The good: Lions GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia made reshaping their linebacking corps an important task this offseason. They wanted the unit to be bigger, more physical and improve their ability to rush the passer with some of the changes Patricia was making with scheme.
Signing Devon Kennard to play an on-the-line rushing role was a priority in free agency. The fifth-year pro responded with a career-high 7.0 sacks to go along with 46 tackles in 15 games.
We saw improvement from Jarrad Davis in his second season. The Lions threw a lot on his plate early on and he responded pretty well. He had some hiccups along the way early in the year, but really benefitted from the trade for defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and had a good year overall.
Davis was used much more as a pass rusher than he was as a rookie. He recorded 6.0 sacks this season to go along with a team-leading 100 tackles. Davis’ 16 total pressures were the second most among any interior linebacker in the NFL this past season.
Christian Jones, who was also signed early in free agency, was a physical presence as an outside WILL linebacker. Jones finished with 69 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble playing in all 16 games.
View photos of the Detroit Lions' 2018 linebackers.
The bad: Detroit’s defense struggled early in the season allowing big, game-changing runs. Some of those could be traced back to poor gap integrity by the linebackers or just poor tackling overall. Only Oakland (7) gave up more runs of 40-plus yards than the Lions (5) this year.
Credit the Lions for correcting some of these mistakes and finishing strong against the run. Opponents rushed for under 65 yards in five of Detroit’s last eight games of the season.
Key stat: Davis and Kennard became the first pair of Lions linebackers to record six-plus sacks in the same season.
Free agents: The Lions traded for Eli Harold in the preseason to provide some depth, and he served as Kennard’s primary backup this season. The fourth-year pro recorded a career-high 4.0 sacks, and will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Veteran Kelvin Sheppard, 30, is also an unrestricted free agent. He signed in late October and played in seven games with five tackles.
Steve Longa was scheduled to be Davis’ backup this season, and also be a core member on special teams. But he injured his knee on a non-contact play in the preseason and was lost for the year. The third-year linebacker remained in Detroit during the season to rehab. He’s an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, and a strong candidate to return to the 90-man roster and compete for a roster spot.
Draft: LSU’s Devin White is the consensus top inside linebacker in this group, but the Lions seem pretty happy with the trajectory Davis is on. If they add to this group, I think it will be at one of the outside linebacker spots.
The Lions value versatility all across the board, and Kentucky’s Josh Allen can play outside or inside. He’s a terrific athlete, and finished with 18.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks playing in the SEC last season.
Florida’s Jachai Polite (16 TFL, 11 sacks, 5 FF) and Florida State’s Brian Burns (15.5 TFL, 10 sacks) will also be considered by teams on the lookout for edge rushing help at the position.
MVP: Davis is a pure leader and has taken on that role for Detroit’s defense since the first day he arrived in Allen Park. He studies film and works as tirelessly as anyone on the roster. This is an ever evolving defense and not an easy one to learn. Davis does a terrific job as the glue tying the back end and the front together.
He also brings the kind of physical presence Patricia wants his defense to be known for. He’s one of the hardest hitters in the game.
Most improved: Davis has shown major growth in two areas of his game.
First, he’s much better in pass coverage. He gave up the long gain to Ezekiel Elliott late in the Week 4 loss to the Cowboys, but was also the main reason why Cardinals running back David Johnson recorded eight catches for just 12 yards in the Week 14 win in Arizona. He defended five passes and allowed two touchdowns in 16 games. His recognition and instincts in the passing game have grown by leaps and bounds since his rookie season.
Second, Davis spent a lot of time during the offseason and in training camp working with Kennard and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni on his pass rushing moves. That’s an area where he’s really improved and should continue to get better. His 6.0 sacks were the third most on the team this season.
Quotable: “It’s awesome,” Davis said of what it’s like to beat an opposing player to a spot in the passing game. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you’re ahead now.’ You come out of the backfield, or you come across the middle, I’m right here. I’ll be there before the ball gets there. Be ready.
“That’s how I want to play the game. I want to be physical. I want to be a force out there. I just want to be that little thing in the back of a guy’s head – ‘Hey 40’s over here somewhere. Keep him off his mark a little. It’s fun.”