Releasing Christian Jones shows Lions are prioritizing athleticism at LB

Pride of Detroit

The Detroit Lions released linebacker Christian Jones on Monday, and based on the style of linebacker general manager Brad Holmes has targeted during his time with the Los Angeles Rams, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Despite getting a mid-season extension in 2019, the writing was on the wall for Jones once details surrounding the Lions’ new defensive scheme projected it to mirror the Rams defensive front.

Under the previous regime, then-general manager Bob Quinn targeted linebackers for Matt Patricia’s scheme that had size, power, could set the edge and fill gaps—though the linebackers he chose always seemed to come up short in this last skill set.

Outside of Jamie Collins, who was added just last season, and Jarrad Davis, who was drafted for the Jim Caldwell/Teryl Austin 4-3 scheme, most linebackers had average-to-below-average athleticism scores.

Here are the RAS scores of the linebackers who finished the 2020 season on the Lions roster or practice squad:

  • Jamie Collins: 9.38
  • Jarrad Davis: 9.14 — free agent
  • Anthony Pittman: 6.81
  • Jalen Reeves-Maybin: 5.81 — free agent
  • Christian Jones: 5.33 — released
  • Reggie Ragland: 4.50 — free agent
  • Jahlani Tavai: 4.14

JACK linebackers Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant were both injured during testing and do not have RAS scores.

Like the Lions’ previous scheme, Holmes targeted specific linebackers for the Rams who could either play off the ball or on the EDGE. The Rams’ SAM linebacker operated similarly to the JACK linebacker in the previous scheme, pass-rushing on the majority of snaps. The inside linebackers in both schemes had similar roles, playing in gaps, dropping into man and zone coverage, as well as blitzing. The MIKE linebacker stayed off-the-ball on almost every snap, while the WILL would fluctuate between lining up off the ball (next to the MIKE) as well as on the line of scrimmage (opposite the JACK). The Rams’s often used different WILL linebackers for the different roles.

When examining which Lions’ linebackers from the previous scheme would fit into which roles based on skill set, my best guess is it broke down like this:

SAM: Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara

MIKE: Jamie Collins, Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin

WILL: Jahlani Tavai, Christian Jones, Reggie Ragland, Anthony Pittman

The next question became, which of these players is athletic enough to play and stick around at these spots?

To get a better idea of the athleticism of the Rams’ linebackers currently playing in their roles, let’s take a look at their RAS scores of the linebackers who finished the season on L.A.’s roster.

Off-the-ball

  • Justin Hollins: 9.69
  • Troy Reeder: 9.36 (starter)
  • Micah Kiser: 8.47 (starter)
  • Travin Howard: 8.03
  • Kenny Young: 7.54

EDGE

  • Leonard Floyd: 9.81 (starter SAM) — UFA
  • Samson Ebukam: 9.80 (starter WILL) — UFA
  • Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 8.69
  • Terrell Lewis: Doesn’t have a completed RAS card, but every tested category graded as elite

That is a stark contrast in athleticism between the two teams at linebacker.

It also likely helps explain why the Lions were willing to restructure Collins’ (9.38 RAS) contract and have often talked about bringing back Davis (9.14 RAS)— as both are the only linebackers from last season who have the desired athleticism.

It’s fair to wonder if any of the Lions’ linebackers outside of Collins and Davis (who is set to be a free agent) can survive off-the-ball in this new scheme. Tavai has a skill set very similar to Jones but is far less athletic. Though he is still on his rookie deal, which could get him into training camp and could give him a chance. Pittman, who is only slightly below the athletic standards, should have a decent shot with his position flexibility and rookie contract. The Lions also signed Shaun Dion Hamilton this offseason—no RAS due to injury during testing—who seems destined to make it to camp but won’t be guaranteed anything. On the EDGE, Bryant and Okwara should be able to transition from JACK to SAM with ease as the roles are very similar.

Even if the Lions re-sign Davis and pair him with Collins and Bryant/Okwara, he’s still likely only a part-time player, and more help would be required. Additionally, it’s unlikely Holmes would feel comfortable with only Tavai, Pittman, and Hamilton as backups, meaning the Lions are going to be in the market for linebackers.

The most logical place to start is with the players with connections to the Lions coaching staff and meet the athletic requirements. Here are three players the Lions will probably be looking into.

Leonard Floyd is going to be very appealing, but with Bryant and Okwara playing the same SAM spot, is he redundant? There is an injury history with the Lions’ linebackers, and it’s possible Okwara gets moved to the WILL if his game expands, both of which could open the door to adding a player like Floyd.

Samson Ebukam makes a ton of sense as the Rams’ WILL starter last year—he played the “on the line of scrimmage” role. He won’t be nearly as expensive as Floyd and it wouldn’t force a position switch for Okwara.

Alex Anzalone (New Orleans Saints) has a RAS score of 8.15, so he fits the athleticism benchmark, and he is familiar with coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. If the Lions don’t bring back Davis, they may be willing to pay the higher price tag for Anzalone.

With Pro Days underway, keep an eye on draft eligible players who have high athletic marks. Players like Micah Parsons (Penn State), Zaven Collins (Tulsa), and Baron Browning (Ohio State) would be players capable of stepping in at the WILL. While Nick Boldin (Missouri), Jabril Cox (LSU), and Cameron McGrone (Michigan) are all off-the-ball candidates.

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