For the first time since Matt Burke became the linebackers coach in 2009, the Lions are returning all three of their starting linebackers.
Beyond that, though, there are some question marks remaining. The Lions are on the lookout for a reliable fourth linebacker after Bobby Carpenter left in free agency.
As we learned last year, when Durant missed three games with a concussion, having a dependable player to step in on a spot start is an important asset.
“We lost Bobby and you kind of miss that one veteran backup guy,” Burke said. “Bobby had a presence in the room and you felt good when he had to go in and play for you. You knew what he was going to do. Its just more urgency on the younger developmental guys to step up now.”
The Lions are hoping that reliable fourth linebacker emerges from within. One of those “developmental guys” Burke was referencing is second-year player
Last year’s NFL lockout prevented Hogue from having an offseason. That probably hurt him more than any of the other Lions rookies last year because he’d only been playing linebacker two seasons at Syracuse after switching over from running back.
“Absolutely huge,” Burke said of the benefit this offseason should have for Hogue. “I actually had the conversation with Doug before he left and said, “Hey man, this is a big offseason for you.’
“For a kid like that who hadn’t played a lot of linebacker in his life and in his career, this is big and we expect him to develop a lot more. It’s on him to pick up some of that stuff.”
Burke said he's also counting on three new additions – rookie draft picks Ronnell Lewis, Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis – to make contributions.
Lewis is expected to play more defensive end than linebacker, but Burke said there could be situations where he stands up as a rush linebacker or plays in short-yardage packages.
“He is that sort of hybrid cross-over,” Burke said. “We'll probably have some specific roles for him. I think his general position will be more of an end but we've already started talking about some specific things where he can be a stand-up guy at times and do some different things. We'll find some specific roles for him but he'll be working with (defensive line coach) Kris (Kocurek) probably more than me.”
Even though he won’t be working with Ronnell Lewis on a daily basis, Burke said one thing is certain: he’s going to be a fan favorite.
“You saw how the city embraced Zack Follett a couple years ago,” Burke said. “I think he's going to be that type of kid. He plays hard; he's just all-out physical. We put him on some kickoffs and there's going to be some blow-ups. I think the fans are going to gravitate towards that a little bit.”
In Whitehead, Burke sees a player that physically fits the profile of what the Lions like in their linebackers. The Lions view him as an outside linebacker in their scheme with terrific speed and intelligence.
“He's a little bit like Doug (Hogue) last year,” Burke said. “He's over 6-foot-1, he's 233 (pounds); at the combine, ran 4.6s or something like that. He's an explosive player. He's a tough kid.
“The projection with him is that he played a 3-4 outside linebacker in kind of a weird hybrid defense. He was like an under SAM on the ball, he rushes a lot more than he was dropping.
"I think everything fits. You can't have a direct translation from some of the stuff he does on film but everything else sort of fits to a tee and we felt really good about where he's going to go with us there.”
The Lions wrapped up the draft by taking linebacker Travis Lewis in the seventh round, a player the Lions really liked that late in the draft.
“I was shocked that he was sitting there in seventh round to be honest,” Burke said. “We had talked about him in the round before and it was almost like one of those, ‘What are we missing?’
“The kid's a four-time starter at Oklahoma. He's their all-time leading tackle. Talk about production at high levels.”
Travis Lewis tweaked a hamstring in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which limited the rest of his workouts. Burke said he was the only linebacker coach that showed up to his Pro Day after the combine.
“He didn't run what he wanted to but I think people knocked him on that as opposed to watching him on tape,” Burke said.
“Some of these measurables probably didn't match up to what people think, but he's a 6-foot-1, 244-pound kid that played high-level football at a high level of competition. I think he's maybe a more game-ready type of kid cause he's played so much football. I think he's got a chance to play football maybe sooner than some of the other guys even.”
The Lions began Phase II of their offseason training program on Monday, which allows coaches to work with players.
The rookies show up for mini-camp in two weeks and the first set of organized team activities starts right afterward. In the coming weeks, the Lions will start to see which linebackers separate themselves from the pack.