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2020 NFL Combine preview: Linebackers the Detroit Lions should watch

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With one of the worst units in the NFL, the Lions are surely going to be paying close attention to this position group.

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

If you haven’t heard it said already, the Detroit Lions fielded one of the worst linebacker units in the NFL during the 2019 season, if not the very worst. Two of their three main starters rated in the bottom at their position and the third, a rookie who ended the season on IR, rated out only just barely average. The unit is a mess that could use one of the types of overhauls they gave the tight end position this past off-season, and I’m thankful linebackers don’t tend to cost a lot in terms of free agent money or draft capital. In any event, we’re continuing our Combine previews with a position the team is almost certain to grab at least one if not multiple players from.

All Combine Previews:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Tackle | Interior Offensive Line | Interior Defensive Line | Edge Rusher | Linebacker | Cornerback | Safety

Note: All RAS links will be updated during and after the Combine with official and tentative metrics. This will continue throughout the draft season.

Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

Isaiah Simmons RAS

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An incredibly dynamic athlete with exciting versatility, I won’t bore you with yet another explanation about how he doesn’t truly fit this defense or how that versatility tends to get overblown and oversold. Instead, let’s talk about what he can actually bring to a defense and why he’s so coveted in draft circles.

One of the better cover linebackers to come out in recent years, Simmons’ athletic traits pop on tape every time you watch nearly any snap of his. Playing a solid volume of snaps at multiple positions, an experienced, creative defensive play-caller could do a lot to deploy Simmons in a multitude of different ways to creatively disguise their defensive coverages. Most of his sacks were unblocked, similar to Jarrad Davis’ 2018 campaign, but don’t let that dissuade you from his abilities as a pass rusher. He’s quick and explosive when getting around blockers in the passing game while also being fast and technically sound enough to get to the ball carrier and bring him down.

Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma

Kenneth Murray RAS

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Like Simmons, Murray would need to put on some weight to be effective in this defensive scheme, so there’s concern the team would even show interest in him if he doesn’t bulk up before the Combine. Athletically, there are few questions as Murray has shown excellent speed and finesse on tape. Struggles to disengage from blockers when he gets wrapped up, but the biggest worry (along with Malik Harrison) is how similar his strengths and vulnerabilities are to present Lions inside linebacker Jarrad Davis. Has the physical traits to be an All-Pro linebacker, but the mental development that may be needed could lead the team down a similar path that we’ve already seen.

Malik Harrison, Ohio State

Malik Harrison RAS

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When I talked about Malik Harrison for the first time back in early December, I mentioned how his strengths and weaknesses as a prospect mirrored that of current Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis. That’s important to distinguish as it’s not projecting him to be the same player as a pro, just that the possibility exists that you get a similar type of player. The possibility also exists that you get what Davis was originally billed as, a Ray Lewis-type of midfield roamer who could do it all for you as the field general of your defense. That still exists with Harrison, who’s a bit bigger and fits in this defense similarly to how Davis fit in Teryl Austin’s scheme when he was drafted. You’re still probably going to rely on your safeties to cover tight ends up the seam, but if Harrison comes in and does what Jahlani Tavai did, minimizing mistakes week to week, there’s plenty of upside to help rebuild this linebacker unit.

Patrick Queen, Louisiana State

Patrick Queen RAS

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Undersized even for a defense that doesn’t have stricter size expectations like Detroit, there’s a fair possibility this team doesn’t consider Patrick Queen a linebacker in their defense at all. He’s good enough in coverage as a linebacker to make him a strong prospect league wide, but not good enough there to rely on him as a safety, so I doubt he finds a place in the present Lions defensive scheme. If he comes in taller and heavier than listed, while still measuring out with the type of metrics some are predicting, he’d have to remain in the conversation simply for how badly this team needs to retool this unit.

Shaquille Quarterman, Miami

Shaquille Quarterman RAS

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Matt Patricia likes his linebackers big, long limbed, and physical. Quarterman played around 240 in college, but I suspect he’ll come to the Combine a little leaner to try to run better. That means the size concerns are likely the same as several of the other players mentioned—few players these days fit such rigid size expectations coming out of college. Having played at this weight, though, the idea of him getting back up to size is a lot clearer and we’ve already seen the type of angry, physical play this staff enjoys on tape. Quarterman struggles a bit in coverage, but he’s a hard worker with a motor that doesn’t quit making him an ideal mid-to-late round option for a team that lacks depth as well as starting talent.

The Others

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State (RAS)

Similar to Jalen Reeves-Maybin in that he’s both undersized and plays way bigger than someone his size should, but I wonder how well he’ll hold up in the NFL.

Azur Kamara, Kansas (RAS)

Primarily an edge rusher, Kamara is going to bring some ridiculous, borderline illegal on-field speed to a defense.

Cale Garrett, Missouri (RAS)

Coming off an injury, medicals will be a big deal for Garrett, but his production and tape speaks to someone who can contribute if given time.

Cameron Brown, Penn State (RAS)

Tall and lengthy but very slender, Brown looks like someone the Lions could bring in to develop as depth while he puts on the kind of weight his frame can hold.

Casey Toohill, Stanford (RAS)

A promising edge rush linebacker, Toohill has reportedly tested well (4.5 range, 35 inch vert). If he shows that at the Combine, he’s going to become a hot commodity.

Chapelle Russell, Temple (RAS)

Medicals are the most important part of the Combine for Russell, as he dealt with multiple ACL injuries in college.

Clay Johnston, Baylor (RAS)

A hard worker dedicated to his craft, Johnson was productive in four of his five years at Baylor and could be a late-round option if he puts on some muscle.

Daniel Bituli, Tennessee (RAS)

Big, lengthy, and fast, Bituli has the speed and on-field athletic traits you generally expect from smaller players. Needs to work on coverage, a lot, but should find snaps in 2020.

Dante Olson, Montana (RAS)

He might has average speed and athleticism but there’s a lot of fight in this dog. He could will himself onto a roster this fall.

David Woodward, Utah State (RAS)

Strong athletic traits, but very little scheme versatility and technique, so he’ll require some development and coaching.

Davion Taylor, Colorado (RAS)

Expected to measure out very well at the Combine, Taylor is a true developmental prospect and while undersized, he could be a core special team player with how fast and explosive he is.

De’Jon Harris, Arkansas (RAS)

Stout and thickly built, Harris’ arm length and wingspan will be a big indicator if some teams will take a look at him. Has a good motor and try-hard mentality.

Evan Weaver, California (RAS)

A two-down thumper with serious athletic concerns, Weaver could see his stock rise with an even average Combine, though pro projection remains limited.

Francis Bernard, Utah (RAS)

Better instincts than you’d expect from a player converted from the other side of the ball and not as developmental as you’d expect for the same reason. Could surprise as a rookie.

Jacob Phillips, Louisiana State (RAS)

Expected to be the next Devin White, Phillips didn’t show the development you wanted from him and largely fell off the map because of it.

Joe Bachie, Michigan State (RAS)

While I hate to prototype by school, Bachie is very similar to many of the linebackers we’ve seen come out of the Spartans program in that he’s a two-down guy fit for a Sam or Mike only who probably won’t wow with athletic ability.

Jordan Mack, Virginia (RAS)

More explosive than fast, Mack plays with good discipline and will probably endear himself to coaches in film study.

Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech (RAS)

Great explosion and speed on tape, but is very much a straight-line athlete who tends to either hit his target hard or miss it completely.

Justin Strnad, Wake Forest (RAS)

Good motor and range—and a decent frame to put on more size—Strnad is a frustrating watch in that he’s in position to make far more plays than he actually makes.

Kamal Martin, Minnesota (RAS)

Has the size to play like a downhill thumper, but the mannerism of a much smaller player. Seems to break off from contact or miss his assignment more than you’d like rather than punishing ball carriers on the regular.

Khaleke Hudson, Michigan (RAS)

A safety who can’t cover, so a small linebacker.

Logan Wilson, Wyoming (RAS)

Fairly smart player in his assignments with great production, seems more of a try hard than a toolsy player.

Markus Bailey, Purdue (RAS)

Two-down tools and tape, but above-average football IQ and decent size.

Michael Divinity, Louisiana State (RAS)

Adequate edge rusher better playing standing up than with his hands in the dirt, needs to show out in the metrics as well as answer questions about his physicality in interviews.

Michael Pinckney, Miami (RAS)

Turns corners like a boat, but has decent speed and gap discipline.

Mykal Walker, Fresno State (RAS)

Pretty good athlete who could surprise at the Combine, but needs to show some more versatility in his game so I’m not sure where to slot him in the draft.

Shaun Bradley, Temple (RAS)

Looks fairly average athletically on tape, but that could just be processing speed.

Tipa Galeai, Utah State (RAS)

Primarily on the line edge rusher, but better than you’d expect in coverage for that type. Very serious character concerns will be the primary talk of him at the Combine.

Troy Dye, Oregon (RAS)

Really nice frame but not nearly enough meat on it, I’m expecting Dye to measure very well at the Combine. He’s probably a year or two away from being an NFL contributor, though.

Willie Gay Jr., Mississippi State (RAS)

Excellent athletic traits on tape, but after an eight-game suspension and a separate incident where he injured his own quarterback in practice resulting in said QB missing a bowl game, character questions abound.