To be truly effective, the Lions’ defensive scheme requires a versatile, deep and talented group of players at the second level. While they got some decent play from their linebackers in 2019, there were still too many lapses, too many blown assignments, and too few game-changing plays. Another disappointing output from a position group with a lot of capital invested in it.
This time last year, many were saying that the Lions don’t quite know what they have in middle linebacker Jarrad Davis. After three years, it’s pretty obvious what they have in their former first-round draft pick.
2019 marked another underwhelming season for Davis, full of hard hits, passionate leadership and an energy level seldom surpassed by his teammates. Unfortunately, the missed tackles, blown assignments, and poor pass coverage haven’t improved. Add to that a regression in his blitz effectiveness, and five games missed due to injury, and it seems questionable at best whether the Lions will pick up his fifth-year option come this Spring.
A preseason ankle injury may have slowed his progression. Still, it did not affect his playing time once he returned in Week 3; he did not play fewer than 80 percent of defensive snaps in any game until Week 10. That’s when the Lions started scaling back his snaps in different situations, which did boost his effectiveness somewhat. It’s possible that he just isn’t a great fit for this defensive scheme. After all, he was drafted to play under former head coach Jim Caldwell.
Edge defender Devon Kennard was the best performer of this group for the second year in a row. He totaled 7.0 sacks for the second year in a row and even managed to score his first career touchdown on a fumble recovery. His run defense was solid again, helping the Lions finish near the middle of the pack in rushing yards against per game at 115.9.
His production was too streaky though, being held without a sack for seven straight games after registering three in Week 1. He has arguably become the leader of the defense, but the Lions could’ve used a more sustained pass-rushing presence from him all season.
Jahlani Tavai had an average rookie season, likely fueling more of the criticism that he endured after being a surprise second-round draft selection last April. He was thrust into a bigger role than he was probably ready for, playing in fewer than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in just three of his first ten games.
He did force a fumble in a Week 2 win against the Los Angeles Chargers and picked off his first pass in his final outing before missing the last game of the season with a shoulder injury. But he didn’t stand out in any one area and had trouble containing short and-intermediate passing attacks against several teams. They’ll need more from him next year.
If you were left scratching your head after the Lions gave Christian Jones a two-year, $5.74 million contract extension in November, you weren’t alone. Jones has been an average player in 29 games for the Lions over two seasons, totaling just 3.0 sacks and one fumble recovery. He doesn’t move the needle much. but his low-maintenance, team-first attitude likely endeared him to the Lions’ top decision-makers. It hasn’t helped them win many games, however.
Linebackers have such a wide variety of body types, skills, and responsibilities across the NFL’s 32 teams and the Lions have an affinity for larger players at the position who can disrupt passing games and help control the opposing rushing attack, often with just two on the field at a time. It didn’t happen nearly enough in 2019.