Over the next several days leading up to the start of Lions training camp, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News will highlight the key position battles. Today: SAM linebacker.
Allen Park — Earlier this week, we explored the impending competition at nickel cornerback, where incumbent Quandre Diggs will look to fend off the challenge of free-agent signing D.J. Hayden and rookie Jamal Agnew.
For all intents and purposes, the nickel corner is a starter. In the pass-happy NFL, the Detroit Lions are typically in a nickel or dime package approximately 70 percent of their defensive snaps. But when the nickelback comes off the field, he’s replaced by a strongside linebacker, another role up for grabs this training camp.
The Lions largely overhauled their linebacking corps this offseason, drafting Jarrad Davis in the first round and Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the fourth. The team also signed former Falcons starter Paul Worrilow.
The working assumption is Davis will start in the middle. Tahir Whitehead, despite sitting out OTAs and mandatory minicamp with injury, is expected to slide over and take over the weakside spot previously manned by DeAndre Levy.
On the strongside, there are three primary contenders — Brandon Copeland, Antwione Williams and Worrilow.
Worrilow doesn’t possess the ideal frame, listed at 6-foot-1, 231 pounds, but unquestionably has a nose for the ball, having averaged 121 tackles for Atlanta from 2013-15.
Undrafted out of Delaware, Worrilow is a gritty, relentless worker who plays with the blue-collar work ethic loved by Detroit fans.
“He’s one of the players who defines grit,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said at the Super Bowl. “His passion, his perseverance, his mindset to keep battling for things, that’s what (the Lions) are getting.
“He had to transition to a different role on our defense this year, where he was a really key contributor on special teams. But what the Lions, and the fan base up there, can expect is someone who is really consistent and all day is going to go for it in every way. He’s a fantastic teammate as well.”
That quote could be equally applied to Copeland, who has been something of a Swiss army knife on defense for the Lions the past two seasons while serving as one of the team’s four-phase special teams contributor.
Copeland began his time with the Lions as a linebacker, moved to defensive end to start last season, then moved back to linebacker when the depth chart was decimated by injuries. This offseason he’s been working out at both spots, even taking some first-team reps at the strongside spot.
At 6-3, 263 pounds, Copeland has the frame to be disruptive coming downhill, which is particularly useful in short-yardage and goal-line situations. But at that size, he’s not going to be ideal in coverage.
Williams is the best of both worlds. The athletic second-year player flashed some promise as a rookie out of Georgia Southern, but also battled some durability issues.
After spending his inaugural campaign learning all three linebacker spots, he’s been honing in on the strongside job this offseason. Members of the coaching staff and the front office have said expectations are high for the young linebacker.
“The arrow is pointing up for him, but the good thing about it is we have really good competition at that position,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said last month. “I think that’s what makes for better opportunity for us to get the best possible people we can playing there on a consistent basis for us. He’s one of those guys and thus far he’s doing all right.”
Lions camp battles
Day 1: Left tackle
Day 2: Nickelback
Day 3: Fourth, fifth receivers
Day 4: SAM linebacker
Friday: Left guard
Saturday: Fourth, fifth defensive ends
Monday: Fourth running back
Tuesday, July 25: Backup defensive tackles
Wednesday, July 26: Backup quarterback