Lions camp battle preview: Sorting out the crowd at LB

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The linebacker position is changing in Detroit. That should be music to the ears of Lions fans frustrated with the old, failed Matt Patricia scheme that deployed more off-ball LBs more often than any other team.

The new Lions defense under coordinator Aaron Glenn streamlines the LBs. Gone are the four read-and-react backers. Now the Lions will roll with a base defense of two off-ball, or inside if you prefer, linebackers and two rush/EDGE (or outside) LBs.

Sorting out the two off-ball LB spots seems fairly clear-cut on the surface, but this is also one area where training camp is going to play a critical role in figuring out the Detroit depth chart.

Jamie Collins will be one of the starters. Detroit’s best backer and leading tackler (101) a year ago, he has Pro Bowl-level experience playing this exact role in his early New England days. It’s not 2015 anymore and Collins has lost a little of his tremendous burst, but he’s got a high football IQ and tremendous power at the end of his impressive 1-2 step closing speed. His ability to rush the passer from all over the formation, something the Patricia defense stubbornly refused to utilize, can be a major asset.

Projecting the Lions defensive scheme now that Aaron Glenn is officially the DC

Collins is also the most proven LB in coverage, though that regressed in his first year in Detroit from his Patriots and Browns days. Because he’s also a threat as a pass rusher, expect to see newcomer Alex Anzalone get more work as the primary “coverage” backer.

Anzalone comes from New Orleans with Glenn and head coach Dan Campbell. He understands the role and has proven himself reliably unspectacular in coverage throughout his career. He’s better against receiving-oriented TEs than he is running backs. Anzalone isn’t a thumper vs. the run in the box either, and that leaves the door open for reps from competitors.

Foremost among those will be rookie Derrick Barnes. Detroit traded up in the draft to land the versatile Barnes out of Purdue. With a physical profile similar to Collins and his experience as both a rush LB and off-ball backer, Barnes will see significant action. Will he come along quick enough to take over the starting role from Anzalone? That is one of the camp battles to watch. The Barnes who lit up the practices in Mobile at the Senior Bowl is a full-time NFL player, but that wasn’t quite the NFL and he must prove it carries over.

After the top trio, the depth still has to determine itself. Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Anthony Pittman are fighting for the remaining one or two spots.

Tavai has remade his body this offseason, shedding the excessive bulk that Patricia demanded in hopes of salvaging his Lions career. He’s much less limited as an athlete now, that was plainly obvious in minicamp and OTAs. But he’s still not a dynamic athlete and needs to prove he can avoid blocks and react fast enough in zone coverage to ensure a roster spot.

Reeves-Maybin is smaller (6-0/233) but fleet afoot, and that gives him a chance to see the field more under Glenn than he did in the Patricia years. His special teams experience gives the fifth-year vet a better chance to stick, but that might not be enough if someone else proves more valuable on defense.

The most likely player to bump out Tavai or Reeves-Maybin appears to be Hamilton, who was plainly the team’s top coverage LB in the June activities. He thrived as a sub-package cover backer in Washington in 2019 but bombed in that capacity in 2020. The Hamilton we watched in Allen Park in minicamp absolutely makes the team, but the dynamics change in camp and preseason when actual tackling enters the equation.

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Pittman enters his third season in Detroit having played in exactly one game. He’s been a fixture on the practice squad. He’s got fresh competition to move both up and down. Undrafted rookie Tavante Beckett, who is more of a big safety than a traditional LB, had some strong reps in minicamp and could take that role from Pittman. Another UDFA, Robert McCray, also figures into the mix.

Considering both Collins and Barnes have the ability to play the OLB role in this defense, and the depth there is thinner, the chances the team keeps five off-ball LBs on the active roster and another one or two on the practice squad seems perfectly reasonable. Figuring out who gets those spots is what camp and preseason will determine.