Old Mother Hubbard: The Outside Linebackers

>> 2.14.2012


The outside linebackers saw some churn this season, with DeAndre Levy sliding over full-time from the his prior inside spot, and newcomer Justin Durant taking most of the snaps on the other side, this group looks much different than it did in 2009. The radar chart looks a lot different, too:


Von Miller was Pro Football Focus’s top-rated 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, and No. 2 isn’t anywhere close. His +50.3 overall grade is simply massive, and nearly double the second-best 4-3 OLB, Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith (+27.3). His monster pass-rush grade (+25.4) dwarfs the second-best there, too (Kamerion Wimbley, +16.4). Smith has the top coverage grade at +8.7, but Miller is #2 at +5.2. When it comes to stopping the run, Miller is again top dog at +22.6.

At the bottom is Quincy Black, which makes me skittish about my assessment of him last season. Black’s -3.1 rush grade is just below the average of -0.5, but it actually makes him the third-worst run-stuffer in the NFL. This speaks to something I’ve talked about before: the vast, vast majority of 4-3 outside linebackers are virtually indistinguishable in terms of production. There are some at the top, one or two at the very top, and a few at the very bottom. Most of the rest are fungible with each other.

Reminder: Advanced NFL Stats does not differentiate between 3-4, 4-3, inside, or outside linebackers. All "ranks" for +EPA and +WPA are amongst all NFL linebackers.

Here's what last year's Outside Linebacker OMH had to say about the two outside linebackers the Lions will carry forward from 2012 into 2012:

DeAndre 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.

Bobby Carpenter showed he can be a creditable player for the Lions. He’ll never be the pass rusher the Lions want from the OLB spot—but with a full offseason in the system he should be able to pull his weight out there.

Let me qualify that last one: I no longer believe the Lions value pass-rushing as a primary tool in their outside linebackers. From Schwartz and Cunningham’s original comments about the design goals of the defense, I understood Julian Peterson to be the prototype: an impact pass-rusher with size and tools, and “good enough” in run-stopping and coverage.

In 2012, it became obvious that the Lions prefer not to blitz if possible, and instead rely on the linebackers as the primary line of defense against the run. Secondly, they need the linebackers to cover well—if the Lions are rushing four and dropping seven, they’re relying on that back seven to be smothering.

Now, in the Shopping for Linebackers OMH, my take on Justin Durant:

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.

Justin Durant is not fungible with any Lions outside linebacker I’ve given the OMH treatment. His +7.8 overall PFF grade ranks him 15th among 4-3 outside linebackers, just outside that second tier. This strongly above-average production is the best I’ve seen from the OLB position in the three years I’ve been charting it.

Pro Football Focus grades take a lot of heat, but Durant’s effectiveness in 2011 strongly resembled that of 2010. Durant plays the way he plays, here or in Jacksonville. He again pulled a double-digit run-stuffing grade, at +10.7. That was the ninth-best mark in the NFL, despite playing only 558 snaps.

Durant has struggled to stay healthy, and this season wasn’t quite an exception. He suffered a concussion against Minnesota in Week 3, and wasn’t able to return until the Atlanta game in Week 7. Other than that, though, he was able to make a major impact on running downs from wire to wire.

When it comes to passing downs, though, Durant is less effective—and he wasn’t on the field often in nickel packages. He was just slightly below average on the blitz, graded at -1.1 (-0.5 avg.). Again, though, that’s not a priority in this defense. The OLBs do need to cover, though, and that’s been Durant’s Achilles heel. This season, he was much improved in that arena: his coverage grade was -4.7 (up from -13.2), despite playing 67 more snaps.

Most of that, however, came in a -3.2 performance against Carolina, where screens to Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams on Durant’s side went 4-for-4 for 73 yards. When Durant was asked to simply drop back into coverage, he did it at an NFL average level—vastly improved from 2010 and more than good enough for 2012.

Bottom Line: Justin Durant is an athletic, physical run-stuffer with great strength, speed, and instincts. He was mostly taken off the field on passing downs, and mostly average against the pass when he wasn’t.  Overall, he’s given the Lions the best OLB production in the Schwartz era, and should remain a vital part of the defense for 2012. If Stephen Tulloch is not retained, I’d favor sliding Durant inside over acquiring another MLB.

DeAndre Levy did not take an “Avrilesque” step forward this season. Expected to develop into an athletic, hard-hitting, great-in-coverage-but-can-stop-the-run-too MLB, Levy instead yielded that spot to Stephen Tulloch and slid over to the outside. He once again struggled with consistency, mixing flashes of truly outstanding play with stretches of invisibility or even liability.

Levy played 981 snaps this season, doing most of the nickel-linebacker duty. His overall PFF grade of -6.7 is 38th-best, which is unfortunately also ninth-worst. What pushes Levy so far down the list is that he doesn’t do anything particularly well. His -2.4 blitz grade is not that far below the -0.5 average, his -1.7 coverage grade is actually above the -3.1 average, and his -4.1 run-stuffing grade is well below the +3.7 average.

DeAndre Levy not a blitzer, a run-stuffer, or coverage guy. He’s a true all-around linebacker, and when he’s on he’s fantastic. Crucially, he’s been “on” when the Lions have needed him the most. He had three games where he graded out positively in all three phases of play (and strongly positive overall): On Monday Night against Chicago, the following week against San Francisco, and the regular-season finale at Green Bay. Clearly, he has a knack for coming up big in big spots.

If you need confirmation of this, just check out his eye-popping +WPA: 1.79, by far the highest on the team and 11th-best in the NFL. It was high enough for Levy to make the Advanced NFL Stats NFC All-WPA team. ANS's Brian Burke points out that 0.71 of that 1.79 came on the last second sack-fumble of Joe Webb against Minnesota—where Levy singlehandedly changed a probable loss to a certain win.

Even without that play, though, Levy’s +WPA would be 1.08, still best amongst Lions OLBs and 61st out of  198 NFL linebackers. Levy and Durant’s +EPA (32.0 & 34.7 respectively) were very similar too, meaning Levy got more game-changing impact out of the plays he did make. However, the wide disparity in PFF grades shows Durant was much more solid when he wasn’t making splash plays.

Bottom Line: DeAndre Levy is left in limbo, yet again. He continues to show flashes of the player the Lions hoped he’d become, but he doesn’t appear to be significantly better than he was as a rookie. He has the athleticism, intelligence, and hitting ability to be a complete all-around linebacker capable of playing all three positions well—but as it is, he’s a mediocre-to-poor coverage OLB with a knack for making big plays in big spots. Levy will be a restricted free agent this offseason.

Bobby Carpenter surprised everyone with his strong rotational play in 2011, and though his snap count increased in 2012 his play only got stronger. You’d expect a 6’-2,” 256-pound former first-round pick to be a run-stuffer, or a blitzer, but he’s neither. Carpenter is a rare bird: a 3rd-down linebacker in a two-down body.

Those who were paying attention remember Carpenter having a banner day against the team that drafted (and cut) him: the Dallas Cowboys. Besides this ridiculous pick-six, Carpenter was +1.6 against the run, giving him the strongest-PFF-graded game of his career (+3.6).

Unfortunately, he was just as bad (-3.6) against Atlanta as he was good against Dallas, and with Durant, Levy, and Tulloch all healthy Carpenter didn’t see the field much after that, save for 51 unremarkable snaps against Minnesota. His overall PFF grade was an above-average +2.1, which if he’d played another game or two would have made him the 24th-best 4-3 OLB this season. His 25.0 +EPA and 0.22 +WPA accurately reflect his contributions: he didn’t play much, and when he did he didn’t have major impact (I’d bet most of that 0.22 came on that pick six).

Bottom Line: Bobby Carpenter is a a coverage and special-teams specialist who looks like he should be so much more. The Lions have come to rely on him as a steady fourth ‘backer, but he will be an unrestricted free agent.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions have some decisions to make about their linebackers, and first and foremost is the retention of Stephen Tulloch. If he is not retained, Durant could move inside and the Lions would be shopping for at least one starting OLB.

If Tulloch is retained, Durant should keep his job as a two-down run stuffer, but Levy will need to become much more consistent in pass coverage—assuming, of course, Levy himself is re-signed. My gut tells me he will be; he’s still got too much upside to let walk away.

If Tulloch and Levy are retained, Doug Hogue might be tabbed to fill Bobby Carpenter’s role—or the Lions might re-sign Carpenter, too. Ashlee Palmer should remain a special-teams specialist.


Dennis Schwartz,  February 17, 2012 at 11:23 AM  

Agreed...priority should be to lock up Tulloch. I can understand some trepidation with giving a big deal to someone that has that much mileage racked up; however his talent is needed for this defense to be successful.

Ty, you make an excellent point with regard to the tendencies of this defense. I think an emphasis is needed in finding a run stuffer at OLB (whether that be the BPA in the draft or via free agency).

I think Levy can rebound from this year, however I think his role should be 4th LB for the reasons you stated, he is an all around player with value due to his ability to sub in all three positions

Flamekeeper_Ty,  February 17, 2012 at 2:52 PM  

Yeah, he basically will either take a step up and be the DeAndre Levy we all know he has the potential to be, or stay where he is and take Carpenter's spot as the 4th LB/all-around backup.

Alex Hoag,  February 17, 2012 at 7:01 PM  

I think Levy might be who he is, a average outside LB. Tulloch is a must resign, although I'm not sure where the money is gonna be found at. I'm hoping Hogue really learns how to play defense this off season and can become a player. Again, great article Ty, OMH is my favorite reads of the off season. Thanks for taking the time to put these together.

Adam Ryden,  February 17, 2012 at 8:28 PM  

I'm glad someone brought up Hogue. It'll be interesting to see what he does with a full offseason. Last year Armchair Linebacker did an analysis of that draft pick about how he is a player like willie young/Sammie Hill. He has a high potential because he is so raw. Hopefully he can be a contributor.

Ty, I never though about moving Durant to the middle before you brought it up and it was a good point. These analysises (analyie?) are great, points out how unpredictable this offseason is going to be with cap being such an issue.

Nick Cramer,  February 20, 2012 at 7:59 PM  

At the start of the off season I was a little taken aback by how much people listed OLB as a position of need but then I went back and thought about it and I really feel that Levy just did not have a good season. This makes me wonder if picking up a Zach Brown or Ronnie Lewis might actually be a good idea moving forward. I mean even if Hogue takes a step forward I just don't see Levy getting any better leaving us with the need of at least one OLB in the near future.

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