Lions 2019 draft preview: Starters return, but Detroit lacks depth at linebacker
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each position. Today: Linebackers.
► Current roster: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Steve Longa, Tre’ Williams, Garret Dooley, Miles Killebrew
► Short-term need: Three out of 10
► Long-term need: Nine out of 10
► Top prospects: Devin White, Devin Bush, Mack Wilson
► Mid-round options: Wilson, Te'Von Coney, Germaine Pratt
► Late-round fits: Blake Cashman, Bobby Okereke, Cameron Smith
It's not a great year to be going into the draft needing a linebacker, so it's probably a good thing the Lions are returning their starting tandem from a year ago.
In the middle, Jarrad Davis is holding down the fort after showing positive development throughout his second season. Despite allowing a long reception that led to a loss against Dallas early in the year, Davis made significant strides with his coverage last season, all while making a far greater impact as a situational blitzer. If he can continue to shore up some inconsistencies with his pursuit angles and tackling, he has the potential to be a pretty good all-around player for the Lions.
On the weak side, Christian Jones is back for a second season. The best way to describe his contributions is solid. He can capably handle any assignment, but he doesn't stand out in any particular area.
The depth behind Davis and Jones leaves plenty to be desired. Prior to a neck injury, Jalen Reeves-Maybin was the team's top backup last season. His above-average instincts are his calling card, but even after packing some extra weight on his frame, he's still on the small side for what coach Matt Patricia prefers for the position.
The Lions should also get Steve Longa back this year, after he tore his ACL last preseason. A special-teams standout, he also offers a bigger body that has previously played well in short-yardage situations.
Finally, it's unclear if Miles Killebrew will offer anything more this season, a year after converting from safety to linebacker. He didn't see the field as a defender following the transition, but should get an extended opportunity this offseason to show the switch is taking hold.
Given Patricia's affinity for linebackers, a position he coached in New England, taking one in the first round can't be dismissed. Devin White, who might not be the ideal size for Detroit's scheme, still merits consideration given his elite range and coverage skills. That's something that carries more value in the increasingly pass-happy NFL. Paired with Davis, White would give the Lions an athletic pairing with impressive sideline-to-sideline quickness, which should hinder opposing short-passing and screen games.
The middle rounds are where this class' lack of depth quickly shows. Alabama's Mack Wilson has three-down potential, who like his former college teammate and Lions' 2018 draft pick Da'Shawn Hand, has plenty of potential to unlock.
Germaine Pratt, a former safety, carries some of those coverage skills to his new position, but really established himself as a stout run defender for North Carolina State.
In the later rounds, the Lions are probably looking more at special-teams contributors who will require development before being able to help on defense.
Minnesota's Blake Cashman fits the bill as a Patricia type, a passionate player who will fight for his spot every day.
A former walk-on, Cashman clawed his way to a scholarship with the Gophers. As a senior in 2018, he racked up more than 100 tackles, including 15 behind the line of scrimmage, while breaking up five passes. He further bolstered his profile at the combine, posting excellent times in the speed, explosion and agility drills.
The Lions could afford to sit tight at linebacker, but adding a playmaker at the position early in the draft might prove one of the best ways to quickly improve the team's overall defense. If they stand pat, they'll be fine for 2019, but Jones' contract is set to expire at season's end, meaning the position will be a top priority next offseason.