Lions 2020 draft preview: Detroit could reinforce depth, outside options at linebacker
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Linebacker.
► Current roster: Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai, Jamie Collins, Reggie Ragland, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Elijah Lee, Steve Longa, Jason Cabinda, Anthony Pittman, Christian Sam
► Short-term need: Three out of 10
► Long-term need: Seven out of 10
► Top prospects: Isaiah Simmons, Patrick Queen, Kenneth Murray, Zack Baun
► Mid-round options: Willie Gay Jr., Logan Wilson, Anfernee Jennings
► Late-round fits: Jordan Brooks, David Woodward
► Analysis: The Lions have done just about everything they could prior to the draft to eliminate linebacker as a need. The franchise's moves date back to late last season, when they awarded Jones, a pending free agent, with a two-year extension.
And since the opening of free agency, the Lions added three more options to a crowded depth chart, agreeing to terms with Collins, Ragland and Lee.
Collins, 30, is the only one of the three to net a multi-year offer. His versatility and playmaking ability should help the Lions both on the edge as a pass rusher and off the ball in coverage.
Ragland, a former All-American for Alabama who was drafted in the second round in 2016, is the type of big-bodied throwback the Lions like at linebacker. He is most likely going to back up Davis, but both have battled struggles with missed tackles and coverage during their young careers.
Lee is also a depth piece who has a shot to be one of Detroit's top special teamers.
In addition to the group mentioned, the Lions also return Tavai, last year's second-round pick, and Reeves-Maybin, who finished fifth in the NFL with 13 special teams tackles in 2019.
So, yeah, the room is crowded and filled with guys the Lions have recently invested in.
The lingering question is the team's long-term plan at middle linebacker. The Lions have a decision to make with the fifth-year option it holds on Davis' rookie deal. If they pick it up, it's guaranteed only for injury, but Davis has done little to justify being paid the average of the top 25 guys at his position, the going rate for the option. That figure has been north of $9 million each of the past two years.
If it's not Davis, the logical option to replace Davis in the middle is Tavai. That possible shift would still leave room for an upgrade on the outside, one that could push Jones to a reserve role.
One of the more interesting prospects in this class is Gay Jr. If a team can get past the red flags pertaining to academics (cheating on an exam) and fighting with a teammate in practice, the talent is exceptional. He has experience lining up in multiple roles and his athleticism, displayed at the combine, is exceptional.
If Gay Jr. is there in the third round, he would bolster the quality of Detroit's depth in 2020 and has the talent to push for a starting job in 2021.
As the draft progresses, Wilson and Jennings could help. Wilson is a tackling machine who flashed his talents while being coached by the Lions staff at the Senior Bowl. He'd provide interior depth and immediate special teams contributions. Jennings, meanwhile, is more of an outside option who could give the Lions another edge-rushing option.
Really, any linebacker with some juice as a situational edge rusher should be in play. The Lions need all the help they can get in that department.
Any late-round options Detroit might consider are going to need to be special teams stars right out the gate because they'd need to beat out Lee, Reeves-Maybin or both for a job.