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Lions training camp position previews: Linebackers

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Tahir Whitehead

This is the sixth in a series of position previews ahead of the start of Lions training camp on Monday.

LINEBACKERS

As much as the defensive line received credit, the Lions' linebackers played a huge role in the defense ranking No. 1 against the run last season.

And the group accomplished that feat with Stephen Tulloch sidelined for 13 games -- and he's a better run stuffer than his replacement in the middle, Tahir Whitehead.

Entering 2015, the linebacker corps might be the Lions' best and deepest unit. Tulloch will return to the middle, and DeAndre Levy will continue to patrol the weak side as well as anyone in the NFL.

Whitehead's experience in 2014 should help the unit, too, as he learned how to play both strong side at the beginning of the year and middle while Tulloch was gone.

To remain a starter, though, Whitehead will have to perform better in training camp than Kyle Van Noy, a well-rounded second-round pick from 2014. A core muscle injury cost Van Noy the first half of last season, but if he's healthy, he'll push for time as a starter or in sub packages.

Behind those four, Josh Bynes played a key role as a rotational piece, and Julian Stanford and Travis Lewis have significant experience on special teams. To make the roster, those three and others will have to impress on special teams with the top four linebackers set.

Roster locks: DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, Tahir Whitehead, Kyle Van Noy.

Bubble: Josh Bynes, Travis Lewis, Julian Stanford, Brandon Copeland, Jerrell Harris, Kevin Snyder (R).

Roster spots: Six.

Top camp competition: Though both should have a role on defense, Whitehead and Van Noy will compete for the starting strong-side job, and a winner likely won't be determined until the end of the preseason.

Rookie outlook: Snyder was a productive middle linebacker at Rutgers, but practice squad is probably his best-case scenario.

Breakout candidate: Van Noy. He has the skills to excel as a pass rusher and in coverage, and if he has the opportunity, could be one of the team's leaders in sacks.