Lions in search of playmakers at linebacker
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL draft, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster situation and evaluate how the team might address these positions during the event. Today: Linebackers.
Current roster: Tahir Whitehead, Antwione Williams, Paul Worrilow, Thurston Armbrister, Steve Longa, Brandon Chubb and Nick Bellore
Top prospects: Reuben Foster, Haason Reddick, Jarrad Davis
Mid-round fits: Zach Cunningham, Tyus Bowser, Duke Riley
Late-round options: Jayon Brown, Elijah Lee, Eric Wilson, Dylan Cole
Short-term need: 8 on a 1-10 scale
Long-term need: 10 on a 1-10 scale
Analysis: Where are the playmakers? That’s the question the Lions must ask themselves as they evaluate the team’s linebacker situation heading into the draft.
As it currently sets up, the Lions have a pair of volume tacklers projected for starting roles in Whitehead and Worrilow. But big plays have been few and far between for the pair.
Whitehead led the Lions with 132 tackles last season starting in the middle, but just three came behind the line of scrimmage. He didn’t record a sack, quarterback hit, forced fumble or interception. In coverage, Whitehead surrendered 64 receptions, more than any linebacker in the NFL, with quarterbacks competing 76.2 percent of their throws his direction.
Worrilow is coming off a year where he served in a reserve role, losing his starting job to a rookie. Praised for his work ethic and grit by former coaches and teammates, the young veteran has a knack for being around the ball, averaging 121 tackles the previous three years. But like Whitehead, there have been minimal splash plays.
During those three seasons, Worrilow picked off two passes, forced three fumbles and averaged a tick more than four tackles for a loss.
Additionally, Whitehead and Worrilow are only under contract through next season.
The wild card in Detroit’s linebacking corps is Williams, the second-year man out of Georgia Southern. Playing 204 snaps last season, he flashed some playmaking potential. He projects as a strong-side option in the team’s defensive scheme, but does offer some unexplored versatility.
Clearly, the Lions could use some reinforcements at the position. The top two names on the board — Foster and Reddick — are likely to be gone by the time the team is scheduled to make its first pick at No. 21 overall.
Reddick was a big winner at the combine, posting chart-topping metrics. He also recorded 22.5 tackles for loss last season, operating at the line of scrimmage for Temple. He’d play in space for the Lions, but showed promise with the required skills at the Senior Bowl.
Foster’s red flags — both character and injury — could allow him to slide to the Lions. At that point, it’s a risk-reward decision for general manager Bob Quinn.
And while some may view it as a slight reach, Davis presents an intriguing option at 21. There are some durability concerns, but nothing major. And after a strong showing at his pro day, there’s no question he fits the athletic profile Quinn likes at the position.
On Day 2, there should still be some solid options. If Cunningham is there at 54, it would be a solid get. The rangy tackling machine would offer a quality long-term replacement for DeAndre Levy on the weak side. Bowser is an athletic freak and could add versatility as a down lineman in passing situations. Again, there’s some character risks here that must be considered.
Later in the draft, power conference players Brown and Lee have experience against top-level college competition. A player like Cole, from Missouri State, offers chart-busting athleticism and developmental upside. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s built like a small truck.
Ideally, the Lions find a linebacker early in this draft. They may not have more than two on the field often these days, but the team needs to find a long-term option with a well-rounded skill set capable of making the occasional game-altering play.