Detroit Lions Review and Offseason Plan: Outside Linebackers


Photo Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Today we take a look at how the Detroit Lions outside linebackers performed during the 2012 season with a little help from the fine folks at Pro Football Focus.

The radar chart below shows the Pro Football Focus grades for each Lions outside linebacker and compares them to the best, worst and league average ratings. PFF grades each player on each play to produce a massively useful tool for evaluating the totality of a player’s season compared to others at his position.

2012 Season Review
Justin Durant – Only Stephen Tulloch finished with more tackles in 2012 than Justin Durant. His tackle total mostly comes as a result of his ability to play the run which earned him a +6.0 rating from Pro Football Focus (8th best). While we can see from the radar chart above that Durant is above average in this area compared to all 4-3 outside linebackers that played at least 25% of team snaps, Durant falls below average against the pass. His -0.1 overall rating puts him as the number 18 4-3 OLB one year after finishing 14th with a +6.0.

DeAndre Levy – Unlike Durant, Levy struggled against the run last season. His -8.4 run defense rating was the second worst among the 43 4-3 outside linebackers that played enough to make the list. Last year he was 40th of 45 against the run. While Levy is better in coverage than Durant, he rates out at about average in that area. Put it all together and Levy was one of the lowest rated 4-3 outside linebackers in football.

Offseason Plan
The Lions could have a completely different look at outside linebacker next year with Levy and Durant heading for free agency. While they have different strengths and weaknesses, Durant is the better player overall and should be ahead of Levy on the Lions’ list of priorities. The Lions have found a way to retain the free agents they want to retain so Durant shouldn’t be a big issue.

Levy is a different case. He now has four straight years of solid negative ratings from Pro Football Focus and likely is what he is. If he returns to the team it should be with the understanding that he is not guaranteed to return as a starter. That being the case, the Lions can spend that money in other areas while allowing Ashlee Palmer (who has already re-signed), Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis to compete for a spot in the starting lineup.

If the Lions aren’t able to retain either player they would be wise to at least kick the tires on Nick Barnett who was recently released by the Buffalo Bills. There is some history there that might prevent Barnett from being a realistic option (the Lions considered Barnett before ultimately signing Durant two years ago), but a conversation would be worthwhile. Barnett finished the season as PFF’s ninth rated 4-3 OLB with an overall rating of +6.0 and positive ratings against the run and pass.

The wild card in the entire plan is Jarvis Jones, the pass rushing outside linebacker many predict to be a top five pick in April. While many pass rushing outside linebackers are of the 3-4 hybrid DE/OLB variety, Jones draws comparisons to Von Miller in the Broncos’ 4-3. That is an intriguing point considering the radar chart up above. Miller has ranked as the top 4-3 outside linebacker over the last two seasons according to Pro Football Focus. Miller’s +78.4 grade for 2012 blows away other 4-3 OLBs (second was Jerod Mayo at +17.0) with Miller posting huge ratings for rushing the passer and playing the run. Making player comparisons is a dangerous game and using Jones like the Broncos use Miller would require the Lions to do things differently on defense than they have since Schwartz arrived, but Jones might be the playmaker they desperately need.

Previously: Wide Receivers, Offensive Tackles, Guards, Center, Tight Ends, Quarterback, Running Backs

*Those that have been around the Detroit Lions blogosphere for a while may recognize the approach presented as similar to Ty Schalter’s ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ series on The Lions in Winter. Don’t worry, he’s cool with what I’m doing here and has assured me that he’ll be back with Old Mother Hubbard later in the offseason.