NFL draft preview: Detroit Lions need LB help, but how early is too early to take one?

Detroit Free Press

Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2021 NFL draft. This is the last in an eight-part series.


Off-the-ball linebacker is another position where the Lions did just enough work this offseason to have a couple capable starters in place, but not enough to take this off the needs list for draft weekend.

New addition Alex Anzalone should be the nerve center of the defense this fall. He’s a heady, productive player for four seasons with the New Orleans Saints and has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career. Anzalone and Jamie Collins project as the Lions’ every-down linebackers, giving first-year coordinator Aaron Glenn a comforting veteran presence in the middle of his defense. Neither is a big playmaker, however, and Anzalone is on a one-year deal.

The Lions need both immediate and long-term help at the position. They simply don’t have enough linebackers on their roster right now, though young edge defenders Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant could settle in as outside linebackers if the Lions play a significant amount out of an odd-man front.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a special teams standout for most of his time in Detroit, is the top off-the-ball backup. He appears to be in line for more defensive snaps as the Lions want speed on the field. That change in philosophy could put Jahlani Tavai in a precarious position come training camp.

The sweet spot for the Lions to add a linebacker is probably Day 2 of the draft. No. 7 seems like a reach for the draft’s top linebackers. A handful of prospects have undeniable first-round talent, but the value of the position typically does not warrant a top-10 pick.

On the roster: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jahlani Tavai, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman.

Top 3 LB prospects: 1. Micah Parsons, Penn State; 2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame; 3. Jamin Davis, Kentucky.

Other players with Michigan ties: Cam McGrone, Michigan.

Day 3 sleeper: K.J. Britt, Auburn.

Recent Lions draft picks at LB: 2020-None. 2019-Jahlani Tavai (2nd round). 2018-None. 2017-Jarrad Davis (1st round), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (4th round). 2016-Antwione Williams (5th round).

Draft dish

Six months ago, Parsons seemed like an ideal fit for the defensive-poor Lions. The Penn State linebacker was one of the Big Ten’s most dominant defenders in 2019, when he made 109 tackles, had five sacks and forced four fumbles while leading the Nittany Lions to 11 wins. Parsons remains one of the best defensive players in the draft, but he opted out of the 2020 season, has had to answer for some off-field incidents and ultimately checks in a tick below the draft’s blue-chip prospects on many draft boards.

More: Penn State LB Micah Parsons wows at pro day: ‘I’m the most versatile player in this class’

Parsons still should be the first linebacker taken and will invigorate whatever franchise he goes to. Three other linebackers should come off the board in the second half of the first round or early on Day 2.

Owusu-Koramoah is the draft’s best coverage linebacker. He lined up as a slot defender at times for Notre Dame and gets high marks for leadership. The only knock is how well his 221-pound frame will hold up to the rigors of the NFL. Davis is another modern-day linebacker with sideline-to-sideline ability. He is bigger than Owusu-Koramoah at 6 feet 4 and 234 pounds but has less of a track record. Tulsa’s Zaven Collins has size and pass rush ability and could go higher than mock drafts suggest.

For the Lions and other teams looking for Day 2 help, LSU’s Jabril Cox is an intriguing top-75 pick. He shined in the SEC after transferring up from North Dakota State and has impressive physical traits. Missouri’s Nick Bolton isn’t as good an athlete as Cox, but he is a big hitter with starter potential. And North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt and the Ohio State duo of Baron Browning and Pete Werner should come off the board by the end of Round 3.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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