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2023 NFL Combine preview: 10 linebackers the Lions should be watching

Identifying who and what to watch at linebacker during the 2023 NFL Combine.

Liberty v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The 2023 NFL Combine begins on Monday, February 27, with prospects arriving in their positional groups. Over the first few days, players will get medical checks, meet with NFL teams, and take the podium to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the league will start four days of televised coverage of on-field drills.

This is the latest in a series of articles that will explore the participants at this year’s combine that the Detroit Lions should be keeping a close eye on during positional activities. If you missed any of our previous installments, check them out here: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, interior defensive linemen, and edge rushers.

Next up: Linebackers

Team need

The Lions appear comfortable with the two Brad Holmes drafted linebackers, as Malcolm Rodriguez is the clear starting WILL linebacker, while Derrick Barnes is at worst LB3 and could challenge for the starting MIKE role. The current starting MIKE, Alex Anzalone, is an unrestricted free agent, which could present a potential opening the Lions look to fill during the draft. Beyond the MIKE, the Lions’ three reserve linebackers are also free agents—though Anthony Pittman is an exclusive right free agent, indicating he will likely return in 2023—and the Lions could also be looking to fill out the depth with younger players.

What to watch for

The traits the Lions covet most in their linebackers are speed, agility, explosion, and the ability to play downhill. During drills, keep an eye on a prospect's lateral movement, processing skills (react and react), the ability to unlock their hips in coverage, and if they play with their head up and eyes on the ball.

While this draft class offers plenty of intriguing linebacker prospects, there may only be one legitimate starting stack linebacker, meaning the Lions will likely be looking for lightning in a bottle—like they found in Rodriguez last draft—or draft and develop types like Barnes.

Now, on to the prospects.

MIKE Linebackers

Drew Sanders, MIKE, Arkansas, 6-foot-5, 232

Sanders may be the only plug-and-play starter in this draft cycle. A former five-star edge rusher at Alabama, Sanders transferred to Arkansas and switched to a stack linebacker role. While Sanders is an instinctual playmaker, he is also still new to the position, though he is much further along than Barnes (who made a similar transition in college) was when the Lions drafted him. 3-4 teams will be looking at Sanders as a multi-positional player, while 4-3/4-2 teams will likely keep him in a stack role and create opportunities for him to rush the passer via the A- and B-gaps.

Jack Campbell, MIKE, Iowa, 6-foot-4, 248

After Sanders, Campbell may be the next closest prospect to starting in a traditional stack role. He is very instinctual, has the frame for the position, and will play downhill with appealing results, but his reaction time is not ideal at this stage of his development. If the Lions do not retain Anzalone and do not upgrade in free agency, Campbell is the type of player who could challenge Barnes for a starting job.

Noah Sewell, MIKE, Oregon, 6-foot-3, 250

The younger brother of Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Noah was a dominating force as a freshman at Oregon. Unfortunately, last season, Oregon went through a coaching staff change, introduced more of a pro-style defense, and Sewell’s weaknesses were exposed. Based on last season, Sewell looks best suited in a Patriots-style scheme, but there was so much flash during his previous seasons, that teams will surely be looking to see if those traits are still hanging around.

Hybrid/cover linebackers

Trenton Simpson, Hybrid, Clemson, 6-foot-3, 230

While Sanders may be the best starter-ready linebacker in this class, Simpson could actually be the first linebacker selected due to his hybrid skills. A speed/explosion athlete, Simpson can play at WILL in most schemes, flex out into the slot to cover tight ends, and can blitz off the edge as well. Simpson is not your cookie-cutter scheme fit, but instead a matchup option, that is worth selecting on Day 2 for his coverage skills alone.

Daiyan Henley, WILL, Washington State, 6-foot-1, 230

With only three years of experience playing linebacker, Henley is still a bit raw at the position, but he is fresh off tearing up the Senior Bowl, illustrating his developmental ceiling. He is gritty, long, and can run, but his lack of production in the run game is concerning. At this time, Henley is a dynamic zone coverage defender and projects to the NFL as a subpackage linebacker who can make an impact on special teams.

DeMarvion Overshown, Hybrid, Texas, 6-foot-2 1/2, 220

Overshown is a converted safety that maintains his defensive back instincts when in coverage and is at his best when he is in pursuit. Like Simpson, he may not be a traditional stack linebacker fit, but he offers a lot of skills that teams lean on in subpackages. Overshown is likely best suited for the Lions’ Chris Board role, where he can be a core special teamer and a subpackage matchup linebacker on defense.

Jalen Graham, WILL, Purdue, 6-foot-2, 224

Graham, a Detroit native, played linebacker and safety at Purdue. Instinctual and fast, Graham is a zone coverage dynamo who can find the field as a subpackage coverage option at linebacker. He may need some time to adjust to playing at WILL at the next level, but he has enough upside that he’ll likely be worth a flyer on Day 3.

Run defenders

Cam Jones, ILB, Indiana, 6-foot-1, 227

Arguably the best run-defending linebacker in this draft class, Jones is explosive in pursuit. Capable of stacking and shedding much bigger offensive linemen, Jones can operate in multiple gaps, filling the proper option with violence and technical precision. While undersized for a stack role, he has the frame to add weight and could develop into a starting MIKE with help from an NFL weight room program. The Lions will love the leaderships skill of this three-time captain.

Ivan Pace, ILB, Cincinnati, 5-foot-10, 231

Pace is undersized but he makes contact with violence. Regardless of whether it's an offensive lineman trying to block him or the ball carrier, they feel his strength. His contact balance in traffic is reminiscent of a running back, as he bounces off blockers and is still able to maintain his center of gravity. He’s also a capable blitzer, something he showed both at Cincinnati and at Senior Bowl practices. Coverage can be an issue, but for teams looking to find the next Malcolm Rodriguez—an undersized downhill linebacker that can be found late in the draft—Pace will have their attention.

Anfernee Orji, ILB, Vanderbilt, 6-foot-1, 230

Orji, the brother of Michigan quarterback Alex, has a nose for the football and pursues downhill with relentlessness. He’s not as clean versus the run as Jones or Pace, but he is smooth in avoiding traffic and can be used as a subpackage blitzer as well. Another three-time captain, Orji has some appealing skills that illustrate his attacking style of defense and is another late-round option to consider.

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