How Lions can upgrade their linebacker corps via the draft
In today’s NFL, it is critical for inside linebackers to be as viable in coverage as they are against the run. This was a significant issue for the Lions in 2016, in particular for MLB Tahir Whitehead. He was targeted in coverage a whopping 87 times, second-most among linebackers, and his 72 receptions allowed were not only the most at the position, but second among all positions (only Tampa Bay rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves recorded more, but his 80 came on 113 targets). Whitehead also yielded seven touchdowns, again the highest total among linebackers and second-highest overall (Green Bay CB Damarious Randall gave up eight).
His play within his own division was especially suspect, as in the six games against Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago, opposing QBs completed 26 of 31 passes into his coverage for three touchdowns, and throws to divisional tight ends were successful on 10 of 11 tries. Not surprisingly, when NFC North QBs attacked Whitehead, they posted ratings of at least 98.0 in all but one of the six games, and Whitehead’s overall 124.3 QB rating against was the second-highest mark among linebackers with at least 60 targets against.
Finding a way to improve passing-down production from the middle linebacker position should be a high priority for Detroit this offseason, and the draft is an avenue that could provide a number of viable solutions. While spending the 21st overall pick of the first round on an upgrade is certainly a possibility, the top off-the-ball linebacker in the draft, Alabama’s Reuben Foster, will surely be long gone. The next-best option is Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, who has proven to be an excellent thumper against the run, but despite having the size, speed and physicality to be a strong player in coverage as well, has only graded about average in the category throughout his college career.
UCLA’s Jayon Brown is a third, and likely more economical, option, as his expected size of 6-foot, 230 pounds is likely to push him to at least the end of Day 2 in the draft. (Whitehead measured 6-foot-1, 233 pounds at the NFL combine in 2012.) Brown’s 187 solo tackles and 108 total defensive stops to just 15 combined missed tackles in the past two seasons with the Bruins suggest that he’s a more-than-viable player against the run, whether he stays inside or slides outside at the next level. It’s his play against the pass, however, that should really have teams like Detroit excited.
Brown is an elite athlete at his position, as his ability to change directions and get depth in coverage is similar to that of an NFL safety. In 2016, he gave up 22 receptions on 34 targets with no touchdowns against, and racked up three interceptions and three pass break-ups. Only three receptions against him went for longer than 25 yards this past season, and the opener against Texas A&M was the only game in which he gave up more than 50 yards receiving in an individual game. Opposing QBs had a rating of just 50.4 when he was the primary defender in coverage, second-best in the country among linebackers with at least 250 coverage snaps.
Waiting until the third round to draft Brown instead of spending their first-round pick on the position would allow the Lions to not only solve one of the biggest issues with the 2016 defense, but also give them the ability to spend the premium pick on one of this draft’s elite defensive line talents. Upgrading not just the coverage, but the pass rush, as well, would go a long way toward helping Detroit get over the hump of achieving its first-ever NFC North division title, a feat the Lions have come just one Week 17 win short of in two of the last three seasons.