One of the top priorities this offseason for the Detroit Lions is clearly to try and bring back Stephen Tulloch, who was pretty solid for them last season. That, however, is easier said than done given Tulloch's track record, his previous low-paid contracts, and the fact that his agent is the infamous Drew Rosenhaus. Add to that fact that the Lions have been more than willing to let linebackers go like they did with Larry Foote two years ago and it does not seem very far-fetched to imagine the Lions going into 2012 with their fourth different starting middle linebacker in the last four seasons.
While I feel the Lions should draft their starting middle linebacker at some point in the first three rounds of the upcoming NFL draft instead of re-signing Tulloch, it is a still a pretty good idea to look at some of the options out there in free agency. After the jump, I will take a look at three linebackers who could very well be in the Lions' starting lineup come September.
Barrett Ruud (6'2", 241 pounds) | Previous team: Tennessee Titans
Ruud and Tulloch have an interesting history. For starters, the Titans signed Ruud to a one-year deal when they felt that Tulloch's contract demands were too high. In turn, Tulloch signed a one-year deal with the Lions to prove to the league that his contract demands weren't too high. As it turns out, Tully did end up proving himself, but what could be great for the Lions' wallet is that Ruud had a pretty mediocre season with the Titans with just 57 tackles in nine games played. This, of course, is following four straight years with the Bucs where he tallied at least 114 tackles, which means he is far from a one-year wonder.
What he brings to the table: Physically, Ruud is what you want in a middle linebacker. He is big enough to play the position, but he can also run naturally and has quite a bit of coverage experience since he played in the Tampa-2 with the Buccaneers. In a way, he is the polar opposite of Stephen Tulloch, but that isn't a bad thing in this case. If this were any other offseason, Ruud would be one of the most sought after linebackers, but the Lions could come away with a steal in Ruud simply because the middle linebacking corps coming out this offseason is very deep and Ruud has become a forgotten man because of his play with the Titans.
Car comparison: Chevy Corvette (doesn't have the reputation of a Porsche or a Lotus but can stack up with the European brands in every way)
Lofa Tatupu (6'0", 250 pounds) | Previous team: None in 2011
Just a few years ago, Tatupu was considered to be one of the premier middle linebackers in the NFL, but then he got hurt in 2009, and newcomer David Hawthorne has torn it up in his absence. It has been quite a while -- three seasons to be exact -- since Tatupu had a productive season, and it looks a lot like he may never have another one after going through several knee surgeries and concussions as well. He sat out 2011 to recuperate from his injuries and has so far worked out with the Saints (who seem to be working out everyone nowadays) and the Titans but remains a free agent for now.
What he brings to the table: Well, he mostly brings a spectacular resume. It's not very often that a 29-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler and a one time All-Pro is sitting there begging NFL teams for a contract, but that is basically the situation that Tatupu is in. If he can come in to the Lions and be his old self, he can not only replace Tulloch, but he can make Lions coaching staff and fans forget Tulloch's name in a heartbeat. If he gets injured again, then the Lions are left with yet another injury-prone player. Still, I think Tatupu is a type of player that a team like the Lions needs to do their due diligence with, especially since he took a full season off to recover.
Car comparison: Chrysler 300 (style and luxury versus the fact it's the least reliable car of 2011)
Joe Mays (5'11", 245 pounds) | Previous team: Denver Broncos
Some of you may be saying, "Who?" Others may have noticed that his measurables are almost the same as Tulloch (Mays is five pounds heavier). To answer the question, Joe Mays was the starting middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos last season. While his stats -- 75 tackles in 16 starts -- don't look all that impressive, he apparently did a fairly decent job, according to Pro Football Focus, which gave him an overall score of 6.9 and noted him as a "highly effective run [stopper] and [is] competent in coverage." While I certainly do not live, eat and breathe PFF's numbers, I do feel they are correct in their assessment about Mays here from the small sampling I have seen of him.
What he brings to the table: In essence, Mays is a poor man's Stephen Tulloch. Both are short, pudgy, small school products that are making and have made their mark in the NFL simply for one reason: solid tackling. More likely than not, Mays will return to the Broncos on a reasonable, maybe even cheap, contract that runs anywhere from three to five years, but that is the type of contract the Lions can offer up as well to a player like Mays, who is just 26, and have their middle linebacking spot set for the next half-decade if they really feel he is their man.
Car comparison: Ford Taurus Station Wagon (short and pudgy)