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TWENTYMAN: How newly drafted players could fit into LB rotation

The Detroit Lions began to address their linebacker position in free agency by re-signing veterans Alex Anzalone, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Josh Woods, and signing former Lion Jarrad Davis and Chris Board, who spent his first four seasons with the Ravens.

The Lions return Derrick Barnes, a fourth-round pick from last year's draft, who had an up and down rookie campaign. Typically the biggest leap in development and production a player has in the NFL is between their first and second seasons, and the Lions are certainly hoping that's the case with Barnes.

But among those players, only Barnes is signed beyond 2022, which means the Lions could be in a position to revamp their linebacker corps again next offseason. It also means the Lions' sixth-round draft picks – Malcolm Rodriguez and James Houston – could have a better shot at not only making the roster, but potentially playing some meaningful snaps on defense too.

The Lions are moving from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 base look this season, though it should be noted more than 70 percent of defensive alignments are sub packages.

View photos from offseason workouts on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said this week they'll be much more aggressive and attacking upfront, and that should help the linebackers behind them make more plays.

"We think (it will make their job easier)," Wash said of how the changes upfront will affect the linebackers at the second level. "We should be knocking people back so they can get downhill better. We put a lot of work into making sure the philosophy upfront matches with the linebackers exactly how we play it and the d-line understanding what those guys behind them are doing because of what we do."

Rodriguez is expected to have an early impact on special teams, but he'll also throw his hat into the ring for some playing time at the inside linebacker spot.

He ranked seventh in college football last season with 76 solo tackles to go along with his 129 total tackles. He also chipped in 15 tackles for loss with three sacks and tied for 10th nationally with four forced fumbles in 14 starts. He made 397 tackles over the last four years.

The Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP had 11 tackles, an interception, and two pass breakups in the win over Notre Dame. He brings 4.52 speed to the position, which separates him a bit from the veterans the Lions have currently. Board and Rodriguez could vie for time on third downs because of their ability to run, cover and play in space.

Houston was a hybrid off-the-ball linebacker and pass rusher in college, but the Lions view him, at least initially, as an off-the-ball outside linebacker at either the WILL or SAM.

"I view myself as a football player," Houston said. "I feel like I can play a variety of positions. I know I can play off the ball, I can play on the ball. I haven't had too many looks at it, but I know I can go back there and play fullback.

"Really, whatever the team needs, that's really my thing. Whatever the team needs, I'll be happy to do whatever it takes to make the team and progress the team and make us better."

Houston has some explosive traits with 4.7 speed and a 39-inch vertical and 10'5'' broad jump. His vertical and broad jumps are in the elite category of this year's class of linebackers.

He spent his first four seasons at Florida and transferred to Jackson State for his senior year. He played 49 games with 13 starts, all of them in 2021 and his one season at Jackson State, where he had career bests of 24.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks.

He's got some versatility to his game. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn can be pretty creative with him as a blitzer and extra rusher.

Rodriguez and Houston may be later-round draft picks, but Detroit's linebacker corps is not set in stone. Competition breeds success, and the Lions expect to have a lot of it at that position, with Rodriguez and Houston in the mix.

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