The battle for the starting strongside linebacker (SAM) job isn’t exactly one of high stakes. Even though the Detroit Lions’ base defense is technically a 4-3 formation (four defensive linemen, three linebackers), Detroit will only have two linebackers on the field for the majority of their defensive snaps. "Now, we’re going to be in sub defense, nickel defense for close to 70-percent of the time," Quinn said, referring to their nickel formation of four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead have those two starting jobs locked down at the moment. But the seldomly used SAM position is still very much up for grabs.
Though the SAM position battle may not be for much playing time, it is an extremely crucial way for some of the individuals on the Lions roster to validate a roster spot. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the prime candidates to win a shot at the "starting" lineup.
The case for Kyle Van Noy
By all accounts from OTAs this offseason, Van Noy is looking leaner and more prepared this season. "Kyle’s doing much better," head coach Jim Caldwell said after one practice this offseason. "He’s in phenomenal shape, running around. I think he’s put himself – He’s in much better position now than he was last year."
He’ll have to be, because Van Noy is out of chances at this point. He is in year three of his professional career, and the second-round pick only has 16 total tackles to show for it. If he can’t make a serious jump in his career, not only will he lose out on the starting job, but he’ll likely lose his spot on the roster entirely.
The case for Josh Bynes
Bynes has been an invaluable commodity since the Lions snagged him from the Ravens’ practice squad in 2014. That year, Bynes mostly played as backup to Tahir Whitehead, who took over for the injured Stephen Tulloch at middle linebacker. However, Bynes did manage to tally 22 tackles in rotational and special teams duties.
Detroit called upon Bynes, once again, in 2015 when DeAndre Levy couldn’t overcome his hip injury. Bynes played admirably in the weakside linebacker role, racking up 82 tackles and five passes defended in 11 starts.
Though Bynes doesn’t have direct experience at the SAM position, he has already displayed his versatility in just two years in Detroit. If Van Noy continues to struggle, Bynes will pounce on the opportunity.
The case for Jon Bostic
Jon Bostic didn’t play significant role on the New England Patriots defense, seeing just 40 snaps all year. However, with the Chicago Bears, Bostic was a huge contributor. In his first two seasons with the NFL, Bostic started 17 games and made 102 tackles with 2.0 sacks as the team’s middle linebacker. When the Bears transitioned to a 3-4 defense, they sent Bostic to the Patriots for just a late-round pick. Though Bostic couldn’t break through New England’s competitive depth chart, he’ll have a real chance in Detroit.
Again, he’ll have to make a positional change, as Bostic is probably best suited as a middle linebacker, but Bostic had to learn all of the positions when working with the Bears:
"I'm playing all the linebacker spots right now. In our defense you have to know all three. You have to know everyone's responsibilities. But most of the time I'm playing at Mike and Sam."
Although it’s not exactly promising that Bostic has been traded twice in as many years, he has undeniable experience and potential upside at just 25-years-old (the same age as Van Noy).
Who has the advantage going into training camp?
If the Lions have their way, Van Noy will come into camp as a completely new player, fully capable of running Teryl Austin’s defense. But based on everything we’ve seen from Van Noy, that doesn’t seem particularly likely.
Bynes gives the Lions the most direct, proven experience. Though Detroit would probably like to have Bynes primarily as backup depth, Van Noy’s struggles may force the Lions’ hand.
All that being said, do not sleep on Bostic. Obviously Bob Quinn has experience with Bostic in New England and must have liked something he saw. Bostic will also bring valuable special teams experience to the Lions’ roster, but the former second-round pick has a real shot at contributing defensively, as well. If the Lions want to keep Bynes on reserve and Van Noy’s growth proves to be more theoretical than actual, Bostic could very well step in as the starting SAM linebacker.