Lions tinkering with Miles Killebrew at linebacker

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Miles Killebrew

Napa, Calif. — Miles Killebrew's career is at an early crossroads.

At one point, in the not-so-distant past, Killebrew appeared to be a rising star on the cusp of being a breakout performer for the Detroit Lions. Now, after some glaring struggles throughout the early stages of the offseason program and training camp, the Lions are tinkering with a potential position change for Killebrew, from safety to linebacker.

After working Killebrew with the linebackers during individual drills the past two days, Lions coach Matt Patricia downplayed the significance of the alteration to the practice routine. 

"You guys may look at it as a linebacker, I may look at it is a safety, and it could be a corner," Patricia said. "It’s just kind of some alignment rules that we might have based on different sets that we see from that aspect of it. A lot of the guys that work in the middle of the field, the safeties and the linebackers, do have to learn similar skill sets.

"We’ll be in some looks where those safety positions or even the nickel positions are in kind of close quarters, so the ability to use good fundamentals, protect themselves, play in the run game, and use those techniques that are critical closer to the line of scrimmage, at some point, we have to get everybody that chance to build on that."

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For the most part, Killebrew was evasive on the topic, deferring to his coach when asked if a permanent position switch was in the cards or how he saw himself fitting into Patricia's defense. Killebrew also playfully no-commented a question about whether he had been asked to put on weight. 

But for what it's worth, Killebrew is embracing the challenge. 

"I told coach I'll play wherever he wants me to play, so I love it," he said. "I'm a football player. Wherever he wants me to be, that's where I'm going to be. This week, right now, I'm working with the linebackers." 

As Patricia noted, there's plenty of skill set overlap between an in-the-box safety and linebacker. Killebrew highlighted some of the differences. 

"They have a different view of the field," he said. "Linebackers, you're a lot closer, things happen a lot faster and you have to pay attention to the offensive line a lot more. I'm just studying the game a little bit differently."

Killebrew said he's also adjusting to the variance in terminology and communication, but said the linebacker room, including position coach Al Golden, have been incredibly helpful as he navigates the process. 

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A fourth-round draft pick in 2016 out of Southern Utah — general manager Bob Quinn's first year at the helm — Killebrew's athleticism and physicality allowed him to make an immediate impact on special teams while he was slowly incorporated into the defense as a sub-package player.

Early last season, Killebrew developed a reputation as a third-down stopper, routinely coming up with critical tackles short of the sticks to force field goals and punts. When starting safety Tavon Wilson went down with an injury in November, it looked as if Killebrew was going to get a shot at proving himself in a full-time role. 

But the Lions had other ideas. Instead, the team moved Quandre Diggs from nickel to safety. Worse yet for Killebrew, the third-down sub-package where he had thrived was essentially scrubbed from the game plan because of Wilson's importance to its success. 

After averaging 30 snaps per game the first 11 weeks, Killebrew was on the field for fewer than five defensive plays, on average, the final five weeks of the season. 

This offseason, the Lions re-signed Wilson and drafted another big-bodied safety in Tracy Walker. Pair that with some of Killebrew's coverage struggles and it's easy to believe the young veteran is on the roster bubble as the team nears its first preseason game.

Whether the position change to linebacker is a long-term move remains to be seen. The fact the Lions believe he is capable of making the switch can even be viewed positively, and worst case, it helps Killebrew increase his versatility within the defense. 

He has already proven he can be an extremely valuable matchup piece. Now it boils down to whether Patricia believes Killebrew carries the same kind of value and potential within the new scheme.

Lions vs. Raiders

What: First preseason game for both teams

When: Friday, 10:30 p.m.

Where: Oakland Alameda Coliseum

TV: Fox 2, NFL Network

Line: Oakland by 3