With a glut of linebackers after an offseason of additions and upgrades, who are the odd men out for the Detroit Lions in 2020?
For what seems like an eternity, the Detroit Lions have lacked consistent playmaking from their linebacking corps. After yet another offseason of tinkering and supposed upgrades, they may finally have some game-altering contributors at the second level of their defense.
Now the question is, who won’t be around when Week 1 arrives? The Lions definitely have a type when it comes to their linebackers.
Head coach Matt Patricia generally favors bigger players at the position who can also seamlessly move around to different parts of the defense. This becomes especially important when they shift to a nickel formation, which they do frequently.
Last year’s second-round selection Jahlani Tavai certainly fits that description at 6-2 and 250 pounds. He definitely looked like a rookie at times last year but showed enough promise to ensure he’ll be an important part of the defense in 2020.
Ditto for Jamie Collins, perhaps the Lions’ most significant addition this offseason. Collins is an athletic marvel and offers versatility and adaptability that has been absent from the Lions’ lineup in recent years. Provided good health and availability, these two may seldom leave the field in 2020.
Then it gets interesting. It seems doubtful that Christian Jones is going anywhere. He fits the Lions’ size profile to a tee, and while he doesn’t offer much in the playmaking department, they seem to value his professionalism and low-maintenance nature. He is signed through 2021.
When discussing linebackers in Detroit, one must also consider certain edge defenders who can shift between the defensive front and the second level. In 2020, this could include a pair of young players; second-year man Austin Bryant and rookie Julian Okwara.
Both figure to get their shot at winning snaps at the JACK linebacker spot, but there are concerns. Bryant missed most of his rookie year with injuries, after battling various ailments in his final year in college. Adding to these worries, he was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list this week, meaning he must be removed from the list prior to the beginning of the season to avoid being lost for at least the first six weeks of the year.
The Lions clearly saw some potential in him, but they can’t wait forever. If it seems that he is destined for another year mostly on the sidelines, do the Lions cut their losses and move on?
Okwara was widely considered a third-round steal in April’s draft and could provide the unit with a much-needed dose of pass-rushing. He also fought through injuries in 2019, and won’t have the benefit of a traditional rookie offseason program due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He’ll be on the roster, but how much can the Lions realistically expect from him in 2020?
Then there’s Jarrad Davis. The former first-round draft pick’s on-field struggles have been well documented. Despite his valued leadership and all-out, all-the-time effort, his incessant lapses in pass coverage and disappointing progress defending the run gave the Lions a reason to decline his fifth-year contract option in May.
It’s still hard to see the Lions moving on from him this year, despite his sluggish development. To his credit, Davis has increased his weight to 245 pounds, according to the Detroit Free Press. At times, he has shown promise as a situational pass rusher and slightly improved his play late last year when the Lions began scaling back his playing time. Could this body transformation help him make a much-needed jump in year four?
Assuming each of the six aforementioned players is on the Week 1 roster, that likely leaves no more than two spots for depth at the position. Jalen-Reeves Maybin and hybrid safety/linebacker Miles Killebrew offer little on defense but have been fixtures on special teams, with each playing over 65% of the team’s snaps in the third phase in 2019. Can they still hold down a spot with a new special teams coordinator in place?
Reggie Ragland, a member of the 2020 Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs was also brought in as a free agent and played in a similar scheme at the University of Alabama as recently as 2015. Could that familiarity give him an edge over other candidates including Elijah Lee, Anthony Pittman, and Christian Sam?
The Lions broke training camp with seven linebackers last season, and could certainly follow suit this year. Still, with no preseason games on the docket, and limited opportunities to make an impression in an unprecedented offseason, the coaching staff may err on the side of caution and stick with familiar faces over potential contributors. We’ll find out in a matter of weeks.