One area on the defensive side of the ball Detroit failed to upgrade this offseason is adding a playmaker to the line-backing core. MLB Stephen Tulloch’s production took a step backward last season (-5.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus in 2012 vs. a 9.6 overall grade in 2011), while the play of WLB Deandre Levy continues to be overrated (-8.8 overall grade from PFF in 2012). SLB Justin Durant, arguably the club’s most consistent performer in the line-backing core last season, finished with a -0.1 overall grade from PFF and was subsequently allowed to walk in the offseason.
The opening at the SLB position promises to be one of the most hotly contested in 2013, with special teams ace Ashlee Palmer likely being the leading contender to start. On paper, second year pro Tahir Whitehead, who the Lions traded up to draft in the fifth round, would appear to have the edge over 2012 seventh round pick Travis Lewis. However, I gave Lewis a slightly higher grade heading into the 2012 draft and feel his instincts may ultimately give him an edge over Whitehead.
Here’s an excerpt from my 2012 scouting report where I gave Lewis a 6.3 grade (fourth round prospect with starter potential):
STRENGTHS: Good bulk and strength for the position. Balanced athlete who consistently plays with good pad level. Has decent range and showcases some explosiveness in short areas. Uses hands well to keep himself clean vs. the run and can stack and shed. Very instinctive and aware – consistently puts himself around the football. Has a high motor and is extremely competitive. Will play through pain.
WEAKNESSES: Lacks top caliber athletic attributes. Has just above average speed and struggles making plays along the perimeter. Shows some tightness in the hips and struggles redirecting quickly, which limits him in coverage. Lacks ideal stopping power on contact.
SUMMARY: Though not a top caliber athlete, Lewis possesses many characteristics that are predictors of success. A productive, four-year starter at a big-time program, Lewis is most effective vs. the run. He consistently extends his arms well to stay clean, can hold his ground at the POA and showcases active hands to slip blocks on contact. While he lacks the speed to consistently make plays along the perimeter, he possesses excellent instincts to help compensate and get a jump on the play. Lewis is stiff in the hips and struggles redirecting quickly, which makes him a bit of a liability in coverage. Though his athletic limitations may not allow him to see the field early in his career, it’s hard to bet against a prospect with his experience, motor, instincts and toughness. Fourth round prospect who can provide depth and has starter potential playing SLB in our system.
Lewis probably lacks the athletic tools to add big time play-making ability to the line-backing core, but it’s hard to rule out a player with his overall combination of skills.