Initially, I was going to break this down into the "middle linebackers" and the "outside linebackers", but . . . who are we kidding? There isn't a natural middle linebacker on the Lions' roster. Hence, "the linebackers":
Ernie Sims: coming out of high school, Ernie Sims was the #1 overall recruit (as ranked by Rivals.com). It's no surprise; even in high school he had an NFL body. He passes the eyeball test with flying colors--he has truly alarming biceps. He selected Florida State, and after a very productive career there, was drafted by the Lions with the 8th overall pick of the 2006 draft. There were a lot of questions about his size (listed at 6'-0", 220; perhaps in platform shoes?), but as Sims said, "When I tackle a person, they don't ask me how tall I am". Sims was rampantly compared to fellow FSU standout and Tampa 2 LB Derrick Brooks, though Brooks is taller, leaner, slightly faster, and a SSLB--much more like former Lions LB Boss Bailey. In his first season, Sims was a force, leading the Lions in tackles (124, 81 solo) and often looking like the only guy out there. The sky seemed like the limit, and I started saving up for an Ernie Sims jersey. He took a small step forward in productivity in 2007 (134 tackles, 91 solo, 1 sack, 1 INT), but compared to expectations he underperformed. He also looked like he was freelancing at times, overpursuing in the run game and getting caught out-of-position in the pass game--both cardinal sins in the Tampa 2, which relies on everyone staying home and removing options for the offense. Sims REALLY started freelancing this season, trying to do everything himself, MUCH to the detriment of the defense. Sims's productivity fell way off (113 tackles, 71 solo, 1 sack), and he often seemed to disappear out there. My personal theory is that Sims lost all respect for the defensive coaching staff and the system they taught. Whether he wasn't going full speed, or he was playing with total disregard for the system, Sims was definitely mentally checked out. I think a switch to a system where he gets to blitz, to attack, to run downhill and hit people will be MUCH more to his liking. Sims was named as one of the "three untouchable Lions" by NFL.com's Adam Schefter, and there's a good reason why. Sims' athletic ability is incredible, and when he's engaged he plays with tremendous fire and passion. In a traditional 4-3, where the WLB is asked to attack, attack, attack, I think Ernie Sims could be a tremendous force; a perennial Pro Bowl level defender. In a 3-4, Sims could pair with Cliff Avril to make a vicious OLB combo reminiscent of the Steelers' Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison. Bottom line: Sims mailed it in last year, but I expect a Pro Bowl year from him this year, regardless of alignment. Schwartz and Gunther will know how to use this enormous talent.
Jordon Dizon: Who knows? Incomplete.
Paris Lenon: . . . I'm not going to get away with that one, am I?
Jordon Dizon: He was the Lions second-round pick in the 2008 draft, one where every early pick was desperately needed to contribute in order to avoid a disaster . . . and he didn't . . . and they didn't. The confusion, inconsistency of vision, and infighting amongst the Lions over Jordon Dizon was one of the key examples of why the Lions went 0-16. Dizon was extremely productive at Colorado. Despite being a little undersized for a Mike, even by college standards (6'-0", 229#), Dizon was a four-year starter who slid between the Mike and Will spots. He finished at Colorado with 463 tackles, eighth-best in D-I history, and after his senior year was Big XII Defensive Player of the Year (please refrain from making the obvious Big XII/Defense/oxymoron jokes). Here is what I believe is the timeline of what went down:
* Millen and Marinelli agree that the Lions need a middle linebacker, preferably the kind with "of the future" attached to his position designation.
* Millen and Marinelli agree that Jordon Dizon has the talent, instincts, and frame to someday be a great middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 system.
* Millen drafts Jordon Dizon in the second round.
* Millen presents Marinelli with Dizon and demands he install him as the MLB.
* Marinelli retorts that Dizon will not be mentally or physically ready to play MLB for at least a year, maybe two, and should start off on the strong side while Paris Lenon brings the mediocrity.
* Millen insists.
* Dizon holds out of the first week of training camp, missing the installation of the base defense and killing any chance he had of making an impact at MLB in 2008.
* Marinelli plants Dizon's butt on the third-string bench behind Buster Davis.
* Millen cuts Buster Davis.
* Millen is fired.
* Marinelli immediately switches Dizon to the strong side, where he is promptly injured and lost for the year.
Bottom line: From what very, very, very little we have seen, Dizon is a short-term project at SLB, long-term project at MLB, and possibly too small for either--essentially the second coming of Teddy Lehman.
Paris Lenon: Paris Lenon is the man Lions fans love to hate. Listed at 6'-2", 235 lbs., Paris Lenon is--by far--the biggest linebacker on the Lions roster. An undrafted free agent who paid his dues in NFL Europe and the XFL, Lenon has been very steady, really hardworking, and totally unspectacular. He hasn't missed a game since 2002--and even though he's arguably a natural SLB, he's started every game at middle linebacker throughout his tenure with the Lions. He doesn't posess great size, speed, or strength, but he's one of the few sound tacklers out there for the Lions, and he keeps his wits about him out there. If the Lions are going to play an attacking 4-3, Lenon absolutely cannot be the starting MLB. The Lions must acquire a real MLB with a frame that lets him athletically carry 245 pounds or more, let Lenon back him up, or fight Dizon, and Ryan Nece fight for snaps on the strong side. In a 3-4, the Lions will have to both sign a veteran starter AND burn one of the first five draft picks on an MLB. Bottom line: Lenon is an okay starter/terrific backup SSLB with a high motor, playing WAY out-of-position at MLB.
Ryan Nece: Another of the Tampa Bay Misfit Toys, Ryan Nece was signed just before the season opened, and very soon found himself the starting SSLB. Weighing in at 6'-3", 224 pounds, I completely wrote Nece off--just another skinny OLB off the trash pile, right? However, Nece is a man full of surprises: his father is Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. Moreover, while Nece didn't have his pinky finger cut off to stay on the field last year, he played with an impressive amount of fire and tenacity. He pulled down 68 tackles (45 solo) and 1.5 sacks in just 10 starts. He's not a long-term solution--at age 29 he'll never be any better than he is right now--but he was more than worth the street FA contract he signed. He's also a quality special-teamer, many of whom got run off by Marinelli's "I don't waste roster spots on special teamers" approach. Bottom line: excellent heart, attitude, depth, special teams ability, no contract to speak of. If he stays on the roster, I don't mind at all--but I'd hope Dizon or Lenon could beat him out for the starting SSLB gig.
Alex Lewis: 6'-0", 230 lbs. Fast. Athletic. Can't tackle. Good special teamer.
Anthony Cannon: 6'-0", 228 lbs. Fast. Athletic. Can't tackle. Good special teamer.
SUMMARY: Sims should be an impact player at the weakside, and between Lennon and Dizon the strongside should be handled as well. However, the Lions absolutely must address the middle linebacker position, preferably through both free agency and one of the first five picks of the draft. Paris Lenon is small for an NFL linebacke, but is the biggest of the bunch. In an aggressive 4-3, the MLB must be a traditional run-stopper like--speaking strictly hypothetically (wink, wink)--James Laurenitis of Ohio State. In a 3-4, the Lions may have several quality veteran starters on the free agent market to pursue: young standout veteran Dolphin Channing Crowder (who I was rooting for us to draft originally) is one example. In a bizarre but intriguing piece of news, a close friend of Pittsburgh stalwart ILB Larry Foote told the Free Press Foote would love to come to Detroit--much like his old teammate Earl Holmes did. Larry, good God, would we love to have you. The Lions would have to both sign AND draft multiple MLBs to switch to a 3-4, though; Lenon is currently the only "MLB" on the depth chart.