The Reasons You Should Be Excited About Detroit’s Young New Linebackers
In 2016, the Detroit Lions had one of the worst linebacker units in the NFL. Tahir Whitehead, Josh Bynes, DeAndre Levy, Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Copeland, Antwoine Williams and Thurston Armbrister all started games for the Lions at linebacker, and none of them had very much success.
Whitehead, who started 15 games for the Lions, received a poor grade from Pro Football Focus and was ranked as the 82nd best linebacker in the league. None of the other players were starting caliber. Detroit allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 72.88% of their passes, the most in NFL history. Most of these passes came on short checkdowns to tight ends or running backs who were supposed to be covered by linebackers.
Besides this, the linebackers were able to get little to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks when they blitzed. As a group, the linebackers combined for just one sack in all of 2016.
These linebackers also struggled mightily against the run. They gave up 106 rushing yards per game and 4.37 yards per attempt. This culminated in a defensive meltdown in the wildcard playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks when the Lions allowed Thomas Rawls to rush for 161 yards at six yards per carry.
There was no denying that the Lions needed upgrades across the board at linebacker. They signed Paul Worrilow in the offseason, but that alone wasn’t enough. Detroit drafted two linebackers in the 2017 draft, Jarrad Davis in the first round, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin the fourth. This article will look at why those two have potential to become the next big linebacker duo in the NFL.
Meet Jarrad Davis
Jarrad Davis was born on November 16th, 1995. He grew up in Kingsland, Georgia where he attended Camden County High School. He was a defensive star in high school, as he finished his senior season with 114 tackles and three forced fumbles. It was then that he decided to attend the University of Florida.
Davis spent much of the first two years (2013 and 2014) of his Florida career as a back up and special teams player. Over those two years, he made 47 tackles, three tackles for loss, one pass defended and one forced fumble. In his Freshman year, he won the Special Teams Player Of The Year award for Florida. Although Davis would later become a star middle linebacker, he still expresses love for playing special teams and desire to still play there in the NFL.
Davis finally worked his way into a starting position at middle linebacker during his Junior season in 2015. He started every game for the Gators and had a big season, finishing with 94 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and four pases defended.
During Davis’ senior season, he was still the starting middle linebacker but missed four games due to an ankle injury, including the last three games of the season. The injury also forced him to miss the NFL scouting combine. He still finished the year with 60 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and four passes defended.
Besides his on the field production, Davis was also the team captain for the final two years of his Gator career.
All of this led to the Detroit Lions deciding to draft Jarrad Davis with the 21st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Davis is expected to start at middle linebacker immediately for the Lions and become one of the new team leaders.
Meet Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Jalen Reeves-Maybin was born on January 31st, 1995. Raised in Clarksville, Tennessee, Reeves-Maybin went to Northeast High School. During his high school career, Reeves-Maybin actually played running back, which is a testament to how athletic he is. In his senior season, he rushed for 2,000 yards, including three postseason games where he ran for over 300 yards in each of them. In 2013, he joined the Tennessee Volunteers and started his collegiate career.
Reeves-Maybin was also a backup and special teamer for his first collegiate season in 2013. He recorded 14 tackles that season. His breakout came sooner than Davis’ though, as Reeves-Maybin cracked the starting lineup as a weakside linebacker in 2014. That year, he played every game, making 101 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.
His dominance would continue into his junior season in 2015 when he topped his previous year, this time recording 105 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, six sacks, four passes defended and two forced fumbles. This included an epic game against the Oklahoma Sooners where Reeves-Maybin recorded 21 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one pass defended and a forced fumble. This is especially impressive because the Sooners had two runningbacks who are now in the NFL: Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
In 2016, disaster struck for Reeves-Maybin. Four weeks into the season, he suffered a shoulder injury which knocked him out for the season. There is no questioning that Reeves-Maybin had great talent, but now there are questions about whether or not he will be able to ever fully come back from the injury.
The Detroit Lions decided to take a chance on Jalen Reeves-Maybin and drafted him in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He will have a chance to compete for the starting role at the weakside linebacker spot this training camp and preseason.
What They Will Contribute To The Lions
One of the biggest reasons the Lions drafted Jarrad Davis was because of his ability to cover the pass in both man and zone coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Davis allowed just one completion of 20 or more yards on 66 attempts in his final three collegiate seasons. Here are a few examples of Davis’ coverage abilities.
On this play, Davis is covering Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram (a 1st round draft pick for the New York Giants in 2017) who is lined up in the slot. Engram runs an out route, and Davis is right on him. Davis actually baits the quarterback into the throw by staying just a step behind the receiver, but when the ball is thrown Davis shows great closing speed as he gets in front of Engram and knocks the ball out of the air.
Here, Davis shows his aforementioned ability to cover deep passes. He is covering a tight end for Vanderbilt who is lined up in the slot. The tight end runs a deep post route over the middle of the field, and Jarrad Davis is on him in man coverage. The quarterback tries to rifle the ball to the tight end, but Davis’ coverage is too tight and he is able to bat the ball out of the air. This is the kind of route that Detroit’s linebackers from last year would consistently struggle to deal with.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a very athletic linebacker with the ability to cover quick running backs or tight ends, and even receivers. Here is a play where Reeves-Maybin is in man coverage against a wide receiver. The receiver is running a crossing route. Typically, this route is effective against linebackers because it allows receivers to use their speed to run away from them, but not here. Reeves-Maybin gets a good press on the receiver, then sticks with him throughout his route. Because of the good coverage, the Tennessee defense gets a sack. I strongly believe that any of the Lions linebackers from last year would be unable to cover this kind of route.
There are plenty of linebackers with the athleticism to do what Reeves-Maybin does though. What really sets Reeves-Maybin apart is his instincts – he has a really good idea of how most plays are going to develop. This results in one of the first things I notice when I watch his game film: an uncanny ability to blow up screen passes. Here is an example.
Reeves-Maybin is covering the running back, who motions out of the backfield to the slot receiver position. Reeves-Maybin follows him out there, and sees that it is a screen pass to the running back as the pass is thrown almost as soon as the ball is snapped. Jalen Reeves-Maybin does a fantastic job of getting around his blocker, then puts a big hit on the back. Reeves-Maybin knew exactly how the play was going to develop, and as a result, he stopped the running back for a big loss.
Jarrad Davis isn’t the biggest linebacker (6’1″, 238 lbs), but he is very quick and strong, both of which are attributes he utilizes in his run defense. When he combines these physical traits with his strong football intelligence, it makes for some pretty good run defense. Here are a couple of examples.
On this play, Jarrad Davis immediately recognizes that the play is a hand off right at him. The right guard for Vanderbilt pulls across the field and attempts to block Davis. However, Davis uses his speed and strength to disengage from the block, then makes a strong tackle at the line of scrimmage. This ability to clog a running lane was a giant missing piece for the Lions linebacking corps last season.
This is a similar play to the previous one, except for this is a handoff up the middle instead of to the outside. Davis again does a good job of recognize the play. He takes on the guard for UMass head on in a initial attempt to stop the run. Davis notices the running back starting to head in the other direction, though. Davis then does a great job of getting away from the guard and back across the field, stopping the running back for no gain, and again doing a great job of clogging a running lane.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin contributes to run defense through his speed and play recognition ability. He is not as strong as most other NFL linebackers, but his quickness and intelligence enables him to have an impact despite being a smaller linebacker. Here are a few examples of Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s ability to stop running plays.
On this 3rd down and one play against Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt runs a fullback dive play. This is a very commonly run play in short yardage situations, and Reeves-Maybin does a fantastic job of recognizing it. He immediately finds a gap in the offensive line and shoots through it. Reeves-Maybin is then the first defender to the ball carrier, and wraps him up. Teammates come in to help Reeves-Maybin finish the tackle, and Vanderbilt is stopped short of the first down marker.
On this play against the Oklahoma Sooners, Reeves-Maybin does not bring down the runner at the line of scrimmage or for a loss. What he does, however, is show great determination and heart as he chases the running back down all the way across the field. The running back cuts the run to the opposite direction of Reeves-Maybin, but Reeves-Maybin is not deterred. He pursues the back all the way to the opposite side of the field, and brings him down for a medium gain. This is the kind of play that likely would have gone for a much bigger gain against the Lions linebackers from 2016.
Blitzing/Quarterback Spying Ability
Jarrad Davis has been asked to blitz or spy quarterbacks a lot in his collegiate career, and he has been very effective at it. According to Pro Football Focus, Jarrad Davis was third best draft eligible linebacker at rushing the passer in the entire SEC last season. This is a very valuable skill for a linebacker to have, it means that Davis is just as much of a threat at sacking/applying pressure to the quarterback as he is dropping into coverage. Here is an example.
On this play, Davis is tasked with spying the quarterback, meaning that he contains the quarterback if the quarterback starts to scramble and is allowed to go in for a sack if he sees an opening. The quarterback rolls out to the left, and Davis has an open lane to get to him. Davis shows great closing speed as he sprints into the quarterback, and the ball is barely thrown away before he can make the sack. This is exactly what the Lions need to combat the scrambling ability of Aaron Rodgers.
This play is a run blitz from Jarrad Davis, which he also excels at. Davis finds a big gap in the offensive line, and he explodes through it and into the backfield. It is a read option play and the quarterback keeps the ball. Although Davis tackles the running back instead of the quarterback, this was still an extremely effective blitz and it blew up the whole play as Davis’ teammates were able to bring down the quarterback.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin is an extremely effective pass rusher from the middle or 4-3 outside linebacker position. He had six sacks in 2015, which is an extremely high number for a 4-3 linebacker. He is also great at tracking the quarterback when he is spying. Here is an example of each.
On this play, Davis is spying the Oklahoma quarterback. Reeves-Maybin stays about two yards in front of the line of scrimmage so he can see whether or not the quarterback will scramble. The quarterback instead tries to throw a pass over the middle, but Reeves-Maybin does a tremendous job of jumping up and deflecting the pass. This play was nearly an interception because Reeves-Maybin is effective at spying the quarterback and because of his great instincts.
Against BGSU, Jalen Reeves-Maybin had a very good game. Here, he sacks the quarterback on a key red zone third down. It is a blitz all the way from Reeves-Maybin, and he does a great job of finding a hole in the offensive line between the left tackle and guard. Reeves-Maybin accelerates through and gets a clean hit on the quarterback before he can get rid of the ball. Because of Reeves-Maybin’s speed, he is extremely effective at blitzing. He can run right through the offensive line if he is unaccounted for.
Jarrad Davis is an extremely high character prospect. As I mentioned earlier, he was a team captain at Florida. He was the leader for the Florida Gators defense, and that will carry over to the NFL as he will take over the Lions middle linebacker spot in his rookie year. Davis has been praised for being an extremely high character individual, which makes him a great fit on the Detroit Lions.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin was also a team captain at Tennessee. He too will have a chance to become a leader on the Lions defense. Where I believe he will really inspire teammates is with his effort though. On nearly every play, Reeves-Maybin ends up near where the ball is. He leaves it all on the field every game, and I believe that this passion for football makes him a great fit as a potential future leader of the Lions defense.
Reasons For Concern
Jarrad Davis’ biggest issue is that he occasionally takes bad angles on tackles. Because of this, sometimes you will see him miss a tackle that he should make. He also will occasionally over pursue ball carriers, which can results in Davis being badly juked. This is something that can be corrected, but it is still cause for concern and will likely be an issue for a while.
It is also somewhat concerning that Davis missed time in his senior season with an ankle injury. It is not an injury that is likely to recur, but it is always worrying when your players experience injuries. Other than that, he has no major injury history.
By far the biggest concern regarding Reeves-Maybin is the shoulder injury that he experienced in his senior season. There is concern about how well his shoulder will heal. There is a chance he will be as good as he ever was before, but there is also a chance that the injury could recur or affect his play forever.
On the field, the main concern about Reeves-Maybin is his size. He is pretty small for a linebacker (6’0″, 230 lbs) and it shows when you watch his game film. There are times where he struggles to get around blockers, simply because they are so much bigger than him. He is great on passing downs, but he will likely struggle heavily against the run, at least until he bulks up some more.
Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin have the potential to become the next big linebacker duo in the NFL. Davis is going to start at middle linebacker from day one, while Reeves-Maybin is going to have to earn the starting role at the weakside linebacker spot. I think that Reeves-Maybin is easily the most talented linebacker on the Lions roster outside of Jarrad Davis, so I believe he will earn the starting spot eventually.
At this point, there is no limit to the potential of Davis and Reeves-Maybin. If they play like I know they can, they will become one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Between their pass coverage skills, their run defense, and their ability to get after the quarterback, the two have too much talent to not succeed in the NFL.
At this point the main thing that could get in the way of their success is the talent around them. Detroit’s biggest weakness this year is arguably their defensive line, which makes the job of the linebackers much harder.
These two are going to be asked to do a lot for the Detroit Lions, but they absolutely have the ability to do it. The spots that once belonged to Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy now belong to Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Now is their time to step up and not only become the new faces of the Detroit Lions, but to become faces of the NFL.