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Lions Mailbag: How did the linebackers suddenly get so good?

The Detroit Lions linebackers were the team’s worst unit in 2021. Now they’re playing at a high level. What changed?

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Think back to OTAs and training camp. If I had asked 50 different Detroit Lions fans at the time to name what they believed to be Detroit’s biggest weakness, I’d bet that at least 40 would have said the linebackers. Last year, it was by far the team’s biggest liability, and considering their only true investment in the position this offseason was a sixth-round pick, signing a special teamer in free agency and bringing back Jarrad Davis, fans were understandably suspect of the linebacking corps going into the 2022 season.

But at the time, Lions coaches insisted that they liked the linebacker room and competition would bring out the best in everyone. This quote from coach Dan Campbell from back in May now seems prophetic:

“Out of all of those guys we have in that room, it’s going to be a bloodbath in there. There’s a ton of experience, there’s a ton of youth, there’s a ton of energy. I think when you combine it with the type, and on top of that every one of those guys that’s in there is competitive. They’re highly competitive. I just think, man, when we come out with the finished product and the two or three that are left standing—there will be more than that, but my point is, I think we’re going to be excited about those guys.”

We quite literally laughed at this comment at the time. But now look at the unit.

Alex Anzalone, who just about every Lions fan was fed up with last year, has drastically improved. His missed tackle rate of 21.2 in 2021—highest in the NFL—has improved all the way down to 12.5. The offseason hype for Malcolm Rodriguez has proven to actually have merit. And even Derrick Barnes has taken a nice Year 2 jump.

How did it happen? And do the Lions still need to address this position in the future? This is one of our main topics on the mailbag podcast this week.

Other topics:

  • James Houston’s contract situation (3:00)
  • Any news on Tommy Kraemer? Spoiler: No (5:00)
  • Should the Lions be favored by more against the Panthers (6:30)
  • Is Jared Goff truly a worse quarterback on the road and in the cold? (7:30)
  • Have the Lions lost faith in Michael Badgley for long-range kicks? (10:00)
  • Should the Lions consider drafting a kicker? (13:10)
  • How essential is Ben Johnson to the offense? What is the concern level of losing him to a head coaching job in 2023? (16:00)
  • Which would be more satisfying: Beating the Packers in Week 18 with a playoff spot on the line for both teams or resting starters with a playoff spot already wrapped up? (23:30)
  • Do Jared Goff and Jameson Williams need more time to build chemistry or is there legitimate concern about Goff’s long ball? (29:30)
  • Is the Lions’ front-seven playing at “great” level right now? (37:45)
  • Who has been the Lions’ MVP on offense and defense? (40:00)

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.