As the Lions went on the clock to begin the 2009 draft, it was indisputable that the their most pressing need was middle linebacker. Coming off a season where they allowed over 2700 yards rushing, the Lions had a former 6th-round pick (on his fourth roster in four years) atop the run-stuffer depth chart. The starting-caliber free agents were long since signed, and the 2008 starter--the always-game but barely adequate Paris Lenon--had been allowed to test the free agent waters. The Lions absolutely had to come out of the 2009 draft with a starting inside linebacker for now, and for the future.
Many observers had pegged the Lions as a possible landing point for Butkus award finalist Rey Maualuga, a 260-pound physical freak from USC, and a paragon of the firey run-stuffer archetype. Big, fast, strong, and nasty, Rey-Rey seemed to be the perfect solution to the Lions' middle-linebacker problem. When the Lions went on the clock at 1.20, and Maualuga had yet to be picked, many Lions fans high-fived, clinked longnecks, and generallly celebrated the coming of the first defensive game-changer since Before Millen.
When TE Brandon Petitgrew's name was called instead, it was a bit of a shock. When Maualuga fell all the way to the 2.1, Lions fans picked their cheering up where it had left off. Surely, now, "Rey-Rey", the next Ray Lewis, was coming to Detroit. Surely, a mid-first-round prospect, at the most pressing possible need, was a mortal lock to be taken with the Lions' second-round pick. However, when the card was turned in, it bore the name of Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas.
Consternation amongst Lions fans reached red alert levels. Was it possible that the Lions, desperately needing a linebacker with legitimate size and speed, passed on two different 260-pound linebackers with sub-4.6 speed three different times? Knowing that the only other pure middle linebacker prospect good enough to step in and start, OSU's James Laurenitis, wouldn't last until the Lions' next pick at 3.1, the wailing, great lamentation, and gnashing of teeth began in earnest.
When the Lions turned in their next card, everyone was caught off guard when the name of Wisconsin OLB DeAndre Levy was called. Levy played on the outside at Wisconsin, and even those Lions fans who knew of him knew of him only as the man who broke Joe Paterno's leg:
Wisconsin's official site has already been cleaned of his bio, but there's one pulled from the ESPNDB. After an 84-tackle (21 TFL), five-sack senior season that saw him named to the first all-Wisconsin team, Scout.com christened Levy a three-star recruit, the #7 overall recruit in Wisconsin, and the 78th-best linebacker recruit in the country. As most standout Milwaulkeeans do, Levy stayed in-state--turning down Pitt and Indiana to become a Badger.
Levy was not redshirted; he even saw a little game action as a true freshman, racking up 18 tackles in 11 appearances. He came into his sophomore year as the starter, and didn't disappoint. He came in fourth on the team in tackles with 50 (7.5 TFL), and six sacks. He also came up huge in the Badgers' Capital One Bowl victory over Arkansas; he snagged an interception, and had three tackles. As a junior, he took another leap forward. He wrapped up 70 tackles. 10 of which went for losses. He was also named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his incredible performance against Indiana: eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Finally, in his senior year, he came in second on the team in tackles with a career-high 73. His 9.5 TFLs led the team, and his 6.0 sacks tied for the team lead. For this, the 6'-2", 236-pound Levy was named honorable mention all-Big Ten.
So, why did the Lions draft him? Already well set at both outside linebacker positions, and completely bereft of talent in the middle, this looked like an awful selection. Quick Googling revealed Levy's tendencies: an extremely quick and fast backer with NFL size, at his best when running downhill and laying big hits on people; at his worst in coverage. His natural skill set didn't make him much of an NFL strong-side linebacker.
However, word quickly got out that the Lions had no intention of using him as a strong-side linebacker. To Lions' fans' continuing chagrin, the Lions had passed up on several pure inside 'backers--then drafted a SAM with the intention of converting him to a MIKE. Isn't this the folly that the Lions have indulged in time and time again? From Barrett Green to Teddy Lehman to Jordon Dizon, the Lions have frequently tried converting natural college strong-siders into pro MLBs. Usually the result has been a fiesty-but-hopelessly-overmatched 220-pound MLB trying to bring down running backs no smaller than he is. However, Levy is no 220-pounder. While he lacks the bestial 250-plus-pound frame Lions fans were hoping to see, he has a couple inches and about 20 pounds on the Lehmans and Dizons of the world.
So, we know what the Lions fans were hoping for, but what were the Lions' coaches and front office looking for? Jim Schwartz, at USC's Pro Day:
"We're going to need a big thumper," Schwartz admitted Sunday after practice. "I mean, a strong thumper in the middle for base defense. I don't want to put height and weights (on it) but a big, strong, physical player that can play between the tackles, that can take on offensive guards. . . . we've dealt with a lot of those situations before (at Tennessee). I think No. 1 on his job description has got to be (as a) heavy-handed, inside run defender that can take on guards, that can fill fullbacks (and) that can bring that kind of run-stopping attitude to the defense."
After the draft, he was asked to give his thoughts on Levy as that "thumper":
"Physically, he fits there. Again, I want to caution that until we get mouthpieces and shoulder pads and those kinds of things and you're taking on fullbacks live, you have a hard time completing that evaluation. But drill work and athletically, hitting the sleds and those kinds of things, he looks like he's right at home there. When he strikes you, he knocks people back. You don't really worry about the weight there as much as the impact that he does when he hits. You want guys who can build explosion through speed and he has that 4.4, 4.5 type speed and he's able to create some collisions."
Indeed. To that most exaustive, complete, and impartial scouting resource: the internet highlight reel!
As always, there are some very encouraging things on these clips (click for a longer, non-embeddable video). There is, as Coach Schwartz said, a snap-back to his hits; his initial pop is great. I also love his relentless pursuit of all ball carriers; he absolutely never gives up on a play. Whether or not he makes the initial hit, he seems to have a knack for ending up helping in the takedown. This leads me to what doesn't excite me: the occasionally-poor angles he takes exacerbate his lack of overpowering size and strength. If he initially tries to fill the wrong lane, or overpursues, his speed gets him back to the ballcarrier-- but he can't take him down without help. For what it's worth, Levy came into Wisconsin weighing 212 pounds; according to him he's already up to 238 and wants to go into training camp at 240. 240 pounds is definitely big enough to play in the middle; he'll have about an inch and five pounds over outgoing starter Paris Lenon--and while Lenon is quick, he is not 4.56 quick, as Levy is. Schwartz says that he builds force through speed--and while physics says that's possible, all that momentum has to hit square, the first time. It will be Levy and Cunningham's job to make sure he pulls that off, down after down.
As it turns out, the wailing and lamentation were all for naught--not only does Levy possess in great quantities the qualities that Cunningham and Schwartz are looking for in their linebackers, but the Lions went and signed former Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote. Foote, a stalwart of two Pittsburgh championship teams, is a legit NFL middle linebacker. His forte is two-down run stuffing, and he'll provide an instant--and dramatic--upgrade over anyone else on the roster. His downhill, attacking style--combined with his veteran savvy, effusive love of his native Detroit, and extremely vocal leadership in the huddle is exactly what the Lions wanted and needed. For one year--by Foote's request, the length of his deal--DeAndre Levy will get to see exactly what the Lions need him to be for 2010 and beyond. Oh, and Foote's size? 6'-1", 240 pounds.