Wed, 18 May 2022

2021 position breakdown: Linebackers

Detroit Lions
23 Jan 2022, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: Fifth-year linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin played more of a role on defense this year than he ever has in his previous four seasons in Detroit, and he rewarded the Lions with some really nice production. He ended up playing 616 defensive snaps. His previous high was 297. He finished third in total tackles (82) and added four tackles for loss, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Veteran Alex Anzalone was a good free-agent addition, particularly with how he came over knowing defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn's scheme from New Orleans and his willingness to be a coach on the field to ease the transition into a new scheme. He also took rookie Derrick Barnes under his wing and helped with his development.

Barnes had an up and down year, but he certainly showed flashes. He's got a lot of upside.

The bad: Much like we talked about with the defensive line, Detroit needs to be much stouter against the run moving forward. Too many times Detroit's linebackers struggled to shed blocks and make plays before positive gains.

Another area the Lions have to be much better defensively in 2022 is in the red zone. That's an area of the field where linebackers have to be able to diagnose things quickly and be versatile as both run and pass defenders. Detroit allowed 42 red-zone touchdowns this past season, the fourth most in the NFL. They forced zero red-zone turnovers.

Key stat: The Lions blitzed much more frequently under Glenn than we've seen from Detroit defenses in recent history. It didn't result in a lot of additional sacks (11 sacks when blitzing), but sacks aren't the only stat to measure the effectiveness of the blitz. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 83.81 in passing situations against Detroit's blitz, which was the sixth lowest in the NFL with eight touchdowns and five interceptions.

If the Lions can improve their edge rushing, and Glenn can continue to be creative with his blitz packages, not only with the linebackers, but with the corners and safeties, too, then there's the making of having a pretty good pass defense from a front-seven perspective.

Free agents: Alex Anzalone (unrestricted), Shaun Dion Hamilton (unrestricted), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (unrestricted), Josh Woods (restricted) and Anthony Pittman (exclusive rights).

There are a lot of names on this list, which means Detroit's linebacker room could look very different next season.

Reeves-Maybin is certainly a candidate for re-signing. Not only did he prove he can play defense while bringing speed and playmaking ability to the position, but he also led the Lions with 10 special teams tackles.

Anzalone did some good things in his first season in Detroit. He's a Dan Campbell kind of player.

MOCK DRAFT WATCH: Early predictions have Lions taking Hutchinson or Thibodeaux at 2 2021 position breakdown: Wide receivers 10 QUESTIONS WITH TWENTYMAN: Would Lions consider trading No. 2 pick?

Draft: It's a pretty good draft for inside linebackers, especially at the top of the draft, led by Georgia's Nakobe Dean. The Butkus Award winner as the best linebacker in the nation, Dean recorded 72 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks and two interceptions. He can do it all.

Utah's Devin Lloyd is another inside linebacker expected to hear his name called on the first night of the NFL Draft. He had 111 tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss with 7.0 sacks and four interceptions in 14 games this past season.

The Lions will be coaching the following linebackers at the Senior Bowl next month: Damone Clark (LSU), JoJo Domann (Nebraska), Aaron Hansford (Texas A&M), D'Marco Jackson (Appellation State), Jeremiah Moon (Florida), Channing Tindall (Georgia) and Quay Walker (Georgia).

MVP: Reeves-Maybin's ability to step up and fill a role on defense after the team moved on from Jamie Collins Sr. was huge for this defense in 2021. His speed and instincts translated to the defensive side of the ball on a full-time basis. For never playing more than 297 snaps on defense in any season before this, Reeves-Maybin held up pretty well (only missed two games) and showed there's still some room to grow and some upside for him as a defensive player.

Most improved: It was night and day from where Barnes started the season to where he finished it. There were bumps along the way like there are with most rookies, but the game seemed to slow down for Barnes by the end of the season.

Barnes recorded two sacks in his last three games and finished with at least five tackles in four of his last five. The 54 snaps he played in the season finale victory over Green Bay were the most for him all year.

Quotable: "He was playing linebacker his first year last year at Purdue," Lions GM Brad Holmes said of Barnes after the season. "He was learning how to play linebacker last year. So, then he makes the jump to the NFL and he's still learning how to play linebacker. Now I will say, the growth that he's made from the start of the season to just this past game has been tremendous with (inside linebackers coach) Mark (DeLeone) doing a great job with him. Chris (Spielman) has been doing a great job with him. I'm encouraged by the growth that he's shown.

"I'll just say though, the play that he got the touchdown caught on him on the boot that slid out, probably about four or five weeks ago he would have not even probably recognized that coming, but he did. So, just little nuances like that where you saw the growth and development in his game. I think the future is bright for him as well."

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