Before Damon Harrison Sr. arrived from the New York Giants, the Detroit Lions run game was a mess. They were giving up huge runs seemingly every week. The main cause for all of the big plays was the lack of gap integrity by the Lions defense at the second level. Detroit’s linebackers and box safeties were poor at maintaining their gaps, diagnosing plays and shedding blocks. The Lions seem to have it figured out on the front lines, with Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson both having good years in run defense, but they need more at the second level to be successful down the line.
This week at the Pride of Detroit we are trying to figure out how the Lions can solve the issue. Today, we are taking a look at a few free agent targets Detroit should take interest in if they want to boost their second line of run defense.
C.J. Mosley (LB - Baltimore Ravens)
C.J. Mosley is set for a huge pay day this spring. The Baltimore Ravens linebacker has already been named to the Pro Bowl three times in the first four years of his career, and he will be in the mix for a fourth this winter. He will finish out his rookie contract this season and might hit the open market for the first time in his career
The Alabama product has been a crucial piece of the Ravens elite defense the past few seasons. He is a high-IQ player who always seems to be in the perfect spot to make a play. He is a great athlete as well. Mosley was a hurdler in high school and it shows on film. His speed, reaction time and ability to diagnose plays all combine to create a force at the second level of the defense. He may not be the strongest player but he is a solid tackler. The linebacker is also great in pass coverage and has the speed and agility needed to keep up with route runners out of the backfield.
Mosley is a candidate for the Ravens’ franchise tag. He is among three linebackers with expiring contracts this season who Baltimore would probably want to hold on to. If he does hit the open market, then he will be the most sought after off-ball linebacker in the free agent class. He will be an expensive land for Detroit, but his presence behind Harrison would easily sure up all concerns the Lions have about their run defense in the near future.
Kwon Alexander (LB - Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander emerged as an elite run stuffer in 2017. He did an incredible job diagnosing plays in front of him, and it felt like he was always in the right gap. He, too, is a high football IQ player that has even been compared to the likes of Luke Kuechly. Alexander rarely misses tackles and was a terror for opposing offenses last year. The linebacker had a legitimate place in the conversation for being the best off-ball linebacker in football. Alexander earned the first Pro-Bowl nod of his young career last season and it was well deserved.
He was seven weeks into a great 2018 campaign when disaster struck. Alexander tore his ACL in an October game against the Cleveland Browns. This puts his NFL future in jeopardy. It was likely that he and the Bucs would agree to a long-term extension at some point, but the injury will probably keep him sidelined until next training camp. Alexander was set to become one of the highest paid off-ball linebackers in football, but now the market for him is in flux.
The LSU product will hit the free agent market fresh off of his rookie contract this offseason. While it is possible that Tampa Bay uses the franchise tag on him, if he hits the open market their will be a lot of suitors. Detroit should be one of them. While it is not easy to project how well a player coming off of a devastating injury will recover a player of Alexander’s caliber is definitely worth taking a risk on for the right price.
Denzel Perryman (LB - Los Angeles Chargers)
Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman is another middle linebacker who will be finishing up his rookie deal this season. The former second-round pick out of Miami is not of the same caliber player as Mosley or Alexander but he does bring a lot to the table.
Perryman is not the biggest, fastest or strongest linebacker but he does great with the physical tools he has. He is a smart player that is usually in the right place at the right time. The linebacker rarely gets caught way out of position on play action and has the ability to diagnose plays and be in the right spot to take care of them. Perryman sheds blocks well and is a great tackler.
If Detroit needs a guy to be nothing more than a run stopping linebacker at the second level, then Perryman is the right choice. Unfortunately, he does not bring much beyond that. He is a liability in coverage and is not a very good pass rusher either. While he has a more refined game than Jarrad Davis, the Lions’ incumbent middle linebacker is a better pass rusher with more upside.
It is unsure what the market will look like for Perryman this spring. He is currently on IR after suffering a knee injury earlier in November, but he is likely he will be ready for next season. He should be a cheap, affordable, pickup for the Lions that can bolster their run defense at the second level.
Preston Brown (LB - Cincinnati Bengals)
Preston Brown has had a quiet career up to this point. The linebacker was the NFL’s leading tackler in 2017, and his work in run defense was huge for the Buffalo Bills on their road to their first playoff appearance this millennium. He signed a cheap, one-year deal with the Bengals last Spring. While he has taken a step back in 2018, the linebacker has shown some of the skill that made him such a great run defender.
Brown is another one of the guys that seems to always be in the right spot. He knows his responsibility on every play and seems to execute it perfectly. The former Louisville Cardinal has full control over the space around him in the middle of the defense and can even get from sideline to sideline when tasked to do so. His leadership ability has also been heralded in the past. He was the defensive captain of the Buffalo Bills and played a “quarterback of the defense” type role for them.
Similar to Perryman, Brown can stop the run, but that is about it. He can not cover well and has never been a reliable pass rusher. Brown will get his job done on every snap but nothing more can be expected from him. The linebacker never does the spectacular nor does he make any huge plays on defense.
Brown is also coming off of a knee injury and the market for him will be interesting. His one-year deal with the Bengals was worth a total of $5 million and one would have to imagine that injury along with regression will make him even cheaper in 2019.
Manti Te’o (LB - New Orleans Saints)
Manti Te’o is a name that many football fans will recognize. The Hawaii native nearly won a rare defensive Heisman Trophy in 2012. Te’o was a force at Notre Dame and it felt like he was somehow everywhere on the field. An odd controversy surrounding his (non-existent) love life hurt his draft stock, and he was selected by the Chargers in the second round. He failed to make an impact in San Diego and eventually joined the Saints as a depth piece. Injuries thrust him into a huge role last season when New Orleans’ linebacker corps was hampered by injuries. He did well when called upon, though, and showed some flashes of the star he was at Notre Dame.
Te’o is a pure run defender. He is great at reading running backs and quickly filling the gaps they want to run through. Once he is there, he is a hard-hitting, ferocious, tackler. He wraps up well, too.
He does not provide anything other than run defense, though. Te’o does not do well when he is forced into coverage and he has never been a great pass rusher. The linebackers is great at keeping the play in front of him, but he does not do a great job working his way from sideline to sideline.
There may not be much of a market for Te’o if the Saints do not re-sign him. He is not a stand-out player, and even in Detroit he would be a depth piece that would probably be called upon in certain packages. His skills defending the run are great, though, and he is an affordable target that can help fill a need.