When we first shopped for linebackers, we assumed the Lions would be bringing in a new middle linebacker and shifting Andre Levy outside. The result? Stephen Tulloch was the only 4-3 MLB who looked like a clear upgrade over Levy, though Kirk Morrison looked like an excellent option if the Lions wanted to bring in a pure run-stopper. My suspicion, though, is that the Lions won’t have anyone but Tulloch or Levy in the middle, because they value knowledge of the system and defensive playcalling above pure tackling ability. So, let’s presume the Lions pursue (but don’t land) Stephen Tulloch, and attempt to upgrade the outside linebacker position.
That guy in Carolina blue (or something like it) is James Anderson, a surprise tackling surprise on a terrible Panther defense. Fantasy football players in IDP leagues know all about this guy, as he racked up 100 solo tackles and 12 assists (by Pro Football Focus’s count). Of course, being on a terrible defense, he played about 1,100 snaps to rack those totals up—2nd most of any 4-3 OLB. But if you divide snaps by his total tackles and missed tackles, you see he had a chance to make a tackle in every 9.1 of those 1,110 snaps, a rate placing him in the upper third of 41 qualifying outside linebackers.
Anderson’s grades, not surprisingly, look great. His +14.1 overall slotted him 3rd-best in the NFL; he was surprisingly well-rounded, too, grading well above average in pass rush, pass coverage, run stopping, and penalty drawing. His 6 sacks, 5 QB hits, and 8 QB pressures are eye-popping, especially considering Anderson played all but two games on the strong side of Carolina’s defense. He wasn’t an especially sure tackler, though: if I add his solos to one-half his assists, and divide that number by his missed tackles (9), I get a tackle-to-missed tackle ratio of 11.8—that’s below average, and ranked 31st of 41.
Anderson’s coverage, though graded well, is a bit of a mixed bag. He was targeted 61 times; 4th-most in the NFL, but when you account for his snap count he wasn’t especially picked on. He allowed 80% of those targets to be caught; that’s 23rd-best, just about at the median. His average allowed YpC was 8.0, 9th-best in the NFL and much better than average—though an average 6.0 yards of that was allowed YAC, a more middling number. With one interception and two passes defensed, he doesn’t make impact plays against the pass often—and his 102.9 passer rating allowed is right down the middle of the road, too.
The 6'-2", 235-pound Anderson would fit very well with the Lions. He's a solid, above-average all-around 4-3 OLB with a surprising knack for getting to the quarterback—a trait not easy to come by. But, will he be available? Back before the CBA expired, the Panthers didn’t consider re-signing Anderson a priority because 4-3 SLBs are fairly easy to come by. Now, though, Panthers beat writer Joe Person Tweeted that the Panthers want Anderson. How badly they want him is an open question.
Keith Bulluck, like Stephen Tulloch, is another free-agent-to-be ‘backer with a Schwartzingham pedigree. The 34-year-old Bulluck played a rotational role with the Giants last season, seeing just over 300 snaps. He’d averaged about a thousand over the prior two seasons with the Titans, so this was quite a dropoff. Still the nominal starter at strongside linebacker, though, Bulluck graded out as the ninth-best 4-3 OLB.
Part of the reason for Bulluck’s low snap count: the Giants took Bulluck off the field in nickel situations. Bulluck was coming off of knee surgery, and the Giants didn’t trust him in coverage. Bulluck, though, earned PFF’s 10th-best coverage grade, a +1.9. He was thrown at just 16 times all year, and Bulluck allowed just 8 receptions; that 50% allowed-reception rate was the best in the NFL. He also, incredibly, picked off two of those 16 targets—leading to a NFL-best 44.8 passer rating allowed. Clearly, coverage was not an issue.
Pass rush, however, was a problem—Bulluck made no impact there (+0.1). Bulluck told the New York Post that lack of explosion was where the recovering knee hurt him the most:
""I kind of know the things I was lacking and the things where normally I was strong and where I wasn't as strong," Bulluck said. "Point of attack and explosion were my two biggest things I was missing. Initial contact was fine. When it came to the drive and follow through, even on tackles, dealing with offensive linemen, those things I had the most trouble because I wasn't used to being in that situation."
Bulluck’s run grades didn’t suffer much: his +5.6 was the 15th-best of the 41 qualifying OLBs. Clearly, his veteran savvy put him in the right place at the right time, and kept blockers off him. However, as he said, he had trouble driving and following through, and it showed up in his tackling stats. He had 18 solos and 3 assists, but 4 missed tackles—a miss for every 4.9 tackles, the fifth-worst ratio by a 4-3 OLB last year. However, 12 of those 18 solos were Stops—tied for fifth-best in the NFL. Most telling? Bulluck turned in an incredible +4.8 individual game grade in Week 3—against Tennesee.
Many times, when athletes are put on the scrap heap, they complain they’re worth more than the team thinks they are—in this case, the data backs Bulluck up. He feels he deserves to be a “bigger part of a team’s puzzle,” and he’s exactly right. He knows Detroit is where he’ll best be primed to make an impact, too: the Lions top his three-team destination shortlist.
Quincy Black is a player I’ve always had a soft spot for. The 6’-2”, 240-pound Black sat on my dynasty league practice squad for a few years, waiting for his chance to crack the Bucs’ defensive lineup. In 2009, he finally got a chance—and while he struggled early, he played very very well down the stretch. 2010 was a coming-out party: Black was the 12th-best PFF-graded OLB in 2010, with a +8.0 overall grade. Black was very well-rounded, too: solidly above-average in pass rush (+1.3, avg. +0.5), well above-average in coverage (+2.9, avg. –2.2), and right on par against the run (+2.8, avg. +2.9).
Unfortunately, Black’s breakout fourth season was cut short by a broken arm. In the eleven games he played, he turned in six strongly positive grades, and only one negative one. Black was a sure tackler, making 12.9 tackles per miss. He was thrown at at a roughly average rate, once every 18.1 snaps. He did an average job allowing completions (79.3%, avg. 78.1%), well above-average allowing YpC (8.1, avg. 9.5), and above-average in allowed passer rating (90.5, avg. 98.8). Black didn’t make many plays on the ball, with one interception and one pass defensed on his 29 TAs.
On WDFN, Tom Kowalski recently said that Black is a player to keep an eye out for; at 27, matching the physical profile, and coming off of a breakout year, he’d be a perfect long-term addition to the core of this young defense. If Tampa won’t open up the pursestrings to keep their 2007 third-round pick around, well, he’d be money well spent.
The dark horse of the OLB free agent class is Justin Durant, a 6’-1”, 240-pound wrecking ball from the Jaguars—a wrecking ball with a couple of cracks. Just look at the radar chart above: Durant’s stonking +15.5 against the run is second-best in the NFL. His missed tackle rate, one per 8.1 made, is right in the middle of the pack. This suggests, like Bulluck, Durant is slicing through blocking to get to the correct lanes, over and over and over again, showing veteran savvy in just his fourth year. even if his finishing isn’t top-notch.
There are two big concerns about Durant: one is his inability to stay healthy; he’s missed at least two games in each of his first four seasons, plus six games last season. Second, he graded out as poorly against the pass as he did well against the run. His appalling –13.2 on coverage put him fourth-worst in the NFL, and his –1 in pass rush is below-average, too. He’s allowed a slightly-better-than-average 75.6% of his targets to be caught, and his passer rating allowed is dead on NFL average: 98.6, vs. 98.8 . . . but you don’t earn a –13.2 on only 491 snaps without being consistently poor in coverage. Durant has the physical tools to be an impact player, but so far it’s more potential than production.
Stephen Nicholas was a name I hadn’t heard before embarking on this shopping trip, but he’s not news to the Lions. A 6’-3”, 230-pounder, Nicholas was selected one round after Quincy Black by the Atlanta Falcons. Like Black, Nicholas has been the mostly-starter on the strong side for the past two seasons. Nicholas was PFF’s 15th-best 4-3 outside linebacker in 2010, turning in a +6.9 overall grade. He was excellent against the pass, receiving a +1.2 pass rush mark, and NFL-best +5.1 coverage grade!
His run-stopping grades were merely average, +1.1 (avg. +1.4). However, he missed only 4 tackles all season, one per every 9.6 made; that rate was 5th-best in the NFL. Nicholas, like Black, would step in and start—presumably, for a long time to come. His outstanding coverage skills, and ability to rush, are exactly what the Lions need. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has linked Nicholas to Detroit several times this offseason, so there’s some fire underneath the smoke I’m blowing here.
Another linebacker I’ve always wished were in Honolulu Blue is Bears free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa. Physically, he was undersized for Lions’ DC Kurt Schottenheimer’s tastes when he came out in 2003. I thought he was the perfect fit for the Lions’ Tampa 2 when his rookie contract was set to expire, but the Rams re-signed him. Finally, he came free, but it was the Lions’ first year under Schwartz and optimistically listed at 6’-1”, 230, he just didn’t fit the profile. Not to mention, he’d struggled with injuries . . .
. . . anyway, turns out I was right about that whole Tampa 2 thing; the Bears snagged him and he’s been very productive (when healthy). Graded at +5.8 overall, +1 in pass rush, and +4.1 against the run, Tinoisamoa plays more physically than you’d expect from a guy of his stature. Unfortunately, his –1.1 coverage grade is above the NFL average(-2.2), but not by as much as you’d hope from a guy of his stature. I suspect the Bears will let him test the waters--and if the Lions can't get anybody else, he’d still be a solid upgrade over Julian Peterson’s recent play.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Mayhew/Schwartz approach to filling holes has been to either pick up stopgaps or invest in in a long-term solution. The Lions invested in Andre Levy, and I don’t think they’ll kick him outside just because—so a retread thumper like Kirk Morrison doesn’t fit the pattern. No, if they bring in a new middle linebacker, it’ll be someone who’ll play middle linebacker for the next three or four years. While researching, I’ve developed a strong feeling that only Levy and Tulloch—experienced playcallers in the Schwartzingham defense--are legitimate options in the middle for 2011.
However, just as this piece was going to press, Mike O’Hara reported for Fox Sports Detroit that the Lions prefer Justin Durant to Stephen Tulloch. Durant’s “speed and versatility” push him up past Tully in the Lions’ scouting grades. Apparently, they see Durant as a guy who can play inside or outside. Frankly, by these numbers, Durant has no business playing outside! The Lions’ defensive scheme funnels runners inside, and the pass rush from the defensive line will force QBs to hit a lot of hot routes and option passes. This puts extreme pressure on the OLBs to cover slot WRs, TEs, and RBs wheeling out of the flat. If the Lions get Durant, I see him playing inside . . . then again, I’m sure the Lions know their system and their needs better than I do—and they actually watched the tape themselves.
Ultimately, the Lions have a lot of options here. They could easily get Tulloch and Bulluck, or Anderson and Nicholas, or Black and Nicholas, or any number of combinations; few of these players will be bank-breakers. The most important thing to remember, though, is that Levy is going to take a big step forward. He missed almost all of training camp, and all of the preseason, due to injuries—and last year was his first year starting in the middle. Whether he stays inside or moves to the outside, DeAndre Levy is going to make an impact just by having his first full offseason in the defense. With a couple of judicious pickups, the Lions could have not only the best front four, but the best front seven in the NFL.