Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant played pivotal roles in the resurgence of the Detroit Lions. Thankfully, Lion fans are no longer forced to suffer through the likes of Jordan Dizon, Paris Lenon, and Teddy Lehman. The future appears promising; the roar restored.
Bobby Carpenter provided depth, and proved to be fairly apt in zone pass coverage, while Deandre Levy was steady as a starter on the outside (though inconsistent in his run fits). Doug Hogue is learning the position, and certainly can't be relied upon just yet, and while Ashlee Palmer provides an impact on special teams, Detroit could use an upgrade to provide more stable depth.
GM Martin Mayhew has made it incredibly clear that keeping Stephen Tulloch is a top priority this offseason. Tim Twentyman of detroitlions.com reiterated Mayhew's sentiment for Tulloch in a recent blog entry in which he referenced a comment Mayhew made in a recent sit down interview with Lions beat writers.
“I’m not going to get into each specific free agent (and) if we’re going to bring them back, but I’ll talk about Stephen Tulloch,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said in a sit-down with beat writers after the season. “I thought he did a great job for us this year. Mike linebackers are (a) critical position on our team, you know, he’s the quarterback of our defense.”
Even if the Lions are fortunate enough to bring Tulloch back, don't rule out a linebacker at some point in the draft. Here is a list of potential sleeper linebackers, projected to be drafted between rounds 3 and 7, or to be signed as free agent rookies.
James-Michael Johnson - MLB - Nevada - 6'1 249 lbs. (4.68 40 Time) - Projected 4th or 5th round selection
Good size for a Mike LB. Johnson strikes me as the type of player that teams will fall in love with in the interview process. An elected team captain at Nevada, he's known to be a character guy that prides himself on being a student of the game. But can he play? Johnson is best suited to work between the tackles, and is solid in run fitting, but is considered an average defender in the pass game. Johnson's best quality remains his work ethic and willingness to fight through the whistle.
Max Gruder - MLB - Pitt - 6'1 235 lbs. (4.72 40 Time) - Projected 6th round selection
Gruder is an interesting player, because I suspect he hasn't yet peaked. In the 6th or 7th round teams hope for a player that will stick. Gruder certainly has the potential to make a special teams impact, and with the proper tutelage can develop into a rotational linebacker. Gruder was named Pitt's most improved defensive player in 2011, finishing with 84 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception.
Nigel Bradham - OLB - Florida State - 6'2 237 lbs. (4.67 40 Time) - Projected 3rd or 4th round selection
I remember watching him play earlier this season, saying to myself, "He is a Lion." Bradham led FSU with 98 tackles, while also notching 5 sacks from the outside. Bradham has great technique - shedding blocks, playing fast, always the aggressor, and possesses the ability to stick with the opposition in coverage. Keep your eye on Bradham at the combine, as he could easily jump up on some draft boards.
Terrell Manning - OLB - NC State - 6'3 225 lbs. (4.63 40 Time) - Projected 3rd or 4th round selection
When Stephen Tulloch came out of NC State the knock on him was size. Manning is no different. I also believe, and this is bold, Manning will be a starting, successful linebacker at the next level. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, toughness, and production. Production? Ah, the variable often overlooked at the combine. Manning had excellent back-to-back seasons at NC State, and possesses the tools in coverage, the run game, and as a blitzing outside backer to make an immediate impact. A sideline-to-sideline LB, Manning is fluid in the hips, consistently sheds blocks from larger lineman, and reacts with precision.
Emmanuel Acho - OLB - Texas - 6'2 245 lbs. (4.79 40 Time) - Projected 5th or 6th round selection
Acho's work ethic, intelligence, and athleticism will help him on draft day. Likely a third day selection, Acho has sleeper written all over him. His speed, strength as a tackler (too often undervalued), and his closing speed make him an intriguing prospect, with potential to move up draft boards in the coming weeks.
Note: LB Danny Trevathan was referenced (mocked) in my 2012 NFL Draft Prognosticating piece as the Lions 7th round selection.
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By: Dustin J Quarrella