Okay, “The Inside Linebackers” is a misnomer. There was only one. Stephen Tulloch played 1120 snaps for the Lions in 2011; Ashlee Palmer was the only Lion to get any game reps at the MLB spot (and he only got 18). Tulloch was a free agent signee, so wasn’t OMH’d in last year’s Inside Linebacker assessment . . . OR WAS HE?
With the lockout, I had enough time to OMH not only current Lions but prospective ones as well. Here's what the Old Mother Hubbard: Shopping for Inside Linebackers piece had to say about Tulloch:
Tulloch got to the ballcarrier as often as almost anyone, and was picked on in coverage almost as much as anyone. He had the heaviest snap workload in the NFL, and he was involved in those snaps at very high rates. It’d be fair to say that no one ILB did more for his defense than Stephen Tulloch in 2010—yet, the Titans have already prepared for Tulloch’s departure, drafting Florida ILB Colin McCarthy. They fear Tulloch will “cost too much to keep,” despite his obvious value. Whether it’s because Jim Schwartz will be waiting at midnight with a bottle of vino, or because there’ll be a bidding war the Lions will bow out of, Tulloch won’t come cheaply.
The Lions allegedly offered Tulloch a rich long-term deal, but they weren’t able to get it done. To the surprise of all, the two sides agreed to a one-year, $3.25 million-dollar contract. The Lions got their money’s worth:
Stephen Tulloch was Pro Football Focus’ seventh-highest-graded inside linebacker. His +20.8 wasn’t too far behind San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman, the top dog at +32.2. The biggest gap between the two was in the pass-rush department, where Tulloch’s –1.6 grade was actually below the NFL average of 0.0. Tulloch outstripped Bowman in coverage though, by a long shot. Tulloch’s +11.2 coverage grade was second-best in the NFL, behind only Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny. When it came to stopping the run, Tulloch was again in the top ten: ranked 9th, with a +12.6 mark.
The numbers are again very solid. Counting every assist as “half a tackle,” Tulloch had one missed tackle for every 12.63 tackles made, tied for ninth-best in the NFL. Tulloch was in on a tackle once every 11.09 snaps; good for 10th-best in the NFL. In coverage, Tulloch was outstanding. Opposing quarterbacks threw at him 39 times, and he allowed only 71.4% of them to be caught. He allowed a passer effectiveness rating of just 71.3, third-lowest of any inside linebacker.
NOTE: Advanced NFL Statistics does not differentiate between 4-3, 3-4, inside, or outside linebackers. They’re all just “linebackers.”
When it comes to making plays, Tulloch had a fantastic year. His +1.81 +WPA is 10th-best in the NFL—again, out of all 198 linebackers—and more than double the 0.76 league average. For +EPA, Tulloch’s 66.6 is second-best in the NFL, behind only Terrell Suggs.
Bottom Line: Stephen Tulloch is one of the best 4-3 middle linebackers in the business. In the context of a defense that doesn’t ask him to rush the passer much he might be the best. He is a horse who’s played nearly 2,500 snaps over the last two seasons and shows no signs of slowing down. Tulloch must be re-signed, because the Lions cannot replace his performance on the open market.
SHOPPING LIST: The Lions have one of the league’s best middle linebackers walking out the door as an unrestricted free agent, and literally no one behind him. They absolutely must re-sign Tulloch, commit significant resources to finding a not-as-good replacement, or hope DeAndre Levy can take a big step forward in the middle.