Allen Park — Heading into the offseason, it seemed likely the Detroit Lions would aggressively seek to improve the team’s linebacker corps through either a splash addition in free agency or utilizing an early-round draft pick.
Instead, the Lions took a far more conservative approach to address the perceived need.
First, they brought back veterans Alex Anzalone and Josh Woods on modest, one-year deals. And after losing Jalen Reeves-Maybin in free agency, Detroit added a player with a similar skill set in Chris Board and brought back former first-round pick Jarrad Davis. Those two also signed for just one year.
In the draft several weeks later, the Lions bypassed off-ball linebackers the first two days before scooping up Malcolm Rodriguez and James Houston, both in the sixth round.
All in all, that collection of talent might not breed optimism for improvement, but the coaching staff is eager to go to bat for the assembled group.
“That’s the one thing that everybody keeps talking about — we should’ve drafted a linebacker,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “I think we got some pretty damn good ones. You guys haven’t had a chance to probably see Board yet. Or Woods. He will get a chance to play. Anzalone. I mean, this is probably the best season he’s had since his rookie year.
“We got JD back, who’s motivated. We got Malcolm Rodriguez. Go out there and he’s a sleeper. We got Houston from Jackson State. He’s going to be a pretty good player. So there is competition in that room.”
Coach Dan Campbell, as he often does, had a more colorful way of describing the impending battle for jobs and roles.
“Out of all of those guys we have in that room, it’s going to be a bloodbath in there,” Campbell said. “There’s a ton of experience, there’s a ton of youth, there’s a ton of energy. On top of that, every one of those guys that’s in there is competitive. They’re highly competitive.
“I just think, man, when we come out with the finished product and the two or three that are left standing … we’re going to be excited about those guys.”
Along with Anzalone, a player who figures to be at the top of that mix is Derrick Barnes. A fourth-round draft pick last year, he saw 448 snaps in a rotational role as a rookie and will be looking to make a big developmental jump in his second year.
Barnes said he can already feel the difference in his confidence level compared to last year, particularly with the ease he’s been taking things he’s being taught in the classroom to the field. Now, he’s ready to participate in Campbell’s bloodbath.
“We all have the same mindset,” Barnes said. “We all want to be the guy. We want to start. So everyone is bringing their A-game every day.”
Sewell bulking up
Speaking of developmental jumps from year one to year two, the Lions are also expecting one from last year’s first-round pick, Penei Sewell. That upward trajectory might be a little more difficult to envision given how well the offensive tackle performed during his rookie year.
Sewell said his biggest focus is improving his game-to-game and snap-to-snap consistency. To make those strides, he’s made improving his conditioning and strength offseason priorities.
“This offseason, (he) has gotten significantly stronger, at least from what I’ve seen in the weight room,” teammate Taylor Decker said. “Then, I think with him — and this reaches back in going into the stretch last year — he’s confident. He’s a confident player.”
Sewell confirmed he’s been lifting more, both in frequency and pure weight. That’s led to packing on some extra muscle to his 6-foot-6 frame.
“It kinda goes back to the question about being stronger, right?” Sewell said. “When I was working for the combine, I’m trying to be as slim as possible, trying to run fast. That’s not the game I play. That’s not the position I play. This offseason, it was really more position-specific and kinda getting stronger and conditioning in the trenches.”
Maximizing skill sets
It’s been discussed multiple times this offseason, but the Lions are making a schematic adjustment on defense, focusing more on attacking up front.
That change was proposed by Glenn following an offseason review of last year’s film, with the intent of maximizing the skill sets of the talent the team has along its defensive line, particularly defensive tackle Alim McNeill.
Typecast as a space-eating nose tackle because of his 6-foot-2, 330-pound build, McNeill is deceptively athletic — which the team has acknowledged — and the hope is the tweaks to the scheme will allow him to showcase those abilities.
“I always go back and watch college and see what they were doing,” Glenn said. “Alim was always in this zero-technique (nose tackle). Once he came here and I started seeing how athletic he was … I want to be able to take advantage of every player, their ability, as much as I can. I want to take advantage of that athleticism that Alim has. I want to showcase that.”
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the addition of wide receiver Jameson Williams, who consistently demonstrated elite speed and home-run playmaking ability at the University of Alabama last year.
But beyond his potential contributions on offense, it was Williams’ special-teams prowess that made him one of coordinator Dave Fipp’s favorite players in this recent draft class.
“The one thing I would say for him, just individually, what he put on film on special teams speaks volumes,” Fipp said. “We all know he’s a great wideout, but when you’re covering kicks the way he does and playing those special-teams plays the way he does, it tells me the guy loves football and he’s not in it (only) for catching the ball, the statistics and all that stuff. He’s got a love for the game and he plays that way.”
Williams only handled 10 kickoffs for the Crimson Tide, but averaged better than 35 yards on those returns, while scoring two touchdowns. And his speed and burst off the line of scrimmage made him one of the best gunners in the country last season, despite weighing only 179 pounds.
Fipp joked he’s already prepared to name Williams a starting gunner for the Lions, but also acknowledged the rookie’s special-teams role will ultimately be dictated by how much he’s being utilized on offense.
Williams is in attendance, but not participating during this week’s OTA practices as he recovers from an ACL tear in January. The Lions continue to decline to put a timetable on his return to action.