The Detroit Lions are young and action-packed at linebacker, potentially fielding two second-year players alongside Julian Peterson. But will the change yield hope or frustration?
Projected Starters: WLB Zack Follett, MLB DeAndre Levy, SLB Julian Peterson
DeAndre Levy anchors this enigmatic group where expectations are precarious at best. Most fans know Zack Follett because they've seen enough of his YouTube clips
, or they're Facebook friends with him. Levy is last year's third-round, unproven product from Wisconsin that is replacing former U of M legend Larry Foote (note: all former Wolverines who become NFL'ers or political figures were somehow 'legendary' -- any U of M alum would gladly confirm this). And Julian Peterson was the prized free-agent acquisition who disappointed last year. But behind the ambiguity exists a group that has the potential to be one of two things: a solid linebacking core that will make up for last year's mistake-laden bunch, or an inexperienced, overmatched duo flanked by an aging pass rush specialist that is more name than results.
Can Follet make the leap from special teamer to starting linebacker?
Projected Backups: Isaiah Ekejiuba, Landon Johnson, Jordon Dizon
Since there aren't necessarily any guarantees with the starting group, the Lions have versatility and experience behind them. Ekejiuba is a special team's ace, and although that's his primary speciality, he can also play on the outside. Johnson, meanwhile, is a former 100-plus season tackler, and at 29 years old is one of the more valuable reserves on the roster. He can play both in the middle and the outside, and should see plenty of playing time in 2010. The same applies to Jordon Dizon. The former second-round pick of the Millen regime has yet to endear himself to Detroit's coaching staff, and is somewhat on the bubble. But although he doesn't necessarily fit the mold that the team seeks at the position, those within the organization feel he can contribute valuably to special teams and as a reserve.
There were concerns entering last season that free-agent addition and former Steeler Larry Foote might be an ill-fitted middle linebacker in Detroit's 4-3 scheme. Those concerns proved prophetic as the team's linebacking core was little more than structurally flawed. Former first round pick and the now-discarded Ernie Sims continued his career decline before a shoulder injury truncated his season, paving the way for the emergence of DeAndre Levy on the weakside. Peterson (76 tackles, 4.5 sacks), meanwhile, was tossed between defensive end and linebacker and never seemed to establish any kind of rhythm. Each of these issues were related to the play in the middle by Foote, who struggled to adapt in a foreign defensive scheme. The group was saddled with a poor defensive front that had a perma-blinking yellow sign above them, but the situation was exasperated by missed tackles, gap misreads, and poor play collectively.
The good news emerging from 2009 was the play of Levy. In a draft that featured Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, and Louis Delmas on defense, Levy went relatively unheralded.
"I'm not going to tell you what player it was, but (Levy) grabbed one by the jersey and yanked him back in the huddle because he was mouthing off to somebody ... He says, 'Get in the huddle, shut up and listen to the call.'
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham on DeAndre Levy
"For a rookie to do that, that's pretty amazing to me."
But as the season wore on, Levy's exploits -- he started 10 games at outside linebacker and two in the middle -- garnered attention, eventually earning praise from defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham
. Detroit feels Levy is a natural fit at the position, with leadership intangibles to boot. Another second-year player, Zack Follett, used the off-season to vie for a starting gig. The trade of Sims to Philadelphia helped, obviously, but Follett's blue-collar work ethic and hitting ability has won over the coaching staff and fans alike. He brings the same mentality that made players like Scott Kowalkowski popular in the Motor City. However, he also has more responsibility than he did in his special team's gig as a rookie, and very little experience. If he wants the job, he'll have to win it against more seasoned competition. Julian Peterson remains one of the more intimidating physical specimens on the team, and the upgrades at defensive end should only help the 10-year veteran's cause. Gunther Cunningham loves to blitz, and it's what Peterson does best. Expect to see it often in 2010.
I'd Much Rather Have ... Manny Lawson, Patrick Wilson, Takeo Spikes / San Francisco 49ers
Willis has been one of the league's premier tacklers since 2007, and he's complimented by veteran Takeo Spikes, who is in a contract year. The team has speedy Manny Lawson on the outside, across from the equally competent Parys Haralson. Granted, the 49ers' focus in their 3-4 scheme is the strength of its linebacking core, and no one really knows how good Willis would perform in the 4-3 -- but it's a more reassuring thought than what is ultimately the unknown in Detroit.
But They're Better Than ... Ben Leber, E.J. Henderson (injury)/ Jasper Brinkley, Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings
Might be going out on a limb here, but there's no guarantee E.J. Henderson will return by week one, or even be the same player he was before what many thought was a career-ending leg injury last November. His reserve, Jasper Brinkley, showed flaws defending the pass as his replacement, and is more of a question mark than a sure thing. Chad Greenway and Ben Leber are solid, but have proven little else on the outside. The Lions are younger with Follett and Levy, and each pack more potential; talent-wise, Julian Peterson dwarfs anything Minnesota has at the LB position.
Detroit's linebacking core will benefit tremendously from three different perspectives: The first, improvements across the defensive line will not leave them overly exposed. Secondly, DeAndre Levy earned valuable playing time last year, and is already better suited in the middle than Larry Foote. And, lastly, Zack Follett's inherent passion and enthusiasm can really help drive the energy behind the trio. The three are capable of providing results, and have decent depth behind them. Expect the 2010 campaign to yield improvements behind this crew.