The news is not good. The thick black line indicates the NFL average. The bright yellow line indicates the best-PFF-graded ILB in the NFL, Lawrence Timmons. The bronze-ish line shows the worst-PFF-graded ILB in the NFL, Jonathan Vilma. That every single one of the Lions’ ILB are between the black line and bronze line is not good. Let’s start with the starter, DeAndre Levy.
DeAndre had an inauspicious start to the season: first a back injury sidelined Levy for much of training camp, then a groin injury sidelined him for most of the preseason, then an ankle injury sidelined him until Halloween. Incredibly, Levy still logged 749 snaps, just under the league average for an inside linebacker. While he was out there, he was inconsistent, but slightly positive. He had strong games against Buffalo, Green Bay, and Miami, and weak ones against New England and Miami. His worst grade of the season, though, was his only pre-bye appearance: Week 3, at Minnesota (-2.7).
This was both his first game back from the groin, and when he suffered the ankle injury—so I’m willing to give him a pass for that game, and for much of the season. But Levy’s shortcomings in run support are really holding his grade back. PFF charts tackles and assists, as well as missed tackles—their tackle data is flatly much better than the “official” tackles passed out by team scorers. I created my own little metric by adding PFF tackles to PFF assists, and dividing by PFF missed tackles. Levy was tied (with Stewart Bradley) for last in the NFL; both tallied just 4.9 total tackles for each one they missed. The league average? 12.83.
Of course, Levy was a third-round pick in 2009, an outside linebacker with a ton of upside. That upside lay in his hitting, his athleticism, and his theoretical ability to cover (though he was not an outstanding coverage OLB in college). PFF tracks opponent passer rating against each defender, and Levy was 13th-best in the NFL with this, at 86.1 (avg 98.0). He was also 15th-best in individual YpC against with 8.9 (avg 10.0). The longest reception Levy allowed was just 20 yards long, tied for fourth-best in the NFL (avg. 32.7). His actual coverage grade was slightly below average, indicating inconsistency. Still, the metrics show that he wasn’t thrown at very often, and when he was not much damage was done.
This training camp was Levy’s first as a starter, and first as a pure middle linebacker. It was vitally important that he go through camp and learn his assignments cold. He couldn’t. It was crucial that he get a lot of snaps in preseason, to get his timing down. He didn’t. He didn’t see regular action until Week 8—and when he did, he almost never took a breather. Per PFF, he missed only two defensive snaps from Week 8 on; an incredible workload. By my count, he’d have played the second-most snaps in the NFL if he were healthy all season long.
Bottom Line: Levy is exactly where Cliff Avril was at this point last year: third-round pick from a Big Ten school, battling injuries and switching positions. Levy will have to take an Avrilesque step forward in 2011 to prove he’s a long-term solution to the ILB problem—but even if we get more of the same, he’s not a liability on this defense.
No other ILBs got the requisite 25% of snaps, but Landon Johnson came close. Average in pass rush, a little below average in coverage, and well below average in run support, this career OLB/special teams ace was a step down from Levy, but not as big of one as you’d expect. He was better than awful, but still well below average.
Bottom Line: Johnson will be an unrestricted free agent, and has no future playing ILB for the Lions. If he’s brought back, it will be as a special teamer—and there’ll be lots of competition there.
Several other players got snaps for the Lions at ILB; Spencer Havner and Ashlee Palmer foremost amongst them. But, I’ll either grade those players as OLBs, or not at all. For 2011 and the forseeable future, DeAndre Levy is the only credible inside linebacker the Lions have.
SHOPPING LIST: The Lions are rolling with DeAndre Levy at starter, who’s proven he can play at at least a decent level. He has flashed the potential to get much better, though, and the Lions will hope he does. The Lions could use a credible veteran backup here, in lieu of repurposing OLBs or special teams specialists.