Lions Projected to Target Illinois DT Jer’Zhan Newton

Alim McNeill Jer'Zhan Newton


ESPN’s Jordan Reid proposed the Detroit Lions draft Jer’Zhan Newton at No. 29 overall to add him to Alim McNeill along the interior of the team’s defensive line.

Cornerback or edge rusher makes the most sense for the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 2024 NFL draft. Either would help Detroit’s 27th-ranked pass defense from last season.

However, where the Lions go with the No. 29 overall pick could depend on value. With that in mind, ESPN’s Jordan Reid predicted the Lions to target Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton at No. 29 in the first round.

“When healthy, Newton is the best interior defender in this class, capable of making plays from multiple spots up front,” Reid wrote. “Alim McNeill primarily plays at 1-technique, so putting Newton at the 3-technique spot should solidify the interior for the Lions. He had 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season at Illinois.

“Cornerback is a huge need in Detroit, too, but the value is strong for Newton here, and it would allow the Lions to go with “best player available.”

In addition to his 2023 statistics, Newton recorded 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2022. In 44 games at Illinois, he posted 18 sacks, 27.5 tackles for loss, 5 pass defenses and 2 forced fumbles.

Could Jer’Zhan Newton Slide in First Round Because of Injury?

There’s a reason Reid included the caveat, “when healthy” in his evaluation of Newton. The Illinois defensive lineman is currently recovering from offseason foot surgery, which Reid predicted would cause Newton to slide until the latter part of the first round.

Reid, though, projected the slide to stop with the Lions.

The 2024 draft class isn’t particularly deep with elite interior defensive linemen, anyway. So, it has always been much more likely Newton comes off the draft board during the second half of the first round than the top 16 picks.

But late in the first round, he could potential provide great value. As Reid explained, his 3-technique makes him a great match with Lions rising defensive tackle star Alim McNeill.

“Active interior defender with the potential to build on his disruptive production in college,”’s Lance Zierlein wrote. “Newton’s size and length don’t stand out, but he has shown a consistent ability to gain extension and set edges against bigger opponents.

“His skill level and athleticism should create additional playmaking opportunities for him as a three-down 3-technique with early starting potential.”

How Newton Could Fit With the Lions

Newton is a fit with the Lions for other reasons than being a match with McNeill. Although cornerback and edge rusher are arguably bigger needs, the Lions could use more depth along the interior of their defensive line.

Former second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike is a potential cut candidate for the Lions while veteran Tyson Alualu is an unrestricted free agent and will turn 37 in May. Furthermore, fellow veteran Benito Jones will be a restricted free agent.

25-year-olds Chris Smith and Brodric Martin are the only other defensive tackles on Detroit’s current roster. Neither played more than 28 snaps during the 2023 season.

Martin could potentially play a bigger role during his second campaign. However, the Lions could at least use another rotational piece for the interior of their defensive line.

Newton would supply that along with tremendous upside, especially as a great complement to McNeill.

Dave Holcomb is a sports reporter covering the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions for Originally from Pittsburgh, Holcomb has covered college and professional sports for outlets including Fansided, Rotowire and Yardbarker. More about Dave Holcomb

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