It is, almost without question, the biggest need the Detroit Lions have on the roster entering the draft. The Lions desperately need linebackers, potentially both starters and some depth.
The franchise released DeAndre Levy in March. Tahir Whitehead is in the final year of his contract. Paul Worrilow signed a one-year deal. Other than Antwoine Williams, who was a fifth-round pick last season, the Lions have no real long-term options at the position.
The Lions have a cluster of players who are better fits as special-teams standouts and don’t have a premier playmaker at the position -- something Levy had become before he was released. There is massive need at the spot and linebacker is a place where Detroit should look at some point in the first two days of the draft.
Chances the Lions draft a player at this position: 99 percent
Need level (out of five): 5
Players to watch in the draft:
Haason Reddick, Temple: The No. 2 inside linebacker by Scouts, Inc. and No. 15 overall, he might be the ideal first-round prospect for Detroit. If he’s available at No. 21, he will get heavy consideration by Detroit. He’s the type of player who can be dynamic as a pass-rushing linebacker after playing defensive end in college. He has the athleticism to eventually play in coverage, too. He will immediately improve the team’s defensive speed and athleticism, which are big points of need for Detroit.
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin: Yep, the name is familiar, but this Watt is not the same player as his older brother, J.J. First, he plays a different position. He’s a strong tackler who will be able to be a pass-rusher as an outside linebacker with 10.5 sacks last year. He won’t be able to cover everybody, but he should be able to handle tight ends and running backs. He might be a reach at No. 21 and a steal at No. 53.
Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt: The No. 4 inside linebacker and No. 52 overall player would be an ideal second-round linebacker for Detroit if the Lions pass on the position in the first round. He has good speed (4.67-second 40-yard dash) and is particularly strong against the run. He had 119 tackles last season and can handle coverage on shorter routes. His strength might be an issue, but that’s something that can be improved in an NFL strength system.
Jarrad Davis, Florida: The No. 3 inside linebacker and No. 23 overall player, he’s another linebacker who will be in the range of available players at No. 21. Injury history could be a question here after a couple of leg injuries last year. He has a good frame at 6-foot-1, 238 pounds and could be a Day 1 starter at outside linebacker in Detroit. He would be an immediate speed upgrade and should help early on in coverage, too.
Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: The No. 7 inside linebacker and No. 88 player overall would be a good third-round pick for Detroit if he’s there -- and might be an intriguing prospect in the second round, too. He has good speed (4.61 40-yard dash) and size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds). He has good instincts and can cover well. His bigger question might be as a run-stopper.
Kendell Beckwith, LSU: He could be a good value play later in the draft if he’s still around because of his torn left ACL. He has great size for the position (6-foot-2, 243 pounds with 33-inch arms) and would be an immediate upgrade to the team’s run defense from the linebacker spot. The question would be his coverage skills, which are not at the level of some of the other players listed here.