chicago Bears earlier this offseason but failed his physical. During his time with the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, the 28-year-old Ogunjobi was a consistent performer. But he’s much more of a 3-tech than a nose tackle, and he’s still recovering from the foot surgery that ended his Bengals season after their Wild Card round win.

None of the other players have games commensurate with their name recognition, unfortunately. Brandon Williams, Malik Jackson, Corey Peters and others are emergency-only options that will likely still be available when the preseason starts.