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Detroit Lions training camp battle preview: Sorting out the inside LBs

Inside linebackers have much different roles than outside linebackers/EDGE in this scheme.

AP

The Detroit Lions will open training camp next Wednesday, and our camp preview series at Pride of Detroit continues to work its way through the roster battles. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can get caught up here:

Setting the table at linebacker

As mentioned in our interior defensive line and EDGE pieces in this series, Lions coaches have made it known that their base defense will be a 3-4 scheme and the front-seven will be influenced by the Los Angeles Rams’ 2020 defense.

While the Lions will technically deploy four linebackers on the field in most situations, two of them will be outside linebackers and the other two will be inside linebackers. We previously examined the outside linebackers in our Establishing the EDGE article, and we will wrap up our examination of the Lions’ front-seven in today’s piece, which focuses on the inside linebackers.

In most typical 3-4 schemes, the two inside linebackers work within the tackle box and line up in the bubbles between the defensive linemen. One of the inside linebackers is the MIKE linebacker and they typically line up in the middle of the defense or are shaded to the tight end side of the formation. The other linebacker goes by a variety of names depending on the coaching staff preferences—Matt Patricia preferred WILL as this player lined up on the WEAK side of the formation, others use JACK as the player needs to be a jack-of-all-trades player—but for our exercise, we will assign a simple INSIDE linebacker label for clarity.

In the picture of the Rams’ 2020 defensive below, you can see the entire front-seven labeled with the projected Lions’ starters in their base 3-4 formation: Jamie Collins is the MIKE and Alex Anzalone is the INSIDE linebacker.

While the MIKE holds traditional MIKE roles, the INSIDE linebacker will see more movement in his assignments and will often line up in different pre-snap locations. Here’s an example of a sub package look, with Collins (MIKE) shaded to the running back side of the formation, while Anzalone (INSIDE) shifts outside the tackle box and into coverage.

Here’s another sub package look. This time Collins (MIKE) stays home in the middle because two safeties drop down into the box, while Anzalone follows his coverage assignment (tight end) into the slot.

If the Lions follow the Rams’ model for usage, one of the linebacker spots (likely the MIKE) will be a full-time role, but the INSIDE linebacker spot will only see around 75 percent of snaps.

Roster construction

Like with the interior defensive linemen and EDGE, we can look to the Rams’ 2020 roster construction as guidelines for what the Lions front office and coaching staff may do at inside linebacker.

Last season the Rams only kept three inside linebackers with their initial 53-man roster, but they quickly claimed a fourth off the waiver wire the day following cutdowns. They would maintain those four linebackers throughout the season.

One note I want to revisit from the EDGE article is that the Rams used a fifth EDGE rusher exclusively on special teams. The Lions don’t have a special teams expert on the EDGE, but they have a few off-the-ball linebackers who excel—or have the potential to excel—in the third phase.

Therefore, if the Lions follow the Rams blueprint, they would keep four inside linebackers who contribute on defense and a fifth linebacker for special teams purposes. The Lions enter training camp with eight inside linebackers, so there is a good chance more than half of them make the initial 53-man roster.

Roster battles

Similar to the other front-seven position groups, the Lions have a nice balance of veterans and youth here. The big difference with the inside linebackers is there are question marks surrounding nearly every player from even the most experienced down to practice squad players, leaving the door open for camp risers.

Jamie Collins restructured his contract this offseason and is expected to take a leadership role at MIKE linebacker. The other starting job is expected to go to free agent Alex Anzalone, who not only has a plus coverage skillset for the INSIDE role but is also familiar with coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn from their time together in New Orleans.

There will be a nice camp battle among the reserves, pushing each other for snaps on defense and special teams.

Jahlani Tavai was drafted for the previous scheme and is working hard to shed the extra weight they asked him to put on—he was down 17 pounds at Spring camp—but he has already made Glenn and linebackers coach Mark DeLeone take notice.

“To be as big as he is—now he did lose a lot of weight—but to be as big as he is, he can move fairly well,” Glenn said in the spring. “That was good to see, a man of that size that can move like that. Then, his ability to bend and get out of cuts, that was pretty impressive.”

Derrick Barnes is oozing with talent but he lacks experience playing off the ball after starting on the EDGE his first three years at Purdue and only shifting inside for his senior year. While he is likely a year away from starting, his ability to play off the ball and on the EDGE will give him more opportunities than other linebackers, and should show up in his special teams play.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin has long been a fan favorite in Detroit and the Lions finally have a scheme he seems suited for. His speed made him a demon on special teams, but if he can combine that with positive coverage instincts, he could carve out a role on defense.

Shaun Dion Hamilton was targeted this offseason for his ability to cover, but heading into camp he is at best ILB6, behind the five listed above, so he has some work to do.

Anthony Pittman is a carryover practice squad-level linebacker. His skill set is very similar to Barnes—he can pass rush from the EDGE and play off—which will make him an interesting player to keep an eye on in camp.

Tavante Beckett has lived under the radar this offseason, but the Lions gave him the fourth-highest guaranteed money among the UDFA group (behind the three receivers) indicating he was a priority acquisition for them post-draft. He’s undersized for the position, but he plays with intensity and can work his way through traffic with ease, which could be a big advantage on special teams. If you’re looking for a sleeper on this roster, he could very well be your man.

Erik’s Projection

Heading into training camp, Collins and Anzalone are the clear starters, while Tavai and Barnes are competition for the higher usage position of the next two spots in the rotation. Reeves-Maybin will also compete for a role on defense and has to be the odds-on favorite to make the team based on his special teams prowess.

Dion Hamilton, Pittman, and Beckett won’t be going away without a fight, but they’ll need to seize an opportunity if and when it comes along.