Detroit Lions, NFC North positional preview: Linebacker

Jarrad Davis, Detroit Lions (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jarrad Davis, Detroit Lions (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

Leading up to NFL training camps, SideLion Report will preview each position group for the Detroit Lions, and compare it with the same unit from the rest of the NFC North. Today, we look at linebackers.

The Detroit Lions‘ linebacker group was so ineffective and uninspiring in 2016, that not a single member of that unit is still on the roster heading into 2019. Around the rest of the division, continuity and high draft picks are common themes at the defenses’ second level.

As with the majority of the rest of the division, the Lions will rely heavily on their defensive front and edge rushers to create playmaking opportunities for their linebackers. Linebacking corps across the league typically contain some of the defense’s most vocal leaders, with defensive play calling a critical responsibility as well. The NFC North is no exception with players like the Lions’ Jarrad Davis and the Chicago Bears’ Roquan Smith.

Almost every NFC North squad’s linebacker group contains a player that could serve as a barometer for the team’s success in 2019. Here’s their outlook for the upcoming season, starting with the Lions:

Detroit Lions

Key returning players: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Steve Longa

New additions: Jahlani Tavai

Key losses: None

Entering year three, former first round Jarrad Davis selection has yet to put it all together on a consistent basis. He has made strides, and seems well suited for his current role in head coach Matt Patricia’s defense. 2019 however, likely represents a career crossroads for him.

Davis is an explosive hitter and has a relentless motor, important traits in the middle o a defense. He also developed as a situational pass rusher, checking in with six sacks in 2019. Pass coverage and early play diagnosis remain his weaknesses. Should he shore up those areas, he could be in for a big year three.

Christian Jones was brought to Detroit last year from the rival Chicago Bears. In his first year with the Lions, the former undrafted free agent did little to stand out in the unit, but made few noticeable errors either. The Lions don’t need Jones to be a star, but a few more splash plays from him wouldn’t hurt.

The Lions raised many eyebrows with their second round selection of Jahlani Tavai in April’s draft. Tavai was ranked much lower by many notable publications including a fourth/fifth round grade by’s Lance Zierlein. Yet the Lions liked him enough to take him at 43rd overall.

Tavai fits the Lions’ preferred mold of big-bodied linebackers, weighing in at 245 pounds. He could fill a variety of roles for Detroit, much like former Lions castoff Kyle Van Noy, who has flourished  for the New England Patriots since joining them via trade in 2016. Tavai had a solid series of spring workouts, and the Lions would be ecstatic if he could make a positive impact as a rookie.

Behind these three, the pickings could be slim. Veteran Steve Longa missed all of 2018 with a knee injury, and is likely ticketed for a special teams-heavy role again, should he make the roster. Ditto for Miles Killebrew, who hasn’t been able to capitalize on the promise he showed as a rookie, and underwent a position change from safety last year to try and jump start his career. No guarantees for him either.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin hasn’t been able to find a consistent role with the Lions, and simply may be too undersized for the Lions’ current defensive scheme. He will need a standout training camp to hang onto a spot on the 53-man roster.

Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni are sure to employ a heavy dose of nickel packages, and even a fair share of dime and three-safety looks. This will often come at the expense of a third linebacker, meaning that snaps at the second level could come at a premium.

Whoever does see those snaps, particularly on passing downs, will likely need to be sound in coverage, or bring some major juice rushing the passer. None of the Lions’ veteran linebackers showed the ability to do both simultaneously much in 2018, could Tavai change that? Will Davis put it all together in year three? It could mean the difference between a good and a great defense for the Lions this season.