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Sorting out the Lions linebacker room after addition of Ben Niemann

The Detroit Lions officially added free agent linebacker Ben Niemann to the roster. The 28-year-old joins the Detroit LB corps in time for the final OTAs before the extended break into training camp in late July.

The Lions released undrafted rookie linebacker Steele Chambers to make room for Niemann. That move gives a pretty good indication of how the Lions view their newcomer and his role. It also makes for a good time to refresh the view of Detroit’s linebacker depth chart.

Starters

This probably deserves an asterisk because the Lions might be morphing back to playing three linebackers in the base defense more often than they have the past few seasons with Aaron Glenn as the defensive coordinator. They’ve shown that look more in minicamp and OTAs than at any other time since Glenn took over the defense, but it’s important to note that it’s still primarily just two off-ball linebackers in the vast majority of sets.

Alex Anzalone is coming off his best season, setting career highs in tackles (129), sacks (3), PDs (6), QB hits (12) and TFLs (7). He is also the emotional leader and nerve center of the defense.

Jack Campbell has moved up into the first-team reps next to Anzalone when No. 34 plays and in Anzalone’s spot when the veteran didn’t participate in OTAs. The Lions are clearly grooming him for a full-time starting role in his second season after an up-and-down rookie campaign.

Derrick Barnes started with Anzalone last year, and he could still get starting reps as an off-ball LB. However, Barnes has been doing more of the SAM role this spring. In Detroit’s defense, that’s much more of a pass-rush role than a more reactionary and coverage role than Barnes has played. This is closer to the role he played collegiately at Purdue before morphing into an off-ball LB his first three seasons in Detroit.

This move could have a couple of root causes, both of which can be true but also coincidental.

Campbell could be ready for a bigger role and/or (likely both) the Lions are seeing how much more he can do in his second season. Barnes was also an adept pass rusher in college, and that could be a reflection that the team sees a bigger overall need for the defense than off-ball LB depth. That would keep an experienced Barnes on the field in more situations if some of the edge rushers (Marcus Davenport, James Houston, Mitchell Agude, Josh Paschal, Mathieu Betts) aren’t bringing the heat as well as hoped.

Reserves

Malcolm Rodriguez jumps right into the inside backer role in drills with the second-team defense. He has his limitations in range and coverage, but the fan favorite “Rodrigo” is a very good smart defender and good open-field tackler. He can be one of the best reserve backers in the league, and Rodriguez also proved he can capably fill in as the team’s fullback last season too.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin is primarily known for his special teams play, but the veteran proved he could handle business as a defensive reserve, too. His speed in the open field and quick reactions worked in coverage packages, and that could continue more in 2024. Reeves-Maybin and Rodriguez are omnipresent on special teams units, where Reeves-Maybin served as a captain and Rodriguez played extensively. That will continue in 2024 with the new kickoff rules.

Competing

Any remaining roster space at LB figures to be devoted exclusively to special teams. It’s the role Anthony Pittman played in Detroit for the last few seasons. Pittman is now with the Washington Commanders.

This is where Niemann fits in. He’s got over 80 NFL games under his belt, including 21 starts across six seasons. Fans of the Chiefs and Cardinals will opine that Niemann was much more capable on special teams than in actually playing linebacker. He did not have a defensive snap with the Broncos last season.

With Chambers now gone, the only other true off-ball LB on the roster is undrafted rookie DaRon Gilbert, a 218-pound Northern Illinois product who essentially played the same college role that Lions slot DB Brian Branch did at Alabama.

Story originally appeared on Lions Wire