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First we tackled cornerbacks, and now it’s time to move forward in the Detroit defense with an off-ball linebacker prospect for each round of the 2021 NFL draft.
The goal here is to demonstrate the levels of talent that should be available in each round, not advocating for any one path. Keep in mind the off-ball LB spot is one that GM Brad Holmes, senior assistant John Dorsey and head coach Dan Campbell have all not valued above the middle rounds in any of their prior stops, however. And with Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone in place, the starting duo could be set already. Unlike Matt Patricia’s failed scheme which often fielded four LBs, very few NFL teams ever play more than two LBs at any time even against two-TE sets anymore.
The players listed here are generally projected as fits in the top 10 picks of the round listed, where the Lions would select prior to any trades. Even though Detroit doesn’t currently have sixth or seventh-round picks, we still included a linebacker for each round.
Draft projections are not always accurate, but these here are the general range where the players are most often ranked/mocked as of April 1.
First round: Jamin Davis, Kentucky
Brad McClenny-USA TODAY NETWORK
Before we get into Davis, the dynamic playmaker who cranked up his game in 2020... Two things here:
No off-ball LB should ever be considered in the top 10, period. Selecting Davis--or any other LB--would come after a trade back several spots.
Micah Parsons' off-field flags, which include alleged involvement in the alleged sexual assault of a teammate, and a year off from football are more than enough reason to bypass the Penn State standout for a player with equivalent film and better athletic testing.
The testing that Davis performed at Kentucky's pro day absolutely shows on game tape. He flies to the point of attack and finishes with both power and balance. Davis is more opportunistic in coverage than he is a lockdown force, but his work against Georgia and Florida proved he's NFL-ready in that capacity, too. https://twitter.com/MathBomb/status/1377640379663716353?s=20
Second round: Baron Browning, Ohio State
USA TODAY Sports
After Browning's superb pro day athletic performance, he might not last to the Lions pick at No. 41. That's a shame because he'd be a fantastic, versatile fit in the Detroit defense At 245 pounds, Browning blazed a 4.55 40-yard dash, but his explosive metrics are the real showstoppers: 40-inch vertical, 6.78 in the 3-cone, 4.22 in the short shuttle. Those are incredible numbers, and they show on game film too. https://twitter.com/DP_NFL/status/1354154016721276933?s=20 Browning can line up at off-ball or on the edge. At this point, he's better in coverage than in run defense, where he will be too quick to bite on fakes and can react too late to cutbacks and second-level blocks. Think prime DeAndre Levy but with a lot more pass-rush potential.
Third round: Jabril Cox, LSU
(AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
The word "smooth" comes to mind when watching Cox. A transfer to LSU from North Dakota State, his movement skills and polished coverage ability exudes smoothness at the second level. Cox dominated at the FCS level and quickly adapted to the bigger/faster/stronger SEC, and proved himself once again during Senior Bowl week. Cox can step right into the NFL and handle man or zone coverage assignments. The athleticism and anticipation are ready to roll. His open-field tackling is fine, too. But Cox will never be a run-stuffer and it wouldn't hurt him to add some more functional bulk to hold up better against blockers.
Fourth round: Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
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Surratt converted to LB at North Carolina after initially being recruited as a quarterback. The move worked; Surratt was a first-team All-ACC linebacker in both seasons after he transitioned. The experience at QB is obvious, both positive and negative. He sees the offense and correctly diagnoses the play extremely well. Surratt doesn't get lost in coverage and reads route combinations better than most DBs. He also has the open-field speed and litheness to make it work in coverage. But he's not physical or strong enough at the point of attack in between the tackles, and getting off blocks remains a work in progress. The arrow is pointing up for Surratt but there's a ceiling on how high a relatively average all-around athlete can climb.
Fifth round: Derrick Barnes, Purdue
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Barnes has played every LB spot while at Purdue, from stand-up rush OLB to field-general ILB in the Boilermakers' 3-4 scheme. He was at his best in 2020 playing primarily off-ball in the role that translates to the SAM backer in Lions DC Aaron Glenn's anticipated scheme. Barnes has impressive chase-down speed for a compactly-built (6 feet, 238 pounds) body, and he sniffs out plays pretty well. What stands out with Barnes is his tackling power; he hits, wraps and drops his weight with fantastic consistency and he has enough jolt in his hits to make arm tackles and sideswipes work. He moved and covered better than expected at the Senior Bowl and kept up the new-and-improved athleticism at Purdue's pro day. If those stick in the NFL, Barnes is a starter in the mold of Nick Kwiatkowski of the Raiders.
Sixth round: Tony Fields, West Virginia
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Fields transferred from Arizona to West Virginia after graduating in three years, and he fit like a glove in the middle of the Mountaineer's odd 3-3-5 defense. He's got good flow in space and striking speed that shows up in run defense as well as zone coverage over the middle. During the Senior Bowl week, Fields again proved his quick leadership and movement skills in space were legit. However, he's visibly slighter than most of his LB peers at 6-0/222, looking more at home in the safety group. He's had some undisciplined on-field moments, too. At worst, Fields has the profile of a reserve backer who quickly becomes a vital cog on special teams.
Seventh round: Grant Stuard, Houston
(AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
Stuard played both safety and linebacker for the Cougars and his NFL fit is as a hybrid between the two. He plays every snap like his flowing mane of hair is on fire and will get on teammates who aren't giving the same level of kneecap-biting intensity. Stuard is undersized at 5-11/230 and doesn't have the agility or range in coverage to be more than a sub-package player in the NFL. But he's already proven himself to be an exceptional special teams player, and that would be his fit in Detroit--Miles Killebrew's old role. It's hard to imagine coach Dan Campbell not loving Stuard this late in the draft if the Lions somehow acquire a pick, or as a priority free agent after the draft.