- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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The NFL draft is less than a week away, which means soon enough the Detroit Lions will have to reveal whether all of their Sammy Watkins attention and visits from Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack had substance or were designed to throw everyone off.
But the draft will be more than just one round for the Lions, who will need to use the three days in May to build depth on a roster that is big on stars but small on those players beyond the big names that can turn the Lions into a playoff team.
Every day up until the first day of the draft, we’ll look at a different position grouping and see what Detroit has and what the team could end up looking for during the 2014 draft.
Today continues with the linebackers.
Players Lost: Rocky McIntosh (free agent)
Players Signed: None.
Draft priority: Medium
Potential Rounds: Any
Players who have visited or the Lions have met with: Khalil Mack, Buffalo; Kyle Van Noy, BYU; Khairi Fortt, California (per Detroit Free Press); Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College (per Detroit Free Press).
Analysis: This is an intriguing position for the Lions, mostly because they have talent set at two of the three major linebacker spots, but unproven at the third and have very little depth. If this sounds familiar, it was the same situation Detroit was in a season ago.
The Lions made no alterations to the linebackers during the offseason, leaving their best chance for an upgrade to be in this week’s draft. Here’s the problem: After Mack and, maybe, C.J. Mosley, there are not any sure-fire dynamic options at No. 10. There could be some solid picks later on, either if the Lions trade down a few slots or wait until the second round.
But this is a position that needs some addressing, particularly if the Lions want to be more multiple in their fronts, which means they’ll at least need a third definite competent linebacker to go with Tulloch and Levy.
It’s possible Palmer or Whitehead are able to turn into that consistent player but Palmer didn’t see a ton of action last season as Detroit played mostly nickel and Whitehead has been a special teams player thus far.
If one of them can improve enough, then the Lions need to only build depth. But if they don’t believe in Palmer or Whitehead, then finding a linebacker could be a top priority for Detroit.
Of all reasonable options, I’d take: If the Lions stay at No. 10, I would pass on Anthony Barr – who is kind of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker -- and wait until the second round to try and get Van Noy out of BYU. He can pass rush and has excellent instincts to get to the ball. He can also cover.
Of course, if the Lions are able to trade up into the top five picks of the draft, I’d go with Mack over Watkins there, as Mack could end up being a defensive stalwart for the next decade for Detroit if that happened. But Van Noy in the second round would be the choice.
Possible targets: Mack; Barr; Van Noy; Chris Borland, Wisconsin; Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech; Trent Murphy, Stanford; Shayne Skov, Stanford; Chris Kirksey, Iowa; Jordie Tripp, Montana; Denicos Allen, Michigan State.
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