The Detroit Lions have made several efforts over the past couple years to improve their linebacking corps. In 2017, general manager Bob Quinn spent a first-round pick on Jarrad Davis, and two years later he spent a second rounder on Jahlani Tavai. To put the cherry on top this offseason, Quinn went out and grabbed one of the best off-ball linebackers free agency had to offer: former Patriot Jamie Collins Sr.
The hope is that this combination of linebackers not only raises the level of talent in the room, but works together in a way that makes everyone around them better. The key to that is versatility. The more they can move these players around, the more Detroit can use them to their best abilities and keep their opponents guessing.
Lions new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin hasn’t yet seen these players compete on the field—hell, he hasn’t even had them all in one face-to-face meeting yet—but in terms of the unit’s versatility, he’s already impressed.
“It’s a bonus to have all of those guys—the entire group, you described it—you’ve got a bunch of versatility,” Undlin said on a Zoom call Saturday. “That’s what we’re based on in this defense. So the more guys you can have that understand it and have played in it already, even with some of the new guys we brought in, it’s a bonus. I look forward to getting into the situation once we’re out there practicing and moving those pieces around. It’s a good spot to be in.”
Perhaps the key piece in the equation is Collins. The veteran linebacker has played just about every position—inside, outside, Jack, Mike, Sam, defensive end—and head coach Matt Patricia spoke to the value of a player like Collins earlier in the week.
“I think Jamie Collins is definitely one of those guys that when the quarterback looks over to the other side of the defense, they try to figure out, ‘Okay, where is this guy, and what is he doing?’” Patricia said. “I think when you can keep that moving or make it a variable for the quarterback each and every snap, that just adds to what the quarterback has to think about before that ball is being snapped into play.”
The Lions are looking to do whatever they can do to improve a defense that ranked in the bottom 10 in many metrics, including points allowed (26th), total yards allowed (31st), passing yards allowed (32nd), and passer rating allowed (27th).
Another key piece of the linebacker squad is Jarrad Davis. Entering the final year of his rookie contract after the team declined his fifth-year option, Davis is entering an absolute make-or-break season. His first three years have been a significant disappointment. However, the coaching staff remains quite hopeful for his 2020 season.
“I think J.D., he’s obviously a cornerstone of a lot of things that we do,” Patricia said. “He’s been a tremendous player here both on and off the field. Certainly, I think for me, I’m excited when we get all of these guys on the field because ‘J.D.’ is an extremely, extremely competitive person, and I think now he has some very competitive people around him.”
For now, the linebacker hype remains all talk, but when the players start taking the field next week, they’ll get the opportunity to prove it’s not blind faith.