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2020 Detroit Lions training camp preview: Linebackers

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Will this unit finally improve in 2020?

NFL: Detroit Lions-Training Camp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions linebacking corps has not been good lately. It hasn’t been a lack of trying from management, though. Detroit invested a first-round pick in Jarrad Davis four years ago, and they dipped right back into the position last year with Jahlani Tavai in the second round.

This year, however, it may be the addition of a free agent that could turn around this position group. If Detroit’s defense is going to make the necessary turnaround this year, they’ll finally need some consistently good play from their linebackers.

Here’s our 2020 Detroit Lions training camp preview of the linebackers.

Previously: Quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive tackles, offensive guards, defensive tackles, edge defenders

Linebackers

Roster locks: Jahlani Tavai, Jamie Collins Sr., Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones
On the bubble: Reggie Ragland, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Miles Killebrew
Long shot: Anthony Pittman, Jason Cabinda, Elijah Lee, Christian Sam
Key departures: N/A

Jarrad Davis a lock?

Yes, yes he is. Sure, the Lions may have declined his fifth-year option earlier this offseason, but they continue to sing his praise and believe he’ll be a part of this defense in 2020.

“There is no doubt that JD is one of our strongest leaders on defense,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said back in May. “He’s a great player, [and] someone we continue to build around.”

Later, Patricia added:

“I think JD is a cornerstone of what we’re trying to do,” Patricia said. “He’s in those big-picture plans in where we’re trying to go.”

They may not have been willing to hand him a $10 million option for next year, but this team still believes in Davis, and I think that makes him a roster lock for 2020.

Where will Jamie Collins Sr. play?

In the edge rushers preview, I mentioned that Collins could start out as the Jack linebacker while guys like Austin Bryant and rookie Julian Okwara get settled in. Collins also saw more time on the edge last year with the Patriots than his previous stints in New England.

However, Collins really shines in the interior, where his coverage skills are on full display. If Patricia agrees, that could mean taking away time from Davis as the Mike or Jones away from the Will linebacker. And if that’s the case, what happens to the rest of the linebacker lineup? Does Jahlani Tavai kick it out to the Will spot or split time in the middle? Where does Christian Jones play then? And will there be any room for Davis in the starting lineup?

In reality, there’s a good chance we’ll have to stop thinking about each position so rigidly. Many of these players—Tavai, Collins, Jones—can play the Mike or the Will spot, and will likely do a little bit of everything on gameday. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Lions come out in their Day 1 “base” package.

Does Reggie Ragland have a shot?

Ragland was an under-the-radar signing after the first couple of waves of free agency were over. Ragland comes with the pedigree of a former second-round pick, but he’s already on his third team in his fifth year. Some of that isn’t his fault—he never played a game with the team that drafted him (Bills) due to a torn ACL in his first training camp. However, Ragland only started 32 games in three seasons with the Chiefs.

Still, Ragland has enough experience and production to at least compete for a reserve spot. Like some of the aforementioned players, Ragland has the versatility to play multiple linebacker positions, and he even played a little on special teams for the Chiefs early last season.

Is special teams enough for Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Miles Killebrew?

By Matt Patricia standards, Reeves-Maybin and Killebrew are not the kind of linebackers he wants to see out there on defense. Both check in under 235 pounds, while Patricia likes them in the 250-260 range.

That being said, both players have been essential on special teams. Since 2018, no Lions player has played more special teams than Miles Killebrew (688 snaps) and Reeves-Maybin is second on that list (467).

With Detroit’s defensive depth improving, though, there may not be a spot on the roster for a specialist, even though we know this coaching staff values that more than others. It feels like a certainty that there won’t be room for both this year, and it’s possible they’re both gone.

Prediction:

Jamie Collins starts camp as the Jack linebacker, with Jarrad Davis still starting at the Mike. That will change constantly, however, both throughout camp and the regular season.

As for roster spots, let’s throw in the Jack linebackers. Here’s who I have making the team as of right now: Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara, Jahlani Tavai, Jamie Collins Sr., Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Reggie Ragland, and Miles Killebrew. Eight is a lot linebackers to keep—they only kept seven last year—but they could probably spare some room from the defensive backfield this year, as they kept 12 DBs last season.