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Detroit Lions 2022 training camp battle preview: Are any LBs roster spots safe?

The Detroit Lions are expecting to have a heated competition for roster spots at the linebacker level, as every role is up for grabs.

Detroit Lions v Denver Broncos Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions 2022 training camp is on the horizon and we are ready to dive into the next positional battle in our roster preview series. In each of our articles, we discuss the team’s philosophy for the position, projected starters, and break down the players battling for roster spots.

If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out:

Setting the table

Last season, the Lions opened the season with five off-the-ball linebackers on their initial roster: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Anthony Pittman. With Collins and Anzalone set to start, the Lions looked to be in decent shape, but things unraveled quickly when after a lackluster two games, Collins was demoted and put on the trade block. Collins would be released soon after, and the team signed Josh Woods off the Bears practice squad as a roster replacement.

The Lions turned to Barnes to take over the vacated starting role, but it was quickly apparent he was still working his way through the rookie learning curve and Reeves-Maybin entered into the starting rotation. By Week 5, Reeves-Maybin had taken over the starting job and Barnes moved into a rotational role. Meanwhile, Pittman and Woods remained active each week because of their special teams contributions.

While these roles would hold the majority of the year, there were some opportunities late in the season due to injuries. When Reeves-Maybin was injured in Weeks 13 and 14, Woods stepped into a rotational starting role with Barnes. After Week 15, both Anzalone (ankle) and Woods (neck) were placed on injured reserve, leading to a Reeves-Maybin and Barnes as the starting pair the rest of the way.

The Lions entered the offseason with only Barnes under contract, but they re-signed Anzalone, Woods, and Shaun Dion Hamilton (who was on injured reserve the entire season) then ERFA tendered Pittman, thus bringing back four of the five linebackers from last season—as Reeves-Maybin signed with the Texans.

The Lions appeared relatively content bringing back their existing linebacker group, but made three other key additions: signing Chris Board to essentially replace the role held by Reeves-Maybin, re-signed Jarrad Davis after a one-year stint with the Jets, selecting Malcolm Rodriguez in the sixth round of the draft, and adding Natrez Patrick after a strong showing at rookie minicamp.

Scheme changes/positional roles

With the defense changing to an attacking four-man front, the linebacker roles are being slightly altered as well. Here’s Lions’ linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard on the change:

“As you know, 11 guys on the field in the game of football, it’s a team sport, so if one part of the unit is playing a certain way, the rest of the guys have to play accordingly. So with the changes made to the front end, you kind of alluded to with the attack style, more aggressive, everybody has to fall in line, but especially the group that I have to coach, the linebackers, because we work hand-in-hand in the run game. Your front does something, and we essentially are gonna read and react off those guys, but it has to be at a tempo that’s aligned with the way the D-line is playing.”

As far as the alignments, the Lions’ will continue to use two off-the-ball linebackers that stack behind the defensive line, which will look very similar to how they lined up last season. The “MIKE” will align on the tight end side of the formation, with the “WILL” at the adjacent spot. In sub-package sets, one of the two linebackers will remain, while the other often leaves the field in favor of a defensive back.

There is a third linebacker role that we covered in our EDGE preview, often referred to as an “outside linebacker” or “SAM”, but they align themselves outside on the edges of the defensive line. These linebackers are hybrid players who will split time between edge rushing and dropping into coverage, and are used situationally.

Roster construction

Last season the Lions kept five off-the-ball linebackers on their initial roster and made moves throughout the season to assure they had five healthy players at the position on game days. While only two players start, they will often rotate in reserves, and all the reserves must contribute on special teams.

While the Lions will need special teamers with linebacker body types, that does not necessarily mean they will keep five off-the-ball linebackers this season, as some of the hybrid linebackers could also fill some of the roles on special teams.

The Battleground

In spring camp the Lions opened with Anzalone and Barnes as the starters, working Board into the starting mix as practices rolled on. While several players returned to the Lions this season—including Anzalone, who was a captain and green dot play relayer—Sheppard has made it clear no one’s spot is safe and everyone will earn their spot. Here’s Sheppard discussing this concept during OTAs:

“And I’m not going to hide this, (Anzalone) has the most time-on-task in my room, but that doesn’t designate him the starter. The things that we did last year are not acceptable for the standard that’s been set this year, so don’t tell me about what a guy did last year; I don’t want to hear it, especially from my room’s concern. Now, he does have the most time-on-task, so he’ll get the nod at first, but that doesn’t mean it’s his spot, if the next guy’s doing it and doing it at a higher level, he understands just like the other eight, nine guys in the room, that guy will be the guy on the field week one.”

No one’s safe. Got it, Shep. So, let’s take a look at all of them.

Alex Anzalone’s experience makes him the leader in the clubhouse for a spot, but he did only sign a one-year contract, and he is coming off a bad season—even if coaches say the opposite. He seems safe in his role, just don’t tell coach Shep I said so.

Chris Board increased his defensive involvement in Baltimore every season, culminating in 337 defensive snaps in 2021. He runs and hits very well—which is why he is such a dynamic special teamer—but he will need to take a developmental step to earn a starting role. Here’s what Sheppard had to say about Board on the Twentyman in the huddle podcast:

“He has a unique skill set. I’ll be honest... he’s bigger than I thought he was. Because you see him on tape moving around, he moves like a safety. Then I saw him in person and he freakin’ stout. So, I’m very intrigued by (Board) and what he can provide, not only for us defensively but for (Special teams coordinator Dave) Fipp on special teams.”

Derrick Barnes flashed multiple times last season, but he struggled reading his keys in just his second year (including college) as an off-the-ball linebacker. He’s going to get a chance to start, but how quickly he seizes that opportunity will depend on his processing skills. Here’s Sheppard on Barnes:

“The sky’s the limit for him, but he knows as well, (that) he hasn’t had a lot of off-ball experience. So that’s just for me, getting a molded clay, and I could make it into whatever I wanted. But at the same time, he has to go to do it. I told him, I can’t talk to you through the headset all play to tell you what to do. But when Derrick knows what to do, you’ll see it this fall. That player there, there’s not many in the league with that statue, with his power, with the way he can run and hit and can do what he can do, once he knows exactly what to do.”

Jarrad Davis is a bit of a wildcard. He has plenty of off-the-ball experience, but consistent hiccups diagnosing plays have led to him likely being a reserve only. That being said, the shift to a situational role allowed him to unlock a side of him we only got a small glimpse of the last time he was in Detroit: as a dynamic pass rusher. His physical traits and willingness to outwork the man across from him make him a very difficult player to block.

Josh Woods was in the starting mix with Barnes for two weeks before his injury and even wore the green dot helmet after Anzalone was placed on injured reserve. But the former safety is one of the smallest linebackers on the roster and is a much better special teamer than defensive player right now. The coaching staff has turned to him before, but his ability to win a roster spot will be challenging.

Shaun Dion Hamilton looked like he was headed to the Lions’ 53-man roster last season before getting injured in training camp and being lost for the year. He showed the ability to shed blocks, drop into coverage, and was consistent in his reads. If he can replicate that again in this year’s camp, he could easily impress the coaching staff once again.

Anthony Pittman is the sleeper of the group. Initially brought to the Lions by the Matt Patricia/Bob Quinn regime, Pittman was asked to put on weight and shift from MIKE to a pass-rushing linebacker role. Last season, coach Dan Campbell asked him to lose the extra weight and switch back to his natural MIKE role and he became of the team's better special teams players, recording a team-high 374 special teams snaps, 76 more than the next closest player. Here’s what Sheppard had to say about Pittman’s progress this offseason:

“(Pittman) has been putting on a clinic so far. It’s in shorts and tee shirts, but to see his tenacity—with the understanding that ‘I may not get as many reps’—I appreciate guys like that because that was me (as a player). “

Malcolm Rodriguez is the darling of the linebacker group. An instant fan favorite that has some in the fanbase suggesting the rookie could be a potential starter in Week 1. A lot of that hype stems from Sheppard signing his praises:

“Malcolm’s an absolute joy to coach, as the linebacker coach especially. He’s the type of player where I say I can close my eyes and just put him out there, and I know — now, there’s there’s an execution piece to that. But as far as from above the neck, the mental standpoint of the linebacker position, he’s a joy to coach. He attacks every day. He has this serious, kind of humorous personality to him, to where it’s like no-nonsense, but at the same time, you can joke around with him. He’s a man’s man, and I think the trajectory on his career, it’s arrows up on him.”

But the praise doesn’t stop there. Here’s how Sheppard responded when we asked if Rodriguez was a typical rookie or further along:

“Absolutely, there’s things I can do with Malcolm that you might have to scale back on a third-year player, to be honest. … I saw this immediately at rookie training camp, being able to take command of the huddle, although he’s at the WILL linebacker spot, the green dot doesn’t mean the middle linebacker anymore, that means the three-down linebacker that’s on the field. That’s the new age of the NFL, and that’s where we are. So I tell them, if you show me you have the communication skills and the mental capacity to handle it, you’re going to wear the green dot. And he is definitely a green dot type of linebacker, a guy that has the capabilities to take control of the defense.”

Rodriguez is pure muscle, but at 5-foot-11, 236 pounds, he may have maxed out his frame. While undersized, his quickness and ability to leverage with power could still lead to success in the NFL, especially with modern defenses prioritizing intelligence and speed. The upside is there and he seems like a shoo-in for the 53-man roster based on what coaches are saying, but how much he contributes is anyone's guess.

Discussion/Projection

Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Anzalone, Board, Barnes, and Rodriguez, while also noting that Jarrad Davis could be included with this group (we had him listed with the edge rushers).

While we were comfortable keeping the five we did, I think there could easily be an argument that Woods, Hamilton, or Pittman could also jump someone for a spot. So, Jeremy, out of those three, which one do you think has the best chance to be a surprise addition to the roster?

Jeremy: I think it’s a toss-up between Pittman and Hamilton. Pittman played more snaps than anyone else on special teams, and he also appears to be a pretty solid fit in this defense despite not being hand-picked by this regime. Shaun Dion Hamilton, in theory, brings the most defensive potential of this trio after looking good in training camp last year. But, again, that remains more in theory than certainty. Woods, while a good special teamer, was likely brought aboard at the recommendation of Mark DeLeone, who coached him in Chicago. With DeLeone now gone, Woods may have lost his biggest supporter on the team.

Let’s climb up the depth chart. How open is this competition for the starting jobs? What’s your short list of true candidates for Week 1 starters look like?

Erik: I truly believe Sheppard when he says it’s an open competition for all jobs—remember, when he was a rookie, he opened training camp as a third-stringer and ended up starting—so it really could be anyone who steps up. But based on what we saw in the spring, it looks like three guys competing for two spots: Anzalone, Board, and Barnes. I’d love to see Barnes win a starting role, but he needs to show me more in camp before I’m ready to slot him in over the other two.