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Once a strength, linebacker becomes need for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

This is the first in a series looking at positional needs for the Lions in free agency.

Allen Park — At one point last season, the Detroit Lions were so banged up at linebacker they had just two healthy options on the active roster practicing during the week.

Lions general manager Bob Quinn went into his first training camp believing linebacker was a position of strength. And why not? DeAndre Levy was expected to be back to full strength, Kyle Van Noy was in the best shape of his life according to the coaching staff, and Tahir Whitehead was fresh off a strong second half, which earned him a new contract in the offseason. With Josh Bynes, Jon Bostic and rookie Antwione Williams in the fold, the team appeared it would need to cut at least one option it liked before the season.

But the injury bug hit hard. Bostic and Bynes didn’t survive training camp and Levy lasted one game before quad and knee injuries shelved him three-quarters of the season. Additionally, Van Noy never developed in the scheme the way the Lions envisioned, leading to a midseason trade to the New England Patriots.

In the end, a position of depth became one of the Lions’ biggest weaknesses.

Heading into this offseason, there’s a clearer need for reinforcements. Even though the team remains optimistic about Levy’s long-term prognosis, they can no longer count on him to be healthy. Whitehead also wasn’t as consistent as his tackle numbers might suggest, plus he’s entering the final year of his contract. And Williams, while he flashed some potential in limited playing time, is still largely unproven.

Bostic, who never played a down for the Lions after spending the year on injured reserve, is set to be a free agent. So is Bynes, who returned midseason and really helped shore up the unit.

The Lions could certainly look to fill their need in the early rounds of the draft, but there are a handful of intriguing options in free agency that should be considered first.

The popular name will be New England’s Dont’a Hightower, but he won’t come cheap, assuming he even makes it to the market. The heart and soul of the Patriots’ defense, there’s still a possiblity he’s franchised by the organization. If not, he’ll be looking at a long-term contract that will pay him somewhere around $10 million per season.

A cheaper option would be Buffalo’s Zach Brown. After going under the radar as a free agent last offseason, his production exploded in his one season with the Bills. He recorded 149 tackles and was among the best 4-3 linebackers at making stops behind the line of scrimmage. He can play inside or outside, giving the Lions the flexibility to move Whitehead back outside.

Gerald Hodges could be another option. The former Minnesota Viking found his stride in San Francisco. He’s young with positional versatility and a well-round skill set, although he might be more interested in a clearer path to playing time after having clawed his way to a starting role early in his career.

Lions LBs under contract: DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Antwione Williams, Thurston Armbrister, Brandon Chubb, Steve Long

Lions free agents: Josh Bynes, Jon Bostic

Top free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Zach Brown, Perry Riley, Kevin Minter, Lawrence Timmons, Malcolm Smith