Now that the 2011 NFL Draft is complete, we can take a look at where the Detroit Lions still need to fill holes in their roster. Before the draft, I read plenty of articles and discussion about what the Lions need. I think we can safely say the Lions feel they filled the need for another wide receiver with Titus Young and the need for a more physical running back with Mikel LeShoure. But these weren't considered the greatest needs for the Lions before the draft.
One of the Lions most glaring problems prior to the draft was linebackers. The Lions told Julian Peterson and Jordan Dizon that their services are no longer required. Those departures have left the Lions shorthanded at a position that was not very good last season, even with a full complement of players. Martin Mayhew does not make moves without reason. There is a plan in place to replenish the linebackers, even if we don't know it.
The Lions feel that releasing Julian Peterson is addition by subtraction. Peterson made several critical mistakes last season. He cost the Lions some wins with his uninspired play. It is not a coincidence that the Lions won games at the end of the season after Peterson was benched. He looked like an exciting acquisition when the Lions traded with the Seahawks to get him, but Peterson turned out to be a square peg in a round hole.
It was also determined that Jordan Dizon is hurt too often to be a reliable part of the team going forward. Injuries have severely hurt the Lions over the last two seasons. This is simply a move to open a spot on the roster for a player that will be healthier and more reliable.
The only linebacker that we can be absolutely sure about is Deandre Levy. He will be roaming the middle of the field and making plays behind the dynamic duo of Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. Some unforeseen player acquisition could move Levy to the outside, but he will be starting at one of the linebacker spots for the Lions next season.
Bobby Carpenter has a place on the Lions roster, if he wants it. Carpenter is slated to be a free agent after a new collective bargaining agreement(CBA) is settled between the owners and the players. While this seems like it would create problems for the Lions in retaining Carpenter, it really doesn't. Bobby Carpenter will not get many phone calls from teams competing for his services because of previous struggles with other teams. Carpenter has more value to the Lions than any other NFL team and he seems to be happy with Detroit. Carpenter is about as sure as a free agent can be for the Lions.
Ashlee Palmer is an exclusive rights free agent and the Lions are likely to retain his services. While Palmer could become an unrestricted free agent with a new CBA, that is unlikely. The odds are very high that the Lions will retain Palmer for at least one more season, since they are holding all the cards in contract negotiations.
Zack Follett is under contract for the 2011 season and recent statements by Zack seem to indicate that he plans on playing in 2011. Of course, the doctors will have a say in that as well, but if Zack wants to give it a go, I won't count him out. Follett showed some promise during the 2010 season. He was stronger against the run than when covering the pass, but he was learning and improving. The "Pain Train" is a work in progress he could give his neck injury more opportunity to heal and continue his development by playing from the bench in 2011.
Isaiah Ekejuiba was a strong player on special teams last season, and filled in at multiple linebacker roles when injuries forced him into the lineup. While Isaiah was not stellar at linebacker, he didn't look horrible either. It is difficult to tell where Ekejuiba will end up in 2011. Other linebackers like Follett, Campbell, and Palmer are willing to play special teams and probably would have more impact on the field at linebacker. As good as Isaiah was on special teams he might be odd man out this coming season unless he finds a way to impress the coaches with his play at linebacker during preseason, if there is one.
I do not expect the Lions to sign Landon Johnson for next season. Landon was not bad as a Lion, but he did make some big mistakes. If the Lions are going to improve the linebacker corps for next season this is likely to be one of the roster spots that they will use to do that. I believe that Landon Johnson will be playing for a new team, but it remains unclear if the Lions will sign a free agent to replace him, or just put Doug Hogue in his spot.
Caleb Campbell is an exclusive rights free agent, which means that he is almost certain to return to the Lions. Caleb is a wild card. The best we can hope for is that he will have a breakout performance in preseason and impress the coaches enough to keep him on the roster. Campbell has one season on the Lions practice squad and he could return there if needed.
If you do the math on all that then it is likely that the Lions have Levy, Carpenter, Palmer, Follett, Ekejuiba, Campbell and Doug Hogue on the roster for the start of camp. The Lions could be willing to enter the season with six of those players, barring injuries, and may not sign a free agent linebacker at all.
If the Lions do not sign a free agent linebacker the projected starting lineup would be Levy in the middle with Carpenter and Palmer on the outside. Statements by Martin Mayhew have indicated that this would be acceptable. Pencil in Follett, Ekejuiba, and Hogue as backups with special teams duties. Caleb Campbell would go to the practice squad initially as an insurance policy against an injury.
In the second part of this article, I will talk about the the Lions profile for linebackers and who might fit into that profile that the Lions could acquire.