Apr. 13—Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions‘ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Linebackers. — Current roster: Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman — Short-term need: Five out of 10 — Long-term need: 10 out of 10 — Top prospects: Micah Parsons, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Zaven Collins — Mid-round options: Jamin Davis, Nick Bolton, Baron Browning, Chazz Surratt — Late-round considerations: Pete Werner, Derrick Barnes, Monty Rice — Analysis: Through the first couple months of the offseason, the Lions have patchworked their linebacking corps, leaving significant, lingering concerns about the long-term outlook at the position.
Collins, the unit’s most reliable performer, is back with a restructured contract. That provided some much-needed cap relief at the start of free agency, but did little to change his future outlook.
Heading into next season, Collins will be on the cusp of his 33rd birthday, while carrying a $13.3 million cap hit. Unless he’s performing at a Pro Bowl level, it will be difficult to justify keeping him around, particularly with $7 million in cap savings tied to his release.
In addition to Collins, most of the team’s other linebackers are working on deals that expire at season’s end, including Anzalone, a recent free-agent addition. Only Tavai is under contract in 2022, and with the way he performed last season, there’s no guarantee he’s on the roster after training camp this year.
So, yeah, the Lions are in serious need for some reinforcements at the position.
Parsons might be the best defensive player in the draft, but it’s a problematic conversation on two fronts. First, if the Lions stick with the No. 7 pick, the selection wouldn’t represent good value. There are almost certainty going to be better options on the offensive side of the ball at that spot. But if the team moves back several spots in a trade-down scenario, those value concerns dissipate.
What doesn’t are red flags that have been raised regarding Parsons’ character. Generally speaking, Lions GM Brad Holmes has said media portrayals of character issues don’t always tell the full story, but as recently as last year, Parsons was named in a lawsuit by a former Penn State player for a hazing incident.
Ultimately, no charges were filed in relation to the incident, and Parsons wasn’t named in the subsequent civil suit. Still, he’s going to need to adequately answer questions about his maturity prior to any team investing a first-round pick on him.
Plus, given the talent at the top of the class, it might make sense for the Lions to hold off until the second round, where there figures to be options.
Davis, if he makes it that far, would be an ideal fit. The Kentucky standout’s stock has been rocketing after a stellar junior season that included more than 100 tackles and three interceptions.
Unlike many prospects, Davis has NFL size at 6-foot-3, 234 pounds. On top of that, he has elite athleticism for the position, with nearly unmatched explosion and top-line speed. At his pro day, he ran his 40 in under 4.5 seconds.
Browning is another prospect with a stellar combination of size an athleticism. Where he lacks, at least at this stage in his development, is the instincts to take full advantage of his physical gifts.
Playing both inside and outside for the Buckeyes, Browning does offer versatility. And with his speed and burst, there’s room for him to be utilized as a blitzer, both off the ball and standing up on the edge.
In the later rounds, the Lions still should be able find ways to upgrade their athleticism at linebacker. What you’re looking for with those options is a player capable of immediately contributing on special teams, with the developmental potential to eventually handle a role on defense.
Browning’s teammate, Werner, is a prime example. Again, we’re talking about a prospect with NFL-ready size (6-foot-3, 238 pounds), above-average athleticism and plenty of experience playing for one of college football’s most-talented programs.
Also molded in the Big Ten, Purdue’s Barnes showcased outstanding speed and strength at his pro day, which included a 4.62-second 40 and 29 reps on the bench. He bounced back and forth between an off-ball linebacker and defensive end for the Boilermakers, showing competency at both spots.