One of the more anticipated training camp competitions for the Detroit Lions is at linebacker.
The Lions re-signed Alex Anzalone this offseason, return third-year LB Derrick Barnes and second-year LB Malcolm Rodriguez, drafted rookie Jack Campbell No. 18 overall in this year's NFL draft, and have others like veteran Jalen Reeves-Maybin looking for a role.
Even a hybrid player like James Houston, who splits his time between the linebacker room and edge group, is trying to find ways to be on the field more, and expanding some linebacker roles is one way to do that.
It's a competition linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard is certainly looking forward to once training camp starts
"It is proven. We are going to play the best player," Sheppard said this week before the Lions' last open OTA practice of the spring. "We do not care what that looks like. When that starts top down it's easy for me to walk in my linebacker room after we take a guy pick 18."
Campbell is certainly expected to be in the mix for a role as a rookie. He was a back-to-back 100-tackle player at Iowa the last two seasons and can do a lot of things at 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds. But like all rookies, he's learning, and how quickly the game slows down for him will ultimately decide his role, 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.
"And whoever those two guys are, if that's Derrick and (Reeves-Maybin), if that's (Anzalone) and Malcolm, whatever that looks like. No one can honestly sit here and tell me 365 days ago that you all thought, or myself thought, Malcolm would take the opening snaps (last year)."
Rodriguez started 15 games last season as a rookie sixth-round pick and played a big role finishing with 87 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a sack.
So far this spring it's been Anzalone and Barnes mostly as the first pairing with everyone else working into the mix from there.
Sheppard said Barnes is 'light years' ahead of where's he's been in his previous two offseasons when he played in 32 games (10 starts) with 114 tackles (69 solo) and 3.0 sacks.
"I'm telling you right now he's not going away quietly," Sheppard said of Barnes. "That is a player I've seen walk in this building since we started up Phase II (of the offseason training program) and look like a completely different player. I mean a kid grown into a man. Taking charge, holding people accountable, running the huddle letting everyone know. 'I know what I'm doing. Now let me help you out.'"
That's the next step Sheppard said is important for young linebackers like Barnes to take -- The game slowing down for Barnes so he can understand the roles of everyone around him and how it all works together in Aaron Glenn's scheme. That's what Sheppard said he's been most impressed about with Barnes this offseason. He also said it's going to be hard to keep a player like that off the field.
A former eight-year NFL linebacker himself, Sheppard has earned a reputation among his players as a coach who is honest and knowledgeable. It's why head coach Dan Campbell and Glenn are giving him more responsibility.
View photos from Day 7 of Detroit Lions OTA practice on Monday, June 12, 2023 in Allen Park, Mich.
"Well, he's earned that. I feel like Shep, the more we put on Shep, the more he answers the call," Campbell said. "And he's developing as a coach. We see growth – no different than the players, you want to see growth from your coaches.
"And so, AG and I talked, and we felt like it was time to put more on him, especially this year. I think Shep is a young, promising coach. I think he can be a coordinator one day, and I think he can be a head coach one day. I think he's got that type of potential, so the time is right."
Sheppard said both Barnes and Anzalone texted him the first night of the draft fired up about the Campbell pick, but he also knew both players wanted clarity within that excitement.
"The guys want to know the lay of the land and they know they can reach out to me for that honest answer," Sheppard said. "I told them it was an opportunity that we saw, and the front office saw to get better on the roster.
"Now, what that means? You all will decide that as far as the landscape of our room. But these guys have taken Jack in like he's been here since we all got here in 21. They are competing and it's going to be an open competition coming up in training camp."
It's an important competition at linebacker for this defense overall, and it will be fun to watch play out come training camp.