Lions training camp position preview: Linebacker

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Linebacker might be the most unsettled position on the Detroit Lions depth chart from top to bottom. Entering training camp, the Lions have a group of LBs hoping to stand out from the competition with their own individual skills.

It’s a crowded field for a position that won’t have as much emphasis in the new base defense. Detroit has morphed to a 4-2-5 scheme under coordinator Aaron Glenn. Based on OTAs and minicamp, the Lions will almost never have more than two off-ball LBs on the field and will frequently have just one. That (presumably) means less roster space devoted to the position where fan angst still runs quite high.

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Note that the players here do not primarily rush the passer. Charles Harris, Julian Okwara and rookie James Houston are not what is considered a linebacker in Detroit’s defense anymore. Both Okwara and (more so) Houston could get occasional looks as a third LB, but they are pass rushers first and foremost, not off-ball LBs.

How many LBs the Lions keep is subject to debate. Most expect five, but special teams could shoehorn a sixth into the mix.

Alex Anzalone

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Anzalone returns for a second season in Detroit, agreeing to come back as an unrestricted free agent despite having other offers.

His first season in Detroit did not go well overall. Anzalone struggled to find his place while veteran Jamie Collins was still around. He performed better once Collins was jettisoned, showing off better range and a more assertive presence in the run game.

Lions LB coach Kelvin Sheppard stated in minicamp that while nobody has anything locked up, Anzalone has earned the first-team reps to start. If the 27-year-old can continue to improve playing in space, he’s the most logical candidate to lead the Lions in tackles in 2022.

Chris Board

Lions

Board was the Lions’ biggest outside addition to the LB room. The 26-year-old joins Detroit after four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

In Baltimore, Board was primarily known for his special teams ability. He never played more than 33 percent of the defensive reps in any season. Board was at his best attacking the gaps, using his quick initial burst to fill the hole or get into the backfield.

Board looked notably fast when doing drills in minicamp, relative to his fellow backers. At 229 pounds he’s not the thumping physical presence of some of his Lions competition, but his speed in space and special teams ability should keep him on the field quite a bit.

Derrick Barnes

(AP Photo/Bart Young)

The most promise for an impact backer lies with Barnes. However, his rookie season did not inspire a great deal of confidence that the 2021 fourth-round pick can emerge as a true difference-maker in 2022.

Barnes struggled with the speed of the NFL as a rookie. His transition to off-ball backer from EDGE that began at Purdue still isn’t a finished process, and it showed. Barnes was a step late in run defense and a step behind in coverage too often.

It’s reasonable to expect bigger and better things from Barnes in Year 2. Letting him use some of his considerable pass rush skills from the off-ball spot would be nice. Barnes has the size (240 pounds) and hard-hitting mentality to become a solid starter, though in this defense he might not be a full-time player in 2022. A platoon role with Board or someone else appears the most likely start to the season for Barnes.

Malcolm Rodriguez

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Fans clamoring for a throwback type of LB, one who calls to mind Lions great Chris Spielman, should love Rodriguez. The sixth-round rookie has an old-school game and toughness.

Rodriguez demonstrated an exceptional football IQ and instincts at Oklahoma State. His nose for the ball and quick eyes to anticipate and react are top-shelf. Alas, he’s got some detractions.

While his workout times showed outstanding agility, he didn’t consistently translate those to the field. A converted safety, Rodriguez is small at 5-11 and 225 pounds and has very short arms. It led to some missed tackles and struggles getting off blocks in college. If he can overcome those limitations, Rodriguez has all the ability to emerge as an eventual starter in Detroit. He has the opportunity to play his way up the depth chart right away, too.

Shaun Dion Hamilton

Lions

Often the forgotten man in the mix, Hamilton is aiming to make up for a lost 2021. The veteran went down in training camp last year to a season-ending injury.

At the time, Hamilton was routinely repping ahead of Anzalone in practices. That should give an idea of how the coaching staff saw the 26-year-old from Alabama. Last summer he was handily the Lions’ top coverage backer.

Recapturing that mantle is the key for Hamilton in 2022. The Lions have gotten more athletic around him at the position. Don’t overlook his experience in Washington or his closing speed–the Lions absolutely will not forget those attributes.

Jarrad Davis

(AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

What’s old is new again with Davis. No. 40 has returned to Detroit after one season with the New York Jets.

Just as he did in his first stint in Detroit, Davis disappointed in New York. He battled injuries and never made the kind of impact expected of a former first-round pick.

The injuries have piled up with Davis, but he remains a very impressive athlete at 27. He’s proven effective as an attack dog between the tackles, a style that fits better with the new Lions defense than the old read-and-react deployed during his prior time in Detroit. Never question Davis’ character, attitude or leadership–all things that hold appeal to head coach Dan Campbell.

Davis is firmly on the roster bubble entering camp. He needs to find a niche in the defense and perform well on special teams. The Lions have also toyed with using Davis as a pass rusher in the mold of Julian Okwara, too.

Josh Woods

Lions

Another player who returns after testing free agency, Woods is a major asset on special teams. After signing with the Lions from the Bears’ practice squad, Woods quickly established himself on Detroit’s kick coverage and return units.

He also played some reps at linebacker, even logging a team-high 13 tackles in his one start (Week 14 vs. DEN). The 26-year-old has some straight-line speed and doesn’t miss tackles. The contract the Lions gave Woods is a pretty strong indicator they value his presence, primarily for special teams.

The longshots

Anthony Pittman has managed to last three seasons in Detroit, but his path to a fourth year is not so clear. Like Woods, he was a core special teams player a year ago. Unlike Woods, he did not get many opportunities to prove himself on defense and didn’t perform well when he did. The Wayne State product has a chance but he’ll need to make himself completely indispensable on punt and kick teams to make it.

The Lions signed Natrez Patrick earlier this offseason. Patrick comes from the Rams, where he was scouted by Lions GM Brad Holmes. The 25-year-old has the build of a SAM backer but did not get much run with the LB-poor Rams in two years in Los Angeles and missed 2021 with an injury. Uphill climb for Patrick.

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