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2017 NFL Draft: Potential linebacker prospects for Detroit Lions

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Should the Lions add a linebacker in the early rounds of next year’s draft?

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never too early to start talking about the NFL Draft. Okay, maybe it is for some of y’all, but that’s not going to stop me from talking about some of the best defensive prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft because, yes, Bob Quinn and the Detroit Lions absolutely need to focus on the defensive side of the spectrum in 2017. More specifically, this team needs to get faster and more athletic, especially at the linebacker position. Luckily for Quinn, this year’s linebacker class is stacked compared to last year’s, but especially loaded in the early rounds. Let’s take a look at some prospects that the Lions may or may not be targeting.

Projected first-rounders (via CBS Sports)

Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama

There might not be a better prospect (not named Myles Garrett) in the entire draft other than Reuben Foster. If you may remember, I had an enormous draft crush on Foster’s former Bama teammate, Reggie Ragland, last year. Foster was twice the athlete of Ragland and shed 20 pounds to become even faster this year, but his aggressive mentality never left him.

Nicknamed “Reuben Missile Crisis,” Foster is a force to be reckoned with in the run game, just like Ragland was, but what sets him apart from the rest of the competition is his ability to play in coverage, along with his effectiveness when blitzing. Reuben Foster just about does it all. Unfortunately for the Lions, that likely means he won’t be on the board by the time they’re on the clock. Oh well, one can still hope.

Zach Cunningham, ILB, Vanderbilt

Maybe the most hyped up linebacker in this year’s class is Zach Cunningham, who has the build of a freight train along with 4.70 speed. He’s a spectacular athlete with tremendous length and upside, who could add a whole new dimension to the Lions’ defense with his outstanding sideline-to-sideline speed and quickness.

What’s special about this play is the fact that Cunningham was lined up between the center and the right guard at the line of scrimmage, and despite getting a slight tug in the back from the center, managed to meet the ball carrier short of the sticks and force a turnover on downs.

Despite possessing supreme size and athleticism for his position, Cunningham is far from a polished product. In fact, I’m not so sure I’m sold on him as a first-round prospect just yet. For starters, Cunningham is a missed tackle machine and lacks the necessary instincts to play inside linebacker.

The Lions should love Cunningham’s combination of size and speed, but as of now, I don’t see him going much higher than the second or third round due to his poor instincts and tackling. It’s also worth noting that Cunningham is a redshirt Junior and can still decide to stay in school for another year.

Borderline Day 1/Day 2 prospects

Jarrad Davis, ILB, Florida

This kid is a personal favorite of mine, and would be a perfect fit in the center of the Lions’ defense. Not only does he have the speed and athleticism to make plays in the open field, but he’s proven that he can also make plays in coverage as well, and that’s what the Lions should be looking for right now: someone that can lock down—or even just hold their own—a tight end or a slot receiver.

The play above shows the second tipped pass of the day for Davis against Vanderbilt’s offense, with this one leading to an interception that ultimately seals the victory. As you can see, Davis does a phenomenal job of sticking to his assignment, getting inside position, and turning his head at the right moment to make a play on the ball. This is textbook on how to defend a seam route.

What concerns me with Davis is the fact that he had a ton of freedom in Florida’s defense, due to having an elite defensive line and secondary around him throughout his tenure with the Gators. This allowed him to be overaggressive often and with little consequence. He’ll need to learn discipline and be more consistent at the next level.

Raekwon McMillan, ILB, Ohio State

McMillan is a Junior linebacker who is currently undecided on whether he will declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, or stay in school for his final year. He’s not nearly athletic as those above him, but teams will love his instincts and knack for constantly being around the ball in the run game.

Here is what CBS Sports draft analyst, Dane Brugler, had to say about McMillan back in August:

At a rock-solid 6-2, 240 pounds, McMillan possesses prototypical size for inside linebacker, including a stout core and thick lower half, which help him anchor against blockers. Unlike many of the undersized 'mike backers in today's college football who are reliant on avoiding would-be blockers, McMillan already shows NFL-caliber strength, taking on and shedding opponents efficiently with active, powerful hands, lateral agility and balance. He is a powerful tackler, often stopping ball-carriers dead in their tracks.

McMillan is a solid prospect, and has an awesome first name, but I’m not sure that he fits well with the Lions, who already have plenty of run specialists. McMillan is a bit of an unknown when it comes to coverage ability, and I’m thinking that Bob Quinn may look elsewhere.

Why the Lions should draft a LB early

This year’s LB class is fairly loaded toward the top, so if the Lions are looking to add some speed or improve on their coverage across the middle, they’re going to need to draft one early. Even with DeAndre Levy healthy, the linebackers on this team lack speed and explosiveness and are mostly a liability in coverage.

Outside of the top two rounds, the Lions are linked to players like LSU’s Kendell Beckwith or Northwestern’s Anthony Walker. Beckwith is recovering from a torn ACL and might run a 4.80 40-yard dash on his best day, while Walker just put on 20 extra pounds prior to the 2016 season and has reportedly lost most of his speed and explosiveness.

Once you make it to the third or fourth round, you start to look at prospects that essentially match (with few exceptions) what the Lions already have plenty of on their roster: slow, sluggish LBs that are considered to be run specialists. This is fine if the Lions were merely looking to add depth (which they also need), but not if they’re looking to add a starter.