Over the next several days, leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Linebacker.
► Current roster: Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Josh Woods, Chris Board, Jarrad Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman, Tavante Beckett, Curtis Bolton
► Short-term need: Five out of 10
► Long-term need: 10 out of 10
► Top prospects: Devin Lloyd, Nakobe Dean
► Day 2 options: Quay Walker, Chad Muma, Leo Chanal, Troy Anderson, Christian Harris
► Late-round considerations: Damone Clark, JoJo Domann, Malcolm Rodriguez, Micah McFadden
► Analysis: After a busy free-agency period, the Lions certainly have plenty of depth at linebacker, but lingering questions about the overall quality of talent in the room.
One of the key moves made last month was bringing back Anzalone on a one-year deal. The veteran leader and captain played a career-high 828 defensive snaps before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his year. His 78 tackles were easily a personal best, but he also struggled with whiffs, failing to wrap up more than 16% of his opportunities.
Who starts next to Anzalone remains up in the air, but it could easily end up being a committee based on situations. The best-case scenario for the Lions would see Barnes snatch the brass ring. The fourth-round rookie saw extensive playing time last season, but his beginning-to-end-of-year development and production weren’t as significant as you’d like to see, given his opportunities.
To be fair, Barnes didn’t play off the ball much while at Purdue, so he was dealing with a pretty significant mental adjustment. With a full year in the scheme, he’s primed to make a second-year jump.
His primary competition for playing time will be Woods, Board and the returning Davis.
An early-season addition off Chicago’s practice squad last season, Woods was largely brought in for his special teams prowess. He ended up being so effective with those units that he earned some playing time on defense. Filling in for Anzalone late in the year, Woods tallied 13 tackles in his lone start.
Board, signed as a free agent after four seasons in Baltimore, is similarly known for his special-teams contributions. In recent seasons, he’s seen more defensive snaps, particularly in clear passing situations. He’s flashed ability there both in coverage and blitzing the quarterback.
Davis, meanwhile, is a potential redemption story. The former first-round pick bolted as a free agent last year, but returns with a refreshed mindset and a coaching staff intrigued by his untapped potential. There’s minimal guarantees on his contract, so he’s going to have to work his way up from the bottom of the depth chart to earn playing time. That’s a stark contrast to being handed a starting job when he first arrived in Detroit in 2017.
But for all the pieces the Lions have on the roster, only Barnes is under contract beyond this season. That means the team should be focused on landing another long-term piece, preferably one with clear starting potential.
Not surprisingly, given the positional value, there isn’t an option with Detroit’s No. 2 pick, and no one reasonably expects Lloyd to be available at the back end of the first round. But there is a growing belief Dean, out of Georgia, could still be on the board when the Lions are back on the clock at No. 32.
If that scenario plays out, the selection feels like a no-brainer.
Dean’s profile isn’t without concerns, namely his below-average, 5-foot-11, 229-pound frame. Also, an injury prohibited him from working out at the combine or Georgia’s Pro Day, casting doubt on his measurables. But Detroit’s front office is more interested in play speed than combine drills, and Dean has plenty of excellent film highlighting his instincts and burst, whether in coverage, playing the run or rushing the passer.
If the Lions end up missing out on Dean, the middle rounds are loaded with high-end athletes. Walker, Muma, Chanal, Anderson and Penn State’s Brandon Smith all posted elite measurables at the combine. On the field, each have different strengths, with Walker and Muma looking like the best bets to contribute immediately.
In the later rounds, there are a couple of injury risks worth considering. You could have made a case for Clark, out of LSU, as a fit for Detroit in the second round, but it was recently announced he’s undergoing spinal fusion to repair a herniated disk in his neck. That’s likely to cost him all of his rookie season, while also making him a potential value pick for a rebuilding team.
Domann’s injuries are more in the past, but it’s a lengthy list, including a twice-torn ACL in his left knee. Regardless, his competitive toughness would be a draw for Detroit, and his ability to cover in space and contribute on special teams could make him a long-term option as a sub-package defensive piece.
Special teams and competitive toughness would also be a selling point for Rodriguez, a player who has a history of significantly outplaying his physical limitations. As a fifth-year senior at Oklahoma State last season, the 5-foot-11, 232-pounder tallied more than 100 tackles for the second time, including a personal-best 16 for a loss.