Lions Positional Breakdown: Linebacker
By Matt Urben
Over the next few weeks, I’ve decided to examine each position on the Lions’ roster, as we head into the 2016 season.
POSITION ANALYSIS: LINEBACKER
Players in the mix: DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Josh Bynes, Jonathan Bostic, Kyle Van Noy, Antwione Williams
With Whitehead and Levy locking down two of the three spots, the Lions have good stability at the position, but need to figure out who the third man is going to be.
Linebacker is one of the strongest position groups on the team, with pro-bowler DeAndre Levy leading the way. After missing practically the entire 2015 season, Levy is healthy and ready to take back his role as leader of the Lions’ defense. Levy is possibly the best 4-3, outside linebacker in all of football. He’s a tackling machine with elite coverage skills that have steadily improved since he was drafted in the third-round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Tahir Whitehead has developed into an above-average linebacker, capable of playing inside or outside. He re-signed early in the off-season to be the team’s starting middle linebacker, with the team moving on from Stephen Tulloch (despite him strangely still being on the roster, after Detroit had said he would be released). Whitehead played last year on the outside but thrived in the middle in 2014, when Tulloch missed much of the year with an injury. With Whitehead and Levy locking down two of the three spots, the Lions have good stability at the position, but need to figure out who the third man is going to be.
Josh Bynes has impressed since the Lions plucked him away from Baltimore in 2014. He’s played more on the inside, but has the versatility to play outside linebacker, it just depends on where the Lions envision him lining up next season. It comes down to whether they’d prefer to keep him in the middle to backup Whitehead, or if they have confidence in him to start on the outside. The third linebacker spot is really one of the most interesting battles on the roster.
The team still has 2014 2nd-round pick, Kyle Van Noy, who while primarily is an outside linebacker, hasn’t shown enough to warrant getting the starting job. Part of the reason for his struggles were his injury-plagued rookie season and the fact that he is more of a 3-4, linebacker/defensive end hybrid than a true 4-3, outside guy. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is a creative defensive mind and many assumed he would mold Van Noy into weapon as a pass-rusher and sound tackler. It just hasn’t panned out for him thus far. If he plays well in training camp, he could very well end up starting on the outside. If he struggles though, he may be released before the season starts.
The Lions drafted Antwione Williams in the 5th-round, out of Georgia Southern. Williams is a long-shot to win the other outside linebacker job in his rookie year. However, he’s a big physical player, that with proper coaching, could develop into a decent starter down the line. He lacks elite instincts and scouts have debated over whether or not he can be coached up into a formidable player, or if he’s simply a special teams guy. With all the uncertainty at the position, it’s too early to write him off. Williams is built like a freight train and could be a force if given some time to develop under Austin’s tutelage.
The last player that will certainly be a part of this battle is Jonathan Bostic, former Patriots and Bears linebacker. The Lions traded for Bostic from New England a few weeks ago, giving up a 7th-round pick for the former Bears’ 2nd-round pick in 2013. He obviously hasn’t lived up to his 2nd-round status, but is still young enough that he could thrive if put in the right system. It’s uncertain how and where GM Bob Quinn envisions Bostic playing next season. He may very well just be a backup/special-teams player, but he adds competition to that third vacant linebacker spot.