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2017 Detroit Lions offseason needs: Free agency offers options at linebackers

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The most talked about position of need this season, the Detroit Lions certainly need a linebacker. With cost and strength of the draft, they should target free agency.

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

One of the most talked about positions in 2016, the Detroit Lions linebacking corps was devastated with injuries early and never really recovered. DeAndre Levy dealt with a torn meniscus while every other worthwhile linebacker on this roster missed at least some time with injury. It was an offseason need in 2016 and it remains one in 2017, but how big of a need is it when the pass rush and secondary are so much more glaring?

Under Contract 2017: DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Antwione Williams, Thurston Armbrister

Pending Free Agents: Josh Bynes, Steve Longa, Jon Bostic

I’m sure we’re going to hear more “DeAndre Levy doesn’t want to play anymore” stuff this offseason, but for this exercise we’re just going to assume all the evidence and proof we have of him planning on continuing to play are just that and put him on here. Tahir Whitehead was one of PFF’s lowest rated linebackers in 2016 and while I don’t agree with that assessment, he was certainly inconsistent enough to warrant criticism. Thus ends the list of players we can count on in 2017. Antwione Williams played better than was expected of him, but he was never good by any measure and will still need time and development before he gains consideration to start. Thurston Armbrister is here for special teams ability. It’s possible the team tries to bring back Jon Bostic, whose season was lost due to injury, but I don’t know why they would do so. They already let Josh Bynes leave once and it’s likely they do so again, or bring him back on a one-year deal. The team took extra steps to keep Steve Longa on the roster, including paying him way more than practice squadders normally get. They also signed him to a futures deal earlier this week, so expect to see him in camp this year. That’s already five or six linebackers coming into training camp 2017.

Free Agents Available

Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Smith, Zach Brown, Kevin Minter

Unlike the defensive line, the linebacker class is pretty fantastic from top to bottom with very little drop off. Top tier talent like Dont’a Hightower is not only likely to be available, but probable to be targeted by the Detroit Lions. Never mind the obvious Bob Quinn connection, Hightower is a very good linebacker and plays a position that is fairly cost effective. The Raiders’ Malcolm Smith or BillsZach Brown are also strong options that could provide athleticism and playmaking ability to the Lions front seven. Kevin Minter is a player who has been sorely underutilized in Arizona and was finally allowed to come into his own the past couple seasons. There are several linebackers that may be available in the draft, but cost and risk align in free agency for the Detroit Lions to target a linebacker on a reasonable deal rather than spend draft capital.

Draft Targets

Raekwon McMillan, Zach Cunningham, Jarrad Davis, Ryan Anderson, Takkarist McKinley

There is significant disconnect between where the talent lies in this draft class at the linebacker position. Much of that has to do with the type of scheme many of these players are coming out of. Takkarist McKinley and Ryan Anderson, for instance, have been labeled as edge players in various instances. So those I included were ones that I felt could function well as linebackers in a creative scheme, even though linebacker may not end up being their final position. Zach Cunningham and McKinley are top tier, elite athletes at their position with upside through the roof, on top of being pretty good players (Cunningham more off the ball, McKinley rushing the passer). Ryan Anderson doesn’t get talked about much due to his higher profile teammates Tim Williams and Reuben Foster, but is good in every facet of defense all the same. I included Raekwon McMillan since he’s been mocked to the team many times, but his lack of coverage ability doesn’t really make him a fit for what the Detroit Lions need, and he’s probably in the next tier of linebackers.

Level of Need

The Detroit Lions linebackers were exposed in all of 2016, and 2015 for that matter. I think that has deeply affected how much we believe it is a need coming into the 2017 offseason. That isn’t to say that it isn’t a need, it certainly is and I’ve said before that among the players I’d run to the podium for include linebacker Zach Cunningham. It’s just that the lack of a pass rush either from the interior or from the edge is going to expose your linebackers, so without fixing that fatal flaw in the Lions defense you could draft the second coming of Ray Lewis and he would struggle. Likewise, drafting an elite linebacker will help your pass defense if they can cover, but if you’re getting burned repeatedly on the outside and from the slot, it won’t help much. Linebacker is surely a need, and possibly a very big one, but unless other positions are addressed in free agency first then it would be fruitless to consider in the draft.

Previously covered needs: