To the surprise of many, the Detroit Lions did not spend a lot of resources on improving their linebacking corps this offseason. Last year, Detroit’s two linebackers who are projected to start in 2022, Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes, finished 87th and 93rd in PFF grades out of 95 qualifying linebackers. This offseason, the Lions signed Jarrad Davis and Chris Board to one-year deals, then added sixth-round picks Malcolm Rodriguez and James Houston in the NFL Draft.
But the Lions don’t seem to be too worried about the lack of resources spent on the position. In fact, they seem extremely encouraged by the potential of the room.
“Some coaches gripe and moan, ‘Oh, I didn’t get a high pick. I didn’t get a high-paid free agent,’ where I’m the opposite. I embrace it,” Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard told DetroitLions.com’s Tim Twentyman this week. “Because what I see—I tell the players this—I see myself. I see myself in that room. I see hungry players who are freakin’ biting and champing at the bit of that opportunity to go and have a contract-type year.”
Sheppard speaks from experience. Though he was a bit of a journeyman in his eight-year NFL career as a player, he often made the most out of his opportunities. After struggling to find a hold on his career through four seasons, he found an opportunity to start with the Dolphins in 2015. He ended up tallying 103 tackles, including 13 for loss.
Now he’s hoping that a competitive linebacker room with no clear starters will produce similar results in the room he now coaches. While Anzalone and Barnes are projected to start right now, Rodriguez has shown the smarts to potentially progress quickly in his rookie season, Shaun Dion Hamilton is looking to build upon a strong training camp last year, Chris Board brings more experience than just about anyone else in the room, and the Lions remain high on players like Jarrad Davis and Josh Woods, who took reps with the second and third-team defenses during this week’s organized team activities.
“Out of all of those guys we have in that room, it’s going to be a bloodbath in there,” head coach Dan Campbell said on Thursday. “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.”
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, too, said he was “confident” in this linebacker unit, and dove a little into the specifics of each player.
“I think we got some pretty damn good ones, all right?” Glenn said. “You guys haven’t had a chance to probably see Board yet. Or Woods. He get a chance to play. Anzalone. I mean, this is probably the best season he’s had since his rookie year. We got JD back, who’s motivated. We got Malcolm Rodriguez, who I think is a sleeper. We got (rookie James) Houston from Jackson State. He’s going to be a pretty good player. So there is competition in that room.”
Ultimately, it’ll be hard to convince some fans until the product is out there on the field to see. The plain truth of it all is that no linebacker currently on the roster has produced a season on the field that should be at Detroit’s expectation. Still, Glenn sees tough roster decisions on the horizon, and that’s a good thing.
“I would say this, anytime there is hard decisions about players tells you that the talent is improving on your team. And that’s what every coach wants. Every coach. That’s why we’re so excited about this opportunity to coach these guys and be able to see what they do.”