Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is nearly underway and we are rolling through the defensive position groups in our roster battle series. If you missed any of the series, here’s what we have covered, so far:
- How many quarterbacks will be on the active roster?
- Reserve running backs’ jobs are up for grabs
- How will the wide receiver room adapt its hierarchy?
- Who is ready to lead the tight end group?
- Identifying the favorites for OL depth roles
- Sorting depth on the interior defensive line
- A crowded EDGE group creates interesting battles
Let’s take a look at the Lions' off-the-ball linebackers.
Understanding the Lions’ LB roles
The Lions' defensive base is a 4-2-5 scheme, which means four defensive linemen, two off-the-ball linebackers, and five defensive backs. The Lions will put this scheme on the field in most standard formations because it’s an adjustable base that can operate against several offensive sets. But like any defense, there are a litany of variations to the scheme depending on how the offense lines up, which creates some specialty positions.
In the Lions’ base, they deploy two linebackers: MIKE and WILL (also called a BUCK). For the most part, their roles are similar with only a few variations, including where they line up and some positional responsibilities.
Both line up behind the Lions’ defensive tackles, with the MIKE on the front side (typically the side of the formation the tight end lines up on), and the WILL on the backside. Responsibilities include occupying the gaps in between the tackles (they do this in unison with the defensive line) against the run, while also dropping into zone or man coverage.
Typically the MIKE has a bigger frame and will be assigned to bigger offensive players in coverage (i.e. tight ends) and front-side gaps against the run where they can use their size. While the WILL is typically smaller and faster, will cover similarly sized offensive players (i.e. running backs), and are in chase mode versus the run.
The third linebacker in the Lions’ scheme is the SAM. Unlike traditional 43 base schemes, the Lions’ SAM does not play off-the-ball, but instead, is primarily deployed in a pass rushing role. The Lions typically utilize a SAM against run-first teams to add another body into the box and in obvious pass rushing situations.
Here’s a look at how the Lions’ deployed all three linebacking roles against the Bears (a run-first offense) in Week 17:
Setting the table
In 2022, the Lions kept six linebackers on the roster. They returned Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes on their rookie deals, retained captain Alex Anzalone by signing him to a new three-year contract, and placed an exclusive rights tender on Anthony Pittman. Chris Board (Patriots) and Josh Woods (Cardinals) departed in free agency.
The Lions made three linebacker additions this offseason, drafting Jack Campbell in the first round (pick No. 18), re-signing Jalen Reeves-Maybin who spent last season with the Texans, and signing undrafted free agent rookie Trevor Nowaske out of Saginaw Valley State.
For the majority of the season, the Lions utilized their six linebackers in very specific roles, with three primarily playing on defense, while the other three played primarily on special teams.
Anzalone (1080 defensive snaps) and Rodriguez (614 snaps) opened the season as the starters, with Barnes (349 snaps) supplementing as LB3 on defense. When Rodriguez was hurt mid-season, Barnes stepped into the starting role. Once Rodriguez was healthy enough to return, he and Barnes split the starting role for the remainder of the season. When one of the other three linebackers were asked to contribute on defense, Pittman was deployed in a SAM role (54 snaps), while Board (160 snaps) and Woods (10 snaps) were used in coverage situations.
Pittman, Board, and Woods’ largest contributions came on special teams, where each saw over 300 snaps in 2022, more than any other Lions player. This is important to recognize for roster construction because at least two of those roles will need to be replaced in 2023.
After returning all three linebackers who contributed on defense and drafting Campbell in the first round, the Lions appear poised to expand their contributing roles. But just because roles are expanding, that does not mean the Lions plan on keeping the same number of off-the-ball linebackers on the roster. By adding more depth at edge rusher and defensive back, the Lions have several hybrid players that can contribute in specialty “linebacker-type” roles on defense and special teams, thus potentially limiting the need to keep six off-the-ball linebackers.
For example, if the Lions plan on using more five-man fronts, as they did late in the season, SAM linebackers James Houston and Julian Okwara could siphon away some traditional off-the-ball linebacker snaps. Board and Woods’ defensive coverage snaps could easily shift to defensive back Brian Branch, who has shown the skills to live in the box and is better in coverage than the previous pair of linebackers.
Let’s take a look at what each off-the-ball linebacker brings to the table for the Lions this season.
Alex Anzalone. The most established player of the group, Anzalone can play both MIKE and WILL, is a two-time team captain, and has a three-year deal in place. When Rodriguez and Barnes were splitting starting roles, Anzalone would alter his role based on who was on the field, shifting between both off-the-ball spots.
Malcolm Rodriguez. Primarily a WILL, Rodriguez lit training camp on fire in 2022 but his mid-season injury zapped some of his contributions late in the season. Another injury in the spring left him on the sideline for OTAs, and his starting role looks to be up for grabs.
Derrick Barnes. Primarily a MIKE, Barnes is coming into his own this season and coaches have been singing his praises for how he has developed his game. If things have indeed clicked for him, he could earn a starting role (he was repping there in the spring).
Jack Campbell. Drafted to be the future of the position for Detroit, Campbell’s first-round pick status won’t guarantee him a starting role in Kelvin Sheppard’s (Lions’ linebacker coach) room. But Shep will always play the most talented player and Campbell’s developmental ceiling is the highest of this position group—so it’s likely a matter of when he starts, not if.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin. A Lions 2021 special teams captain, Reeves-Maybin is a favorite of the coaching staff, who were quick to bring him back after Houston released him. Reeves-Maybin’s ability to play on defense (he played 615 snaps at WILL in 2021 for the Lions) could give him an advantage.
Anthony Pittman. With more special teams snaps played than any Lions player in the last two seasons, Pittman is a massive contributor in the third phase of the game. His ability to play SAM could have some influence on the position battle between Houston and Okwara amongst the edge rushers group.
Trevor Nowaske. A unique college player who played MIKE and SAM at Saginaw Valley State, while also lining up in the slot in coverage situations. Nowaske is a bit of a sleeper for a role because of his positional range and translatable skill set to special teams. A lot of the things that make Pittman so valuable can also be applied to Nowaske, except he is younger and lacks NFL experience.
Erik: If the Lions end up keeping seven edge rushers, then the off-the-ball linebacker group will likely lose a roster spot. But, if the Lions opt to stay at six edge rushers, there is probably room to roll with six off-the-ball linebackers again.
For me, Anzalone, Campbell, Rodriguez, and Barnes are locked in, leaving one or two spots open. Reeves-Maybin and Pittman are surely the front-runners if they keep six, with Nowaske poised for a practice squad role. Although, if the Lions keep just five, the battle between Reeves-Maybin and Pittman will be one to watch.
So Jeremy, do agree with my four locks, and do you have a favorite if the Lions opt to keep just five?
Jeremy: In all honesty, I’m pretty close to sliding in Reeves-Maybin as a fifth lock. The coaches love him, the Lions have a ton of special teams snaps to account for with Board and Woods gone, and Reeves-Maybin is a proven four-phase special teamer.
Pittman is an awesome story, a hard worker, and decent on special teams, too, but I think he’s one of those decent players you can no longer afford to keep when the roster has improved. That said, the Lions could very well decide to keep six like last year and have them both around. Nowaske has practice squad written all over him.
Erik: At the end of the day for me—and maybe I’m oversimplifying things—the Lions will likely only be able to keep two of Reeves-Maybin, Pittman, and Julian Okwara, and I’m not sure which will be on the outside looking in on cut down day.
It’s fun having a deeper roster where these decisions are more challenging to make.