Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Detroit Lions camp preview: Linebackers
By Michael Rothstein
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be previewing the Detroit Lions entering training camp, which begins at the end of July. A reminder -- unless a player is an entrenched starter, so much of what will happen over the next month or so will be entirely fluid as players attempt to make an NFL roster.
What to expect in camp: Like a lot of the other positions on the roster, much of the competition during camp will be to spell the starters and win special teams spots. DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are entrenched as starters and won’t be losing their jobs during camp barring injury.
The one starting spot somewhat up for grabs is the Sam linebacker, where rookie Kyle Van Noy is expected to win the job but will face a tough competition from veteran Ashlee Palmer, who had the job last season. Van Noy missed part of spring workouts because of injury, so the second-round pick might be a little bit behind when training camp opens next week. But he will be given every possible chance to win the job. If he does, it will be interesting to see if Palmer hangs on to a roster spot.
Tahir Whitehead might be close to a roster lock as well because of his special teams capability. He was a four-team player last season and was named the Lions’ special teams MVP. Considering the team retained John Bonamego and Evan Rothstein as the special teams coaches, this bodes well for Whitehead’s ability to remain on the roster.
The rest of the linebackers will potentially be competing for one roster spot, so it should be a pretty intense battle throughout camp. It will be primarily a special teams slot, and multiple guys -- including Stanford and Lewis -- have extensive experience there.
What Detroit needs to see: This starts with Van Noy. Much like Eric Ebron on offense, he needs to show Detroit he is ready to be a capable starter from the beginning of the season. Though he won’t be relied on quite as much as Ebron because the Lions will play a fair amount of nickel throughout the season, he needs to show he can handle a starter’s role after the team traded up in the second round to draft him.
At some point this season, Van Noy will end up as the starter there. His pass rush and coverage capabilities are too valuable for Detroit to keep him off the field, but the quicker the Lions see he can handle it consistently and without many mistakes, the faster he will supplant Palmer at the top of the depth chart. Ideally for Detroit, it happens by the middle of training camp.
Detroit knows what it has in Levy and Tulloch, although they wouldn’t mind if Levy completes his progression into one of the game’s top linebackers.
With reserves, if Whitehead can become a viable backup, that will give the Lions some flexibility because of his special teams capabilities. Entering his third season, he has to take that step now or be cast as a special teams player throughout his career. Lewis and Stanford are in similar positions. If they show they are able to be good in situations -- much like Rocky McIntosh was in short-yardage last season -- they have a chance to stick beyond special teams.
Justin Jackson is a player to pay attention to when it comes to a potential practice squad spot because of his athleticism, but he will have a rough road to a 53-man spot.