Inside the Game: Linebacker corps on the spot

Like most of the units on the Detroit Lions football team, the linebacking corps has undergone a constant shifting since the arrival of President and General Manager Matt Millen. Lions' insider Mike Fowler breaks down the revamped Lions' linebacker position, and whether or not it will stick.

(ALLEN PARK) - Like most of the units on the Detroit Lions football team, the linebacking corps has undergone a constant shifting since the arrival of President and General Manager Matt Millen.

Gone is Stephen Boyd, a three-time pro bowl middle linebacker in his seven-year career that was cut short due to reoccurring back injuries.

Also departing was 5th overall draft pick Chris Claiborne who recorded over 100 tackles in each of his four years with the Lions. Claiborne's departure was due more to philosophical differences with Millen than his production on the field.

Starting strong side linebacker Allen Aldridge was released and quickly retired. Only journeyman Brian Williams and former second round pick Barrett Green remain.

Millen decided to restock the position with guys who were more in his mold; tough, heady veterans who'd been through some NFL battles. After the departure of Claiborne, Millen signed former Jacksonville Jaguar linebacker Wali Rainer and former Cleveland Brown and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Earl Holmes.

Those four remaining players join rookie Boss Bailey to form what will be the core of the Lions unit this season and all four have the same thing in common: they are likely playing for their careers.

Rainer is the youngest of the four at just 27 years of age, but already he's been the victim of changing systems and new coaches. Rainer appeared to have a bright future in Cleveland after delivering 15 starts and 137 tackles in his rookie season.

He followed that performance with 119 stops his sophomore year with two forced fumbles and an interception, but Rainer tailed off a bit his third year after suffering some injuries, recording just 78 stops. That was enough for new coach Butch Davis to feel Rainer wasn't in his plans.

Amazingly on draft day, Rainer was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the right to move up three spots in the third round. Rainer couldn't believe it; he was incensed and highly vocal in his displeasure with Davis.

"I think it's these college coaches that are coming in," said Rainer. "They're getting rid of entire staff, everybody upstairs, entire teams basically. That's the way these college coaches are coming in and doing it their way."

For Earl Holmes it was an education. After spending his entire seven-year career in Pittsburgh playing for the fiery Bill Cowher, it all came to an end after the 2001 season when, in a cap related move, Holmes was allowed to walk away to Cleveland. Ironically, he was brought into to replace Rainer as the team's starting middle linebacker only to find himself let go after recording 128 tackles in the middle.

Holmes puts the best spin on his travels through the NFL saying he was in the driver's seat, not the clubs he left. "To be honest with you, the whole thing is 'Earl be Earl'. I left Pittsburgh to go to Cleveland and Cleveland to come here."

Barrett Green is a rarity. After coming to the Lions as a second round pick in 2000, he survived the Millen/Mornhinweg led purge of players and is still on the roster. Green has been somewhat of an underachiever. Playing the team's high profile weak side linebacker position Green recorded just 73 tackles in 2002 and only 75 in 2001. Clearly the Lions are expecting bigger things from the four-year veteran from West Virginia.

Regardless of the spin, expectations are high for each of the three along with the injury-plagued Williams. Veterans are expected to produce and with a veteran linebackers coach, Richard Smith, presiding over the group, there will be no coasting.

The entire organization will be under pressure to improve from the dismal 27-loss two-year period that Detroit fans have seen under Millen's regime. That means production and playmaking from the linebacking group.

When NFL players hit 30, GMs and personnel directors start getting nervous. That the rub on Williams and Holmes. When players go two years in a row with sub par production, GMs and personnel directors get nervous. That's the rub on Green. When players move from club-to-club for no apparent reason, GMs and personnel directors get nervous, that's the rub on Rainer.

All would love to 'stick and stay' in Detroit but you can be sure that any of the group that doesn't produce stellar numbers while making will not be in Motown past the 2003 season.


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