This is the third in a series looking at positional needs for the Detroit Lions in free agency. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 12. The signing period opens March 14 at 4 p.m.
Allen Park — Even in an era where three-linebacker packages are no longer a base defense, the Detroit Lions enter the offseason in serious need of some depth at the position.
The middle linebacker spot is locked up for the foreseeable future after the team drafted Jarrad Davis in the first round last year. It was a rocky rookie season, consisting of far too many blown coverages and missed tackles, but Davis has the physical skill set and mental makeup that should lead to significant improvement in his second season.
Davis wasn’t the only linebacker the Lions added via the draft last season. They also snagged Jalen Reeves-Maybin out of Tennessee, an undersized, but rangy and instinctual outside linebacker who earned a steady role as his inaugural season progressed.
Assuming he’s added some functional strength this offseason, he should see the field even more regularly in his sophomore campaign.
Beyond that, Steve Longa is the only other linebacker under contract who saw snaps last season, and those came primarily on special teams.
Detroit has a decision to make with Tahir Whitehead. The veteran has spent his entire six-year career with the Lions and is set to enter free agency for the second time in two years. The Lions re-signed him last go-round, and after struggling at middle linebacker in 2016, he rebounded with his finest season last year.
Whitehead made a smooth transition back to the outside following the addition of Davis and made significant strides as a run defender, showing vastly improved timing and hand usage when filling his gap.
He also gave the Lions a team-high 950 snaps at his position and has missed just one game during the past five seasons. Whitehead’s pass coverage was better in 2017, but remains the weak spot in his game.
The price tag could ultimately determine whether Whitehead returns, but of the team’s free agents, he’s near the top of list of guys who merit bringing back.
The rest of the market is flush with middle linebackers, although veterans NaVorro Bowman and Zach Brown are capable of playing both inside and outside.
Nigel Bradham is arguably the only upgrade to Whitehead among the outside linebacking options. The Eagles linebacker is scheme-versatile and is comparable to Whitehead as a run stopper and blitzer, but better in coverage.
A cheaper fit, who has a background with Lions coach Matt Patricia, is Jonathan Casillas. DeAndre Levy’s college roommate at Wisconsin, Casillas has spent the past three seasons with the New York Giants.
He missed the last half of last season with a neck injury, but was highly productive in 2016, recording 96 tackles and eight pass breakups. The Patriots traded for Casillas in 2014
Lions LBs under contract: Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Steve Longa and Brandon Chubb.
Lions free agents: Tahir Whitehead, Paul Worrilow, Nick Bellore
Top free agents: NaVorro Bowman, Zach Brown, Nigel Bradham, Anthony Hitchens, Paul Posluszny, Demario Davis and Jonathan Casillas.