Linebacker is not viewed as the most important position in football. It’s an underpaid position, and it doesn’t get the attention that elite pass rushers or defensive backs get. Although linebackers are more involved in tackles than any other position, analytical studies suggest the NFL is filled with a bunch of replacement-level linebackers with just a handful of elite talents worth paying. Plus teams are utilizing fewer and fewer linebackers on the field, as their subpackages with five or six defensive backs become the norm.
But the Detroit Lions are a team that has been without an elite linebacker on their defense for years and it shows. Missed tackles, blown coverages and the lack of a pass rushing threat have held this defense down since DeAndre Levy was at his peak.
Somehow in the year 2022, the Lions may be at their most desperate at the position, and this upcoming weekend, they could be in line to take the best linebacker in this class. So let’s take a closer look at some of the options they have in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Under contract: Derrick Barnes (signed through 2024), Alex Anzalone (2022), Chris Board (2022), Josh Woods (2022), Jarrad Davis (2022), Shaun Dion Hamilton (2022), Anthony Pittman (2022), Curtis Bolton (2022), Tavante Beckett (2022)
Short term need: 9/10
Long-term need: 10/10
To put bluntly, the Lions don’t have a pair of reliable starters for 2022, and they only have one linebacker signed beyond this year. Detroit added Chris Board and Jarrad Davis in free agency, but Board really only makes up for letting Jalen Reeves-Maybin walk (but doesn’t have the starting experience Reeves-Maybin has), and Davis could very well not make the team.
Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes are likely the starters right now, but Anzalone is best coming off the bench, and Barnes will need to take a seriously big Year 2 jump to justify a starting spot. Without a doubt, linebacker is this team’s biggest immediate and future need.
Day 1/Day 2 options: Utah’s Devin Lloyd, Georgia’s Nakobe Dean, Georgia’s Quay Walker, Wyoming’s Chad Muma, Alabama’s Christian Harris
Lloyd is this year’s clear best linebacker, and because of the perceived lack of value in a first-round linebacker, there’s a non-zero chance he’s there for the Lions at 32. Lloyd was a three-year starter at Utah, doing just about everything for the Utes. In 2021 alone, he had 22 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, 10 pass breakups and four interceptions. His insane athleticism will keep him as a three-down linebacker at the next level. He’s also a character fit as a team captain and an avid film watcher. There are minor size concerns with Lloyd and how his body will hold up at the next level.
Dean was the leader of Georgia’s ridiculous 2021 defense, and like Lloyd, he produced all over the field: 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, two forced fumbles with eight passes defended and two interceptions—at a much higher level of competition than Lloyd. However, his size concerns are much more dramatic, as he measured in at just 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds. While size alone won’t be a concern for the Lions, his ability to stay healthy could be, and according to Albert Breer, some teams are very worried about that with Dean, who had a laundry list of injuries thus far:
Dean’s medical has come up with a few teams. There’s nothing disqualifying in there (he’s had a shoulder labrum repair, he’s got tendonitis and tearing in his knee, plus there was a pec and groin issue before his pro day … and there’s a laundry list beyond just that), but there’s plenty to sort through. And it’s making some wonder how, as a smaller linebacker, he’ll hold up in the NFL.
Walker wasn’t as productive as his Bulldog counterpart, but he has a frame (6-foot-4, 241) that is more pro ready, and his 4.52 40-yard dash is blazing for a man that size. As an edge guy in high school, it took awhile for Walker to adjust to the off-ball position, but he showed tremendous improvement his final season at Georgia. If the Lions are looking for an elite run defender who is still figuring out the coverage game—but has the athletic traits to get it done—Walker could be there guy, and he’s likely to be there at 32 or 34.
Muma has Dan Campbell written all over him. He’s a high-effort, high-character player—and two-time captain—who also happens to bring all the physical traits to make it at the next level. A converted safety from high school, Muma is well above average in coverage (three interceptions last year), but he has a gritty mindset that helps him defend the run despite occasionally being overpowered.
Harris is the definition of a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none player. Though he’s a bit undersized (6-foot, 226), he plays with good functional strength and is as willing to drop into coverage as he is attacking the line of scrimmage. But he needs to improve his route recognition and overall play diagnosis.
Mid-round options: LSU’s Damone Clark, Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal, Montana State’s Troy Andersen, Georgia’s Channing Tindall, Oklahoma’s Brian Asamoah, Nebraska’s JoJo Domann
Clark was in the conversation of being a top-three linebacker in this class before a herniated disk was revealed during NFL Combine medicals, forcing the 21 year old to undergo spinal fusion surgery, which will—at the very least—cost him his rookie season. It’s unclear how far that will drop him, because back injuries can end careers early, but given the fact that Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard knows Clark—and even called him “like my little brother”—Detroit could take a shot.
Chenal is a rare combination of size (250 pounds) and speed (4.53 40-yard dash) that will certainly get the attention of a former head coach with an affinity for pencils. He’s a run stuffer through and through and was a tackling machine last year for Wisconsin, tallying 115 with 18.5 of those for loss. He earned first-team All American for his fantastic 2021 campaign. He earned a PFF run grade of 94.1 last year, which was just behind Micah Parsons’ 94.8 record-setting mark. His coverage skills have a long way to go, but he has the tools in his toolbox to improve there.
Andersen is everyone’s favorite Day 2 linebacker, and this is the major reason why:
Troy Andersen is a LB prospect in the 2022 draft class. He scored a 10 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 2 out of 2419 LB from 1987 to 2022. https://t.co/Fv81WZouP4 #RAS pic.twitter.com/8Uc0FCHKh9— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 26, 2022
But it goes well beyond the athletic profile. He’s a two-time captain, a finalist for the Academic Heisman, and has enough grit to feed Dan Campbell for a week. Playing at Montana State, though, makes him a difficult player to scout. Not only is he dealing with a low tier of competition, but he’ll also have a lot of room to grow when it comes to his technique and his recognition of more complex offenses. Still, he’s going to be a really fun project for some eager NFL coach.
Tindall rounds out Georgia’s stacked linebacker room, and although he’s the third one listed here, he’s very likely got a starting job waiting for him in the NFL. With sideline-to-sideline speed, he does a good job of turning speed-to-power and playing above his weight class (230). But like many linebackers in college, his coverage skills leave a lot to be desired.
Here’s what our own Alex Reno had to say about Asamoah in his nice breakdown of this year’s linebacker class:
Asamoah struggles to take on blocks and will get completely erased from the play from time to time in the run game. This is why I see him translating to the next level as a 4-3 WILL that will be asked to play in space and chase down targets. He has the speed (4.56 40-yard dash) and range to succeed in this role, but there may be some teams that will want to move him to safety.
Finally, there’s Domann. He’s relatively new to the position, having played just about every position in high school (including punter and kicker) and safety through the first couple years in college. He’s undersized and his athletic traits don’t exactly pop off the screen, but his coverage skills as a former safety are well developed. In the play below, he basically looks like a cornerback on this play with incredibly smooth flipping of the hips and elite closing speed:
Still one of the best plays I’ve seen all season. Love the body control of Nebraska DS/LB JoJo Domann -both reacting to the route and keeping foot inbounds. Unfortunately he suffered season-ending inj this game but Domann had a great career and could land on Day 2 of 2022 draft pic.twitter.com/wv9l9ZucdZ— Todd McShay (@McShay13) November 15, 2021