By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

The Lions struggled to stop opposing offenses last year, allowing 25 points and nearly 350 yards per game, in large part because their front seven was ravaged by injury. That unit is healthy entering the 2016 season and ready to turn things around.

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Through the team’s OTAs and last week’s minicamp, Haloti Ngata, DeAndre Levy and Tyrunn Walker all took the field unencumbered by pain or injury. That stood in stark – and welcome – contrast to a year ago, when that trio made hardly a dent on the Lions’ season.

“It’s great having those guys back,” Jim Caldwell said. “They are just superb leaders in terms of setting great examples for young guys. But not only that, they add some firepower to our defense up front.”

With three rookies added to the mix of Detroit’s linebackers and defensive linemen, the benefit of having players like Ngata, Levy and Walker to lead the way can’t be overlooked. Linebacker Antwione Williams stands to learn a boatload from Levy, while defensive end Anthony Zettel and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson will be better for playing alongside Ngata and Walker.

Still, the brightest positive to draw from the improved health of Ngata, Levy and Walker is the addition of their sheer ability.

Though Ngata, 32, suited up in 14 games last season, he was hardly his usual self. Hindered by a calf injury sustained in Week 5, he couldn’t produce the same burst off the line and wasn’t the forceful presence he had been in Baltimore. When healthy, Ngata has the size, power and speed to anchor a defensive line, and Caldwell is looking forward to seeing that in 2016.

“He’s hard to handle because he’s a big, powerful man that can run. We’re getting a sense of that now. Last year he was a bit hampered a little. You didn’t quite get to see who he truly can be. You saw it in spurts last year. I think you’re going to see it more consistently this year and he’s been really good during the course of the spring. That power and explosiveness down there in the trenches, when he lines up on the edge of an offensive lineman, you’ve got to think twice about how you’re going to handle him schematically,” Caldwell said.

While Ngata was at least able to take the field in 2015, Levy, 29, was forced to sit out. He appeared in just one game for the Lions, before re-aggravating a hip injury in Week 5 and being shut down for the season. The team dearly missed his range and vision at the linebacker position, where Levy is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.

Asked how Levy looked during OTAs, Glover Quin’s answer was music to the fans’ ears.

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“He looks good. Flying around…I expect him to be the same old Levy,” Quin said.

Jim Bob Cooter, for his part, is still relatively new to watching Levy play. During a recent film session with Caldwell, the offensive coordinator thought Levy was cheating on certain plays. In Cooter’s mind, it was the only way to account for his prescience.

“Levy takes off so fast on his reads,” Caldwell explained, “that Jim Bob asked the question, ‘Does he know what play’s coming?’ I mean, he moves and it’s really uncanny.”

And then there’s Walker. Though the 26-year-old doesn’t have the same experience as Ngata and Levy, his absence was just as damaging in 2015. A strong presence through the Lions’ first four games, Walker broke his ankle in Week 4 and missed the remainder of the season. His 6’3, 305-pound frame left a sizeable hole on the defensive line.

“Having Tyrunn back, I mean, you can feel his presence rather quickly. He’s a guy that can run, he’s powerful,” Caldwell said. 

Ngata, Levy and Walker have 20 years of NFL experience between them. Ngata and Levy, in particular, are the nominal leaders of the Lions’ defense. Without them, the defense struggled; with them, it figures to rebound.

Under one condition.

“Just keep them healthy and we’ll be alright,” Caldwell said.

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