Lions need to find depth, speed at linebacker in draft, free agency

The NFL combine is this week and days after that the free agency period will begin with the start of the new league year. So it’s time for the Detroit Lions – and every other team in the NFL – to begin to take stock of what they have and where they can upgrade and improve.

With that in mind, we’ll do that as well with every position on the Lions roster leading into the combine. And just a reminder that things can change incredibly quickly over the next few weeks as Detroit decides which players to re-sign and let go.

On Tuesday we’ll look at a position where the Lions need to add some speed and skill: Linebacker.

The position group under contract: DeAndre Levy (starter), Tahir Whitehead (starter), Antwione Williams, Thurston Armbrister, Steve Longa, Brandon Chubb

Free agents: Josh Bynes, Jon Bostic

What are the chances the Lions bring back their own free agents here: Decent. Bynes has shown he can be a good fill-in starter and is a core special teams player. He’s also a valuable locker-room leader and shouldn’t be a player who would cost too much to retain. The Lions have clearly liked Bostic since trading for him last year and while he didn’t play at all, Detroit chose to keep him around. If the deal is right, it’s easy to see a scenario where he returns.

What do the Lions need between free agency and the draft: They need to add speed and at least one playmaker between free agency and the draft. The Lions have consistently struggled to cover tight ends since the end of 2014 and that can be remedied this offseason. After significant injuries to the position the last three seasons (Levy and Stephen Tulloch), the Lions have to replenish things here. There’s no guarantee Levy will return to his old form, and Whitehead is entering the final year of his contract. This is an area Detroit should be active in during both the draft and free agency.

Three free agents to look at:

Dont'a Hightower, New England: It would seem unlikely Hightower would reach the open market, but if he does he’s the type of player the Lions would want to make a serious run at. Detroit GM Bob Quinn has familiarity with him from his time in New England. Hightowner is the type of linebacker who can handle the run and the pass. While he doesn’t have huge numbers, he is an effective pass-rusher with 17 career sacks.

Kevin Minter, Arizona: He may not have the speed you want to see in a high-end linebacker, but the 6-foot Minter’s production is there and he’s a reasonable mid-range linebacker target. He’s more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher and had 81 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season. He’s a young player who can stay on the field no matter the situation. Considering Detroit’s issues in that area, he could be a good fit.

Nick Bellore, San Francisco: Yes, this isn’t a big name and won’t be one who will break any sort of bank, but he’s the type of middle-class linebacker the Lions could use. He has special teams experience and the Central Michigan product did put in a decent season with the 49ers last year, starting 10 games with 83 tackles and five passes defended. Depending what happens with Bynes and Bostic, he’s the type of player who could slide into a No. 4 linebacker slot well.

Three combine rookies who could get considered:

Haason Reddick, Temple: Riddick is a potential first-round draft pick who is good against the run and the pass, making him a potential three-down backer. He has 147 career tackles with 46 tackles for loss and 18 sacks. His most productive year was his senior season, with 22.5 tackles for loss, four passes defended and 10.5 sacks.

Jarrad Davis, Florida: He would be more of a run-stopper immediately and would have good special teams value as a rookie no matter what. He could be an option for the Lions on Day 2 of the draft. He had 98 tackles in 2015 and played through an ankle injury last season while still making 60 tackles with six tackles for loss.

Tim Williams, Alabama: The No. 3 outside linebacker by Scouts Inc., Williams is a likely first-round pick and a player who would almost immediately help Detroit in the middle-third of its defense. He didn’t have huge tackle numbers at Alabama last year, but he had nine sacks and half of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. He’d become a strong run defender right away and is a player who could fit well in the Lions' defense.