A Tuff Look at the Lions Linebackers - Part 3 - Looking Forward

(Ed. note: I bumped this to the front page and updated the time of the post so it's at the top.)

This is the third, and final, part of my look at the Lions linebackers.  If you have not read the previous two installments then you can find them at these links:

A Tuff Look at the Lions Linebackers - Part 1

A Tuff Look at the Lions Linebackers - Part 2

It probably is not necessary to read part one in order to understand this fan post, because most of it is rehashed in part two anyway.  You probably should read part two in order to gain a complete context on how I am evaluating players to decide which linebackers would be the best fit for the Lions.

In part two we talked about the defensive system that the Lions play and the role that the linebackers fill within that system.  Then we looked at the profile that the Lions use to evaluate linebackers to fit within their system.  To recap briefly, we determined that the ideal linebacker for the Lions

  • Will be over 6 feet tall and 230 lbs in size.
  • Are reasonably fast (40 yard dash in under 4.7 seconds)
  • Pure speed is not as important as playing speed. 
  • Must be able to defend the pass while covering running backs and tight ends
  • Must be able to play good run defense
  • Ability to rush the passer is a plus
  • Should be a sure tackler
  • Should hit the ball carrier with authority

All of the linebackers we look at will be evaluated based on this profile.  There are a number of players that are a possibility for the Lions to acquire.  What we do not know is the conditions under which a player will become an unrestricted free agent, we can only guess.  I will not bother guessing.  Instead, I will present a number of names that the Lions can consider acquiring and I will not distinguish between free agency and making a trade.  This article will focus on how each of these players meets our profile and will attempt to rank each player according tho how they will fit in our defense.


A Look At the Players

We will start by taking a brief look at each player and what they can do.  I will present a brief scouting report on each player as I see them.  You can feel free to disagree with any of my assessments.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

James Anderson

Height: 6'2"
Weight: 235 lbs
40 Yard Dash: 4.59 seconds
Age: 27
Experience: 5 seasons
Carolina Panthers
Pros: Anderson is a quick, athletic outside linebacker.  He can cover large areas of the field and play from sideline to sideline.  His run defense is very good and he led all NFL linebackers with 61 stops in 2010.   Anderson is a sure tackler and breaks down well in space to make a good solid tackle.  He can also play solid pass defense as evidenced by him breaking up 6 passes and intercepting one in 2010.  Anderson is fully capable of covering both tight ends and running backs in man coverage. 
Cons: Anderson had a breakout year in 2010 and could be a one year wonder. but his play on the field suggests he is the real deal.

Overview: James Anderson is my pick as the outside linebacker that the Lions should pursue in free agency this season.  If there were a picture of the ideal that Jim Schwartz is using for his linebacker profile, the picture would be of Anderson.  Anderson is a great fit for the Lions because he already has proved himself in the Carolina 4-3 defense.  He will not have to learn an entirely new defensive scheme in order to fit in with the Lions.  He is simply as close as the Lions will come to the prototypical strong side linebacker for their system in the 2011 free agent market.



Stephen Nicholas

Height: 6'3"
Weight: 230 lbs
40 Yard Dash: 4.64 seconds
Age: 28
Experience: 4 seasons
Atlanta Falcons
Pros: Stephen Nicholas is a physical outside linebacker that likes to hit.  He plays best when he is allowed to attack up field and make plays in the backfield.  Nicholas' strength is his run defense.  He shows good quickness and can make tackles in pursuit.  He has enough quickness to create pressure on the quarterback in blitz situations.
Cons: Nicholas is a bit stiff in the hips and that can cause him some trouble in pass coverage.  He operates best in pass coverage when he can drop into a zone and keep the play in front of him.  He will struggle in man-to-man coverage on tight ends.

Overview: Stephen Nicholas is best used as a strong side linebacker that is primarily asked to play the run.  He is not horrible in pass coverage when properly used, but he will not be a standout in that role.  He is still a clear upgrade over any other Lions linebacker in run defense.  Think of him as a better version of Zack Follett.



Manny Lawson

Height: 6'5"
Weight: 240 lbs
40 Yard Dash: 4.43 seconds
Age: 26
Experience: 5 seasons
San Francisco 49ers
Pros: Manny Lawson is an athletic outside linebacker with excellent speed and vertical jump.  He can easily cover the field from sideline to sideline.  His pass coverage skills are excellent and he can be counted on to erase the opposing tight end and running backs from the passing game.   Lawson's run defense is also good.  Manny is capable of pressuring the quarterback when asked to blitz.
Cons: Manny Lawson suffered a torn ACL in 2007 and missed most of the season but he has performed well since then.  Lawson is not a tackling machine like some of the other linebackers in this list.
Overview: Manny Lawson is a player that is out of place.  His performance in the 3-4 defense in San Francisco indicates that he would probably fit better in a 4-3 scheme.  While he can get pressure on the quarterback from the blitz, he is not a beast as rushing the passer.  This has limited his effectiveness and snaps for the 49ers.  Since the 49ers drafted Aldon Smith, it is likely that Lawson will lose even more snaps.  It is possible that Lawson would be happy to change teams in order to get a fresh start in a role that suits him better.



Stephen Tulloch

Height: 6'0"
Weight: 240 lbs
40 Yard Dash: 4.86 seconds
Age: 26
Experience: 5 seasons
Tennessee Titans
Pros: While Stephen Tulloch is not the fastest player in this list, he makes up for his lack of speed with very good instincts.  He is good at filling the hole in run defense and makes sure tackles. 
Cons: Lack of speed makes Tulloch a liability in passing defense.  He has proved in Tennessee that he is essentially a two down linebacker.

Overview: There has been a lot of discussion about Tulloch coming to the Lions.  While I cannot discount the possibility entirely, he does not seem to fit the Lions linebacker profile.  It is likely that a team like the New York Giants will prize him more highly than the Lions would.



Thomas Howard

Height: 6'3"
Weight: 240 lbs
40 Yard Dash: 4.44 seconds
Age: 27
Experience: 5 seasons
Oakland Raiders
Pros: Thomas Howard may be the fastest linebacker in the NFL.  He is so fast that he not only can he cover linebackers and tight ends, but he can also cover wide receivers.  He can also get to the passer quickly on blitzes  Howard is one of those guys that not only has speed, he can play with speed.
Cons:  Howard has not met the expectations of the Raiders at outside linebacker because of his problems in defending the run.  He has not developed the strength and skills required to shed blocks effectively and gets caught up in traffic.

Overview: Thomas Howard is the polar opposite to Stephen Tulloch.  He gives you a superb pass defense and a somewhat deficient run defense.  Still, he would be an upgrade to any of the outside linebackers currently on the roster.



The Tale of the Tape

All we have left to do is compare each of these players.  I will put each of the profile requirements in a table and rate each player accordingly.  There are five primary requirements and three secondary requirements.  The ratings will be from one to ten with ten being the highest grade for primary requirements.  Secondary requirements will be graded from one to five.  So let's see how it turns out.

Player Size Speed Pass Def Run Def Blitz Tackling Aggression Total
James Anderson 8 8 9 8 4 5 4 46
Manny Lawson 9 8 8 7 4 4 3 43
Thomas Howard 9 9 10 5 4 3 3 43
Stephen Nicholas 8 7 5 7 3 4 5 39
Stephen Tulloch 9 5 4 8 2 5 5 38


As you look at these numbers keep in mind that the grades are measuring how the player fits the requirements of the profile that the Lions use to fit linebackers into their system.  My grades have placed James Anderson at the top of the list for free agent linebackers.  Keep in mind that Anderson may be a one year wonder and that might knock him down a few points if the Lions were the ones doing the evaluation.  I think the Lions will look at talent and skills and will not worry that much about only one year of big production.

You might rank the players differently from how I have.  You might have some players that you would like to add to the rankings.  Feel free to chip in your thoughts and maybe we can get some insight into how Martin Mayhew might be thinking about filling holes in the linebacker corps.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Pride Of Detroit or its writers.

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