Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2022 NFL draft. This is the sixth in an eight-part series.
The Lions have nine linebackers on their roster and enough variety at the position that they could comfortably start the season without any further additions. Alex Anzalone is a dependable veteran who knows the defense well, Jarrad Davis has extensive starting experience in the NFL and Chris Board contributed in a third-down role for the Baltimore Ravens last season.
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But with eight of the Lions’ nine linebackers on expiring contracts and the only one who isn’t (second-year pro Derrick Barnes) coming off a modest rookie season, it’s fair to say the Lions have major needs at the position — both long -term and for a true difference-maker — entering this week’s draft.
Anzalone should enter this fall as the leader of the group. He had a career-high 78 tackles in 14 starts last season, but has battled injuries throughout his career. He projects to be joined in the Lions’ revamped even-front defense by some combination of Barnes, Davis and Board. The Lions signed both Davis and Board to one-year free agent deals this offseason, and Board should double as an impact player on special teams.
With five top-100 draft picks, the Lions should, at a minimum, be able to add linebacker depth in this week’s draft. Depending how the board falls, they might get a Day 1 starter and future leader for their defense. No linebackers are expected to go in the top 10, but as many as three could go in the second half of the first round and role-specific starters should be available well into Day 2.
LBs on the roster: Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, Derrick Barnes, Chris Board, Curtis Bolton, Josh Woods, Anthony Pittman, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Tavante Beckett.
Top 3 LB prospects: 1. Nakobe Dean, Georgia; 2. Devin Lloyd, Utah; 3. Quay Walker, Georgia.
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Other players with Michigan ties: Josh Ross, Michigan; Noah Harvey, Michigan State; J.T. Tyler, Princeton.
Day 3 sleeper: Aaron Hansford, Texas A&M.
Recent Lions draft picks at LB: 2021 — Derrick Barnes (fourth round); 2020 — None. 2019 — Jahlani Tavai (second round); 2018 — none; 2017 — Jarrad Davis (first round), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (fourth round).
It will be tough for any linebacker in this year’s draft to approach the type of rookie season Micah Parsons had for the Dallas Cowboys last year. Parsons had 13 sacks among 84 tackles and three forced fumbles while playing a variety of roles. He was the 12th pick of last year’s draft and is a reminder that impact players at the position don’t always go in the top handful of picks.
Two linebackers seem likely to go in Round 1 this year, Dean and Lloyd, though both may have to wait until the second half of the round to hear their name called. Dean had a phenomenal season for Georgia’s national championship team and is widely regarded as one of the smartest, most instinctual players in the draft. He’s on the small side at 5 feet 11 and 229 pounds and lacks elite measurables, which will drag down his stock. But whatever team drafts him will be getting a very good football player.
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Lloyd has some Parsons-like versatility to his game, but he ran a disappointing 4.66-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns last season and also led Utah with eight sacks and 110 tackles. Walker is bigger and more athletic than Dean, and could join his former Georgia teammate in Round 1, while Georgia’s third linebacker from last season, Channing Tindall seems likely to come off the board on Day 2.
Local products Ross and Tyler project best as priority free agents, while a handful of other linebackers should go in the top 75 picks. Alabama’s Christian Harris has three-down ability because of his coverage skills, Montana State’s Troy Andersen ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash, fastest among linebackers at the combine, at 243 pounds, and LSU’s Damone Clark is a wildcard after reportedly undergoing spinal fusion surgery that could keep him out the entire 2022 season.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions could eye Nakobe Dean, Devin Lloyd in LB group