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Lions' D.J. Reader: 'Super tough' to leave Bengals but I don't see being top-three player at DT changing

D.J. Reader lands in Detroit with confidence despite the bittersweet feelings he leaves behind.

After overseeing a turnaround with Cincinnati that spanned four years, two torn quads and a Super Bowl berth, the defensive tackle might not have always intended to leave, but he's still capable of looking back with pride.

"It's super tough, but things happen in free agency, and whether it's upstairs going in a different direction or, you know, I did get injured a couple times there," Reader said of his Bengals departure Monday on The Jim Rome Show. "They may see it a certain way and I see it different. Who's to say who's right. I'm always gonna feel like I'm right, and they're gonna feel like they're right. It was super tough to leave something that you built, but there's comfort in knowing that I left it in a better place than where I found it. So I had to find comfort in that part."

When Reader arrived in Cincy in 2020 after spending his first four years in the NFL as a Texan, the Bengals were coming off a 2-14 campaign, their fourth consecutive losing season after five straight years of AFC wild-card exits.

He was one of the team's big free-agent gets, with the catalyst for change offensively coming in the form of the 2020 NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Joe Burrow.

Reader would tear his left quad five games into that first year, while Burrow would last 10 contests before suffering a torn ACL. The injuries contributed to another losing season, this time 4-11-1, but it remains the last time the Bengals finished under .500.

Both Reader and Burrow returned in 2021 to lead Cincinnati to a surprise berth in Super Bowl LVI and a trip to the AFC Championship Game the following season.

The two were again injured during a disappointing 9-8 season in 2023, this time with Burrow tearing a ligament in his wrist in Week 11 and Reader tearing his right quad four weeks later.

But while Burrow will continue what the two helped build on both sides of the ball starting four years ago, Reader's injury history has, in part, necessitated a new challenge elsewhere.

Reader has been a force on the interior when on the field, but he played only 44 of a possible 67 games for the Bengals due to a series of smaller injuries on top of the two quad tears. The biggest challenge for the 335-pounder in his age-30 season will be availability, especially coming off another massive injury.

Reader has nary a concern about that.

"I don't see any setbacks keeping me from being able to be right back where I was and the player who I was," he said. "When I'm out there playing, I'm one of the top three players at my position. So I don't think that's gonna change. Once I get back and this knee's back, I think it'll be like you (Jim Rome) said, another setup for greatness to go out there and do this thing."

Nor do the Lions, who signed him to a two-year deal at the outset of free agency to add to an already stellar defensive line. Reader didn't finish 2023 graded as a top-three interior defensive lineman according to PFF, but his 82.2 overall grade is nothing to sneeze at, placing him in the top half of his position during the regular season.

He still had it last year, and as long as that remains the case following his rehab, he pairs perfectly with fellow lineman Alim McNeil (88.6 overall PFF grade in 2023), likely eating up blocks to free up McNeil through the middle while Pro Bowler Aidan Hutchinson comes careening for quarterbacks around the edge.

"I'm super excited, man. It's a lot of talent on that team," Reader said. "The defensive side of the ball is just like loaded with talent and guys who are hungry. If you watch them play, those guys fly around. They don't do everything right or perfect, nobody does, but they fly around and they get after it. I think that's what's inspiring. So I'm excited just to get around those guys."

Along with all the talent on the roster, the Lions also offer Reader a different launching pad compared to the Bengals four years prior.

Having already gone through the turnaround with an NFC Championship Game appearance last season, Detroit now needs additions like him to come in and help them over the top.

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