The Detroit Lions got a surprise from one of their 2021 draft picks, and it was a good one.
They liked nose tackle Alim McNeill enough to draft him in the third round.
After watching McNeill throughout his rookie season, he was better than they expected.
"We really feel like 'Mac' has more versatility than maybe we thought ... when we drafted him," head coach Dan Campbell said before Tuesday's minicamp practice. "We really liked the player once we got him in there."
Campbell described the coaching staff's reaction when McNeill got on the practice field.
"This guy's got really good feet; he moves well," Campbell recalled. "And just watching his transformation, watching him grow. It was good."
McNeill played well as a rookie in the three-man front the Lions used as their base defense. He played all 17 games with six starts. He had 39 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.
Campbell expects McNeill to play even better this year in the four-man front the Lions are going to use as their base defense.
McNeill has quickness to go with power at 6-2 and 330 pounds.
"He's arguably the strongest pound-for-pound player we have," Campbell said. "We have some strong guys on this team. He's definitely up there. And he works his rear off.
"Some of the things that we are doing defensively are going to serve him well. He's got a good first step. He's got really good feet, and he is powerful.
"When you're built the way he is and have the tools he has, he can be somewhat problematic for an offensive line.
"He's one of those guys -- the core of our team."
The Lions are building their defensive line with young players. As they progress and grow together, they can create an identity of their own – as did the Fearsome Foursome and Silver Rush.
To be called a core player by his head coach – who played a decade in the NFL at tight end – is high praise for McNeill.
"It's definitely a huge honor, coming from Coach Campbell," McNeill said. "I just work to put myself in the best positions I can, to help the team out.
"I'm glad he sees me as a core player, putting in the work day in and day out."
McNeill sees better days ahead in the switch to the four-man line.
"With me being able to play on the edge, it's more of an advantage," he said. "I'm able to use my speed and power on the edge of guys – only playing a half a man instead of going head up.
"It's a huge advantage."