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2023 training camp preview: Linebacker

On the roster: Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Jack Campbell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Julian Okwara, Anthony Pittman, Trevor Nowaske

Table inside Article
Name Games Tackles TFL INT PD Sacks FF FR
Alex Anzalone 17 125 7 1 6 1.5 1 1
Derrick Barnes 15 47 3 0 1 1.0 0 0
Jack Campbell* 13 128 5.5 2 3 1.0 1 1
Malcolm Rodriguez 16 87 8 0 2 1.0 1 1
James Houston 7 12 7 0 0 8.0 1 0
Jalen Reeves-Maybin^ 17 15 0 0 0 0.0 0 1
Julian Okwara 10 17 3 0 0 2.0 0 0
Anthony Pittman 17 5 0 0 0 0.0 1 0
Trevor Nowaske* 11 98 9.5 4 11 1.0 0 0

^with another team *college stats

Key losses: Chris Board, Josh Woods

Best competition: Starting stacked linebacker spot next to Anzalone.

The Lions re-signed Anzalone to a new three-year, $18.75 million contract this offseason after he was one of just two NFL players last season with at least 125 tackles, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He's the captain of this defense and it can't be understated how important he was to the turnaround we saw the second half of last season. The big question during training camp will be who wins the starting spot next to him.

Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard has been clear this offseason saying the best players will play no matter how they got on the roster. That was certainly proven last year with sixth-round pick Rodriguez starting and playing as much as he did.

The Lions selected Campbell with the No. 18 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft but that doesn't guarantee him a starting spot, according to Sheppard.

"Probably in 20 other rooms that player is starting and there's nothing you can do about it as a position coach," Sheppard said. "Well, that's not the case here. If Jack isn't the top two or three Jack will continue to go through the process of rookie development until he's hit that mark."

Campbell has proven to be a quick study so far, but it was Barnes taking the first-team reps next to Anzalone for most of the spring. Barnes has taken his game to another level in his third season, according to Sheppard, and he's not going to relinquish that spot easily.

Then there's Rodriguez, who dealt with an undisclosed injury for most of the spring, but is coming off a rookie season in which he started 15 games and finished third on the team with 87 tackles and second with eight tackles for loss. He's expected to take a big leap going into his second season.

The veteran Reeves-Maybin will also look to carve out a role, especially on passing downs. Pittman is a core special teamer with the ability to play on defense as well.

View photos of the Detroit Lions linebackers heading into training camp.

Twentyman's take: This should be one of the more tightly contested position competitions for the Lions come training camp. Barnes, Rodriguez and Campbell have different body types and play styles, and watching who fits into the scheme next to Anzalone the best will be fun to watch.

In the end, I think it will be hard to keep Campbell off the field as long as he continues to develop some of the techniques the Lions are teaching him and the game slows down for him. His size (6-5, 243) and speed combination are rare for the position. But I can also see a situation where Campbell, Rodriguez, Barnes and Reeves-Maybin rotate in and play certain packages.

Houston and Okwara are more edge rushers than inside stacked players, but Houston in particular is looking for more ways to get on the field. Expanding his linebacker role is one way to do that.

By the numbers:

1.0: Houston started his career with at least 1.0 sack in each of the first four games, becoming the third player in NFL history to do so. His 8.0 sacks on the year tied for the third most a Lions rookie has produced in a single season (Ndamukong Suh, 10.0 & Aidan Hutchinson, 9.5).

6th: Rodriguez ranked sixth in total tackles among NFL rookies last season. He became Detroit's first rookie selected in the sixth round or later to start Week 1 of his same draft year since 1987.

13: Passes defended by Anzalone since joining the Lions in 2021, which is tied for the fifth most among linebackers during that stretch. His 21 total quarterback pressures in 2022 were also fifth most among linebackers.

32.3: Percent of the Lions' defensive formation grouping last year that was four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. That was Detroit's most popular grouping followed by three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs (29 percent).

62: Rushing plays of 10-plus yards allowed by Detroit's defense in 2022, which tied for 24th in the league.

377: First downs allowed by Detroit's defense last season, the most in the NFL. Last year's playoff teams averaged 329 first downs allowed.

Quotable: "All I can do is prepare to the best of my ability and let my talents and everything else take me to where I need to go," Campbell said this offseason. "I'm going to do everything that I can to put this team in the best position to win games.

"Right now a lot of people have high expectations on me and that's all good. I'm just going to stick to what I know and who I am and come out here every single day and give it my all."

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