After sitting idly on the free agent sidelines for longer than anticipated, linebacker Justin Durant agreed to terms with the Dallas Cowboys. Because the Cowboys are over the salary cap they cannot officially sign Durant until they make other moves to clear room for him, but Durant has confirmed he will play for Dallas on a two-year deal.
Thus ends the two-year tenure for Durant in Detroit. A look back at his Lions time reveals both why Lions fans are sorry to see him go but why the team was very comfortable letting him depart. When he signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, the outside linebacker position in Detroit was an anathema. Julian Peterson was well beyond his prime and Landon Johnson and Ashlee Palmer offered little hope on the other side. Zack Follett and Bobby Carpenter were clearly not part of the future.
Durant brought immediate competence in both run defense and coverage. What he did not bring was the ability to make impact plays. Despite being fast and frequently in position to make things happen, Durant was one of the least impactful linebackers in the league. In 29 games (25 starts) in Detroit, Justin Durant bagged 1.5 sacks. That’s a weak number but understandable as the linebackers seldom blitz in Gunther Cunningham’s defense and how frequently Durant was asked to drop into coverage. The problem was that Durant declined in coverage and failed to intercept a single pass, breaking up just 4. He only forced one fumble in his two years, and made just 10 tackles for loss (a number I misrepresented on Twitter, sorry!) in his Detroit career. The 82 solo tackles are nice, but his run defense rating from ProFootballFocus sat 34th out of 43 total 4-3 OLBs, while his coverage ranked 37th.
In short, Durant was okay but did nothing compelling to generate value to the Lions. Ashlee Palmer and/or Tahir Whitehead can play that many snaps and combine for that many tackles, sacks, and impact plays. It would be hard for them not to surpass Durant’s meager production. Durant is a good player but is precisely the kind of player that bad teams keep around for too much money and for too long. The thought of Palmer or Whitehead starting no doubt makes may Lions fans shudder, but if one of them can, pick off even one pass or force two fumbles they have outplayed Durant’s contribution. In the season before Durant arrived, Palmer forced three fumbles and picked up a sack in about 40% of the snaps that Durant played last year.
This is why the Lions moved up to draft Whitehead last year, parting with this year’s 4th round pick. Consider Whitehead in that context; he is this year’s 4th round pick with Travis Lewis a bonus. If Whitehead can play 12 games, make 50 tackles, break up 3 passes, and create two turnovers–which is eminently realistic–the Lions made the right move. I suspect Whitehead and Palmer together will more than make up for Durant’s loss.
That doesn’t mean Lions fans should kick dirt on Durant. He served as a nice bridge and was a positive presence in the locker room and the community. He was a competent linebacker for a team that didn’t have a lot of competence upon his arrival. He’ll be much the same in Dallas, where he figure to fight for a starting job opposite another ex-Lion, Ernie Sims. Wish him well and give him a nice cheer if he returns to Ford Field, but understand that his departure is a positive sign that the team is getting better and not treading water. Analytics are not kind to Justin Durant, and the newfound emphasis on these analytical values indicates the Lions are changing for the better.