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Draft Coverage

2023 Combine preview: Linebacker

This isn't a loaded class at stacked linebacker, but there are some players with versatility who will be able to make an impact early in their careers.

The way the passing game has developed in the NFL, teams are on the lookout for a defender on the second level with size who can stand up against the run, but also have some speed to rush and cover.

Top 5 linebackers to watch at the Combine:

1. Drew Sanders, Arkansas, 6-5, 232

Sanders has terrific size, speed and range for the position. He was only a one-year starter, so there's room to grow and develop, but teams have to love the production in the SEC with 103 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, one interception, five passes defended, one fumble recovery and three forced fumbles.

View photos of the linebacker prospects who were invited to the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.

2. Trenton Simpson, Clemson, 6-3, 234

Simpson has a terrific size & speed combo that should allow him to be an effective cover man and blitzer at the next level. He was a two-year starter at Clemson and has pretty good instincts and production. He's got the potential to test really well at the Combine because of his speed and explosiveness.

3. Henry To'oTo'o, Alabama, 6-1, 230

To'oTo'o was a first-team All-SEC performer this past season ranking second on the Alabama team and ninth in the SEC with 94 tackles including eight for loss and 2.5 sacks. He's one of those linebackers who does everything well but nothing spectacular. He's just solid all the way around against the run and pass.

4. Jack Campbell, Iowa, 6-4, 248

Campbell is an old-school, tough-nosed, throwback linebacker with terrific instincts and range. He recorded 140 and 125 tackles, respectively, the last two seasons and also had four interceptions. He's got terrific size and range, and has the potential to be an early impact player for an NFL defense.

5. Noah Sewell, Oregon, 6-2, 253

If he has just 50 percent of the athleticism his brother, Pro Bowl right tackle Penei Sewell, has shown with the Lions, teams are going to like Noah. He finished his three-year career with 215 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He's more power and size than he is speed and pursuit, which might make him more of a two-down backer in the NFL.

Combine sleeper to watch: Daiyan Henley, Washington State, 6-1, 230

Henley had a terrific week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl where he really shined in one-on-one cover drills against running backs and tight ends. He's got really fluid hips and can run, and he was sticky in coverage all week. Teams are going to love that part of his tape.

View photos of the defensive line prospects who were invited to the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.

Lions' need at the position: Moderate

The Lions should expect rookie starter Malcolm Rodriguez to take a big leap in his growth and production from Year 1 to Year 2. Rodriguez showed some really good things on tape. He'll need to continue to develop, especially in the coverage aspect of his game (opponents had a 109.3 passer rating throwing his way in 2022) for the Lions' defense to continue to improve.

Second-year linebacker Derrick Barnes came on strong down the stretch, and he'll be in the mix heading into his third season.

Veteran starting MIKE linebacker Alex Anzalone is coming off his best season as a professional and was really key to Detroit's defensive turnaround the last 10 games of the season. He is an unrestricted free agent and it sounds like he may be looking for a long-term deal. What happens with him in free agency will certainly affect the need at linebacker for the Lions. Chris Board and Josh Woods are also key free agents at the position for Detroit.

It's not a bad idea to add a youngster to that room with some versatility and cover skills to pair with Rodriguez, Barnes and any potential veteran free agent the Lions sign.

Key stat: The Lions ranked last in the NFL allowing 6.2 yards per play to opponents in 2022. Philadelphia (4.78), New York Jets (4.84), New Orleans (4.97) and San Francisco (4.98) were some of the best defensive units in football this past season because they were the four teams able to keep that number under 5.0.

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