Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press
The Detroit Lions have not had a true difference maker at linebacker since DeAndre Levy was at the height of his career. And as likely as it is that the team addresses the position in free agency, the only way to change that might be through this year’s NFL draft.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Tuesday that April’s draft should provide starting-caliber linebackers well into Day 2, but that one player stands apart as an option for the Lions at the position: Penn State’s Micah Parsons.
“(He has) the ability to do everything,” Jeremiah said. “Off the ball, you can also rush him a little bit. As impressive as his range and instincts are against the run, to me it’s what he does in coverage. You see him cover tight ends up there at Penn State, you see him cover backs.”
Parsons is regarded by many as the top defensive prospect in a draft that will have a heavy offensive flavor in the top 10.
He opted out of the 2020 college football season, but was dominant enough in 2019 that he still could interest the Lions at No. 7, which in turn could impact what the team does in free agency.
The Lions return just 2/5ths of their linebacking playing group from last season in Jamie Collins and Jahlani Tavai. Collins led the Lions with 101 tackles and three forced fumbles last season, but turns 32 this fall. Tavai, a second-round pick in 2019, had an underwhelming second season.
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The Lions released veteran linebacker Christian Jones on Monday, and Jarrad Davis, Reggie Ragland, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Miles Killebrew will be unrestricted free agents next week.
Given their lack of depth in the unit — Shaun Dion Hamilton and Anthony Pittman are the only other linebackers currently under contract — the Lions almost certainly will sign a starter in free agency.
Players like the Miami Dolphins’ Kamu Grugier-Hill and the Los Angeles Rams’ Samson Ebukam and Leonard Floyd have ties to the new Lions coaching staff, but none is as versatile as Parsons.
“I would have loved to have seen him this year, but I get it,” Jeremiah said. “He put so much good stuff on tape in ’19 that he made the decision that he did. So he would fit in with that versatility that everybody’s looking for. But more than anything else, I think with linebackers right now, I’m sure we’ll get into it with more of these guys, but I’m looking at guys that can really run and cover and he can do it.”
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected the Lions to trade down from No. 7 and still take Parsons in his last mock draft.
Parsons was accused in a hazing incident by a former teammate in 2018. He is not a named party in a lawsuit that continues to make its way through a Pennsylvania court, and the incident does not appear to have affected his draft stock.
“He can play inside or outside,” Kiper said. “His range to the football is outstanding. I mean, his play range, his game day range is phenomenal. A sack guy, necessarily, no. He’s not going to necessarily be a 3-4 outside backer. He could possibly do that, but I think his range against the run, tracking down quarterbacks that are mobile and fast, he can do all that.”
Kiper said Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is another potential difference maker who should be available to the Lions in Round 1.
Owusu-Koramoah is smaller and lighter than Parsons, but considered one of the draft’s best coverage linebackers.
“As an open-field tackler, Koramoah’s the best I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Kiper said. “As a cover linebacker, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. So that’s the debate there. Which one do you like better? They’re both pretty close. Koramoah played, Parsons didn’t. Maybe you give the edge to Owusu-Koramoah from Notre Dame.”
If the Lions make a more sizable linebacker investment in free agency and turn an eye towards one of their many offensive needs early in the draft, Jeremiah said they won’t lack for off-the-ball linebacker options in the middle rounds.
Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, Missouri’s Nick Bolton, Ohio State’s Baron Browning and North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt are potential top-100 picks.
“I love the linebacker group,” Jeremiah said. “Off-the-ball linebackers, I think there’s some guys that can really, really play with the way the game is right now.”