ORLANDO – Two of the first key signings by the Detroit Lions in free agency were veteran linebackers Devon Kennard and Christian Jones. The team’s most recent free agent acquisition was another veteran linebacker in Jonathan Freeny, who signed Monday afternoon.
The linebacker position was an area on defense Lions general manager Bob Quinn targeted early in free agency, and continues to look for upgrades and depth, for a very specific reason.
“Big picture with the linebackers, going from a scheme change from Teryl Austin’s scheme to now coach (Matt) Patricia’s scheme, we were looking for bigger guys at the linebacker position,” Quinn said Monday at the annual league meetings.
“I think all of them have versatility. They can play on the line and off the line.”
Patricia’s defensive scheme in New England didn’t necessarily have a set base scheme. It was more multiple based on the weekly matchup.
Expect a lot of similarities in Detroit. But to run that kind of scheme Patricia needed linebackers that could wear multiple hats with varying skillsets. In Kennard and Jones in particular, the Lions believe they have two bigger linebackers with the kind of versatility they were targeting.
Kennard (6-3, 260) played in 52 games (35 starts) mostly at the SAM linebacker spot for the Giants, but he was also a pass rusher in sub packages. He finished last season with 41 total tackles (24 solo), four sacks, two passes defended and one fumble recovery.
Jones (6-3, 245) is another big-framed linebacker who had a career-high 90 tackles (57 solo), two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery for the Bears last season.
Freeny (6-2, 242) had his most productive season in 2015 with Patricia in New England. He had 50 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.
All three players have a few things in common. They are big, strong and have some flexibility to their game.
“I think just in general there were a couple guys there in free agency linebacker-wise that maybe with my background and kind of where some of the different schemes that I’ve used in the past, multiplicity and guys being able to play on the line of scrimmage, off the line of scrimmage, bigger type of guys that can take on different types of blocks (fit better),” Patricia said Monday.
“Some of those guys that were available I think were just kind of fits for what I was looking for from that standpoint.”
A player like Kennard could fit the mold of a Rob Ninkovich or Kyle Van Noy-type role in Patricia’s defense. Both of those bigger-sized linebackers can play off the ball and on the line of scrimmage to fit varying schemes.
“I don’t want to put him to a standard,” Patricia said of Kennard, when asked about the comparisons. “But from a body-type standpoint, if you want to go that route, definitely some of those versatile type of players that we’ve had that can play on the line and off the ball in some of those roles.”
Second-year linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin doesn’t necessarily fit the bigger linebacker body type the Lions were looking to add this offseason, but Patricia said he’ll have a place within some of the schemes he wants to implement.
If anything, this free agency period shows us that the Lions put a premium on versatility, especially on the defensive side of the ball and at linebacker, which fits into everything we’ve been hearing from what Patricia and his defensive coaches want from Detroit’s defense moving forward.