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2017 training camp preview: Defensive tackle

On roster: Haloti Ngata, A'Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Khyri Thornton, Ego Ferguson, Jordan Hill, Bruce Gaston, Jeremiah Ledbetter

Key losses: Tyrunn Walker, Stefan Charles

Making cut: Ngata, Robinson, Spence

On bubble: Thornton, Ferguson, Hill, Gaston, Ledbetter

Best competition: Who is this team's fourth tackle?

Thornton looked to have the best chance heading into camp, and still could, but the Lions won't have him for the month and a half of the season after he was suspended this offseason for the first six games of the 2017 season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

That suspension has opened the door for someone else to step into a playing role early on in the season.

Hill played well for Seattle down the stretch filling in for Brandon Mebane during Seattle's Super Bowl run in 2015. Over the final six games of the regular season that year, Hill recorded 13 tackles and 5.5 sacks. It was Hill's best stretch of football, but he hasn't quite been able to replicate it in the following years in Seattle and during stops in Washington and Jacksonville.

Ferguson, a former second-round pick by the Bears in 2014, missed all of last season due to a shoulder injury. Both he and the Lions are hoping that both a change of scenery and scheme can maximize his potential.

Detroit is the 11th team Gaston has signed with since 2014. He's a journeyman hoping to find a home in Detroit. Ledbetter was drafted by the Lions in the sixth round this past spring after two productive seasons at Arkansas. He played both on the inside and outside in college and has the size and athleticism to be a dual-threat player for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

2016 stats
Haloti Ngata 13 22 1.5 3 0
A'Shawn Robinson 16 30 2.0 7 0
Akeem Spence^ 16 19 .5 0 0
Khyri Thornton 13 18 1 0 1
Ego Ferguson 0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Hill# 4 0 0 0 0
Bruce Gaston 0 0 0 0 0
Jeremiah Ledbetter 12 49 5.5 2 1
^ with TB     # with JAX     * college stats*

Twentyman's take: Robinson is one of my top candidates for a breakout second season. He's big, strong and has had a year and a half to work on improving his pass-rushing skills. He led all defensive lineman last year by defending seven passes. His next step is getting his hands on more quarterbacks to go with his terrific run defense skills.

Ngata isn't the same player he used to be, but when healthy, he can still be a load to handle in the interior.

The Thornton suspension has to be a little disappointing for the defensive coaches. He showed last year he can be a nice rotational player at the position. He'll be missed early on.

The Lions kept five defensive tackles on the initial 53-man roster out of camp last season. It'll be interesting to see what the number is this year with players like Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel being able to play both inside and outside.

The Lions have a lot of depth along the defensive line and should be able to rotate a lot of players in and out of the game to keep them as fresh as possible.

By the numbers:

106.3: The average number of rushing yards allowed per game by the Lions defense last season. That average ranked 18th in the NFL.

46.8: The percentage of opponents rushes that gained at least four yards, which ranked 27th last season.

37.5: Opponents were 3-of-8 converting on fourth-down attempts last season, which is just 37.5 percent. Opponents were 1-of-5 converting on fourth and short (four yards or fewer).

Quotable: "We think we've got to just continue to try to accelerate him in the pass game and work on his pass rush so that he can be a three-down player for us and give us some inside pass rush," Austin said of Robinson earlier this offseason during OTAs.

"He looks really good right now. I think he's really doing some good things. He is another big, strong, powerful man who's got good bend. So, he does a lot of things inside in the run game. He's going to be really good."

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