The Lions’ injury woes at the linebacker position left them with the worst group in the NFL for most of the season. Teryl Austin was put in a bad spot, having lost De’Andre Levy, Josh Bynes, Jon Bostic, Kyle Van Noy, and Antwione Williams by the end of week two. All but Bostic eventually returned to action, but few returned to form. The Lions linebackers were the core cause of the team’s defensive struggles in 2016. To make up for their deficiencies in coverage Austin added a significant zone blitz package to the scheme. Haloti Ngata and Devin Taylor did the linebacker’s job with poor results.
What Do the Lions Have at Linebacker?
De’Andre Levy is difficult to count on because he has played very little in the last two seasons for the Lions. When healthy he was one of the league’s better coverage linebackers, and a core component of the defensive scheme. Levy has a salary cap hit of $8.39 million in 2017 and that only grows in subsequent seasons. He would free up $4.79 million in 2017 if designated as a post June 1st cut. That potential savings raises every season, and he is 29 years old. Tahir Whitehead proved to be a two-down thumper, but was forced in to the Levy’s coverage role in nickel packages. He struggles in single coverage, and is only marginally better when deployed in a zone. When Austin realized this and reduced his responsibilities, which took five or six weeks, he was serviceable.
The Lions’ reserve players don’t look any better. Antwione Williams looked like a second coming of Tahir Whitehead when he played in 2016, and has similar athletic limitations. He is unlikely to develop in to a decent coverage linebacker, but showed promise on running downs. Thurston Armbrister played poorly, but was also a mid-season addition and made it onto the field too quickly.
What Don’t the Lions Need at Linebacker?
The Lions do not rush the passer with their linebackers. A 250lb speed rusher is not going to succeed in Detroit because there is no role for him. Kyle Van Noy would have filled that role. Neither in free agency or the draft does a pass rushing linebacker fit the Lions’ defense. They are also full up on run stuffers. There is no need for further signings of players that should only play on first down and goal line situations. The Lions collected a roster of hole pluggers in 2016, and it cost them three games out of the first four.
What do the Lions Need at Linebacker?
It would not be a stretch to say that the Lions may need to replace all of the players they have under contract in the next two seasons. Levy makes too much and is 29. Whitehead has limits. Williams was a sixth round pick, they usually fail. Armbrister showed nothing. What the Lions need is more talent at the Linebacker position. If Levy is not back to form, they have no linebackers under contract that should play in nickel situations. Whitehead showed that he is miscast in the middle of the defense, and much better in the strong side role, where he started 2014. He was serviceable beside a healthy DeAndre Levy, but he needs a Pro Bowler to cover for him in coverage.
The Lions need to bring in a better middle linebacker. That would put Whitehead in his more natural role, but leave him in the fold as injury insurance. That player needs to be able to play all three downs. They also require a better contingency plan for the event that DeAndre Levy never comes all the way back. They should probably ask him to take a pay cut, or prepare to move on from him soon. Even when healthy, the last three seasons of his contract were an overpay by Tom Leywand and Martin Mayhew. The Lions need to bring in players that can threaten their starters’ jobs. I think Bynes should come back, and I would have liked to see Jon Bostic get a chance to seize the strong side role. Those players however are career backups.
The Lions need to look for at least one starting caliber player at linebacker even with the return of their wounded warriors.