NFL scouts around the league watched the linebacker and defensive line prospects complete their combine workouts on Monday. The most notable prospect being South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, who reasserted himself as one of the most explosive athletes that NFL scouts have ever laid their eyes on. At 6-foot-5 and 266 pounds, Clowney ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any defensive lineman, doing so in just 4.53 seconds.
Unfortunately for the Detroit Lions, Clowney will be selected long before the 10th overall pick. The Lions’ need for a defensive lineman isn’t nearly as pressing as some other positions, but with it being likely that Willie Young will find a new home via free agency, Detroit could use a defensive end in this year’s draft.
The Lions’ front-seven as a whole was widely considered one of the league’s best in 2013. Linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch played at an all-pro level throughout the entirety of the season and Ndamukong Suh continued his quest of becoming the best defensive tackle in the league. Although Detroit may not be in search of an immediate starter, they are in the market for a talent that can not only provide depth but also play a role in sub-packages.
By the time that the Lions are on the clock in May’s draft, it is probable that linebackers Khalil Mack (Buffalo) and Anthony Barr (UCLA) will have already been selected. However if that isn’t the case, the idea of adding a pass-rushing linebacker (that has mid 4.6-speed) who can start from day one is intriguing.
Mack (6-3, 251 pounds) could excel as a pass-rusher from the linebacker position or with his hand in the ground at the defensive end position. Barr, unlike Mack who was a four-year starter, is a converted running back and has only played the linebacker position for two seasons. Even though he is still in the process of fine-tuning his defensive skills, Barr led his team in both sacks and tackles for loss during the two seasons he spent playing linebacker.
Both Mack and Barr will make an immediate impact in the pros but there is front-seven talent throughout the draft if both are picked ahead of the Lions.
Two players who can also compete for a starting job from day one are defensive end Chris Smith (Arkansas) and outside linebacker Telvin Smith (Florida State). Chris Smith, who had exceptional workouts at the combine, is more suitable as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 front (a base that new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said would be included in some packages) but is versatile enough to play multiple positions. Telvin Smith brings outstanding speed as a linebacker, running the 40-yard dash in just 4.52 seconds, but needs to bulk up his narrow frame.
As enticing as adding a rush-linebacker who can start from day one sounds the more likely scenario is for the Lions to find a situational defensive end/linebacker late in the draft, similar to the 2010 draft when Willie Young was taken in the seventh round. Coming out of NC State, Young was an explosive end that could beat tackles with speed alone and the Lions have groomed him into an every-down player.
Howard Jones (Shepherd) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (Boston College) demonstrated great speed in their combine workouts and are projected to go in the sixth round.
Jones relied on his supreme athletic abilities to dominate at the Division II level and put those abilities on display at the combine. Jones placed within the top-five among defensive linemen in four drills; the 40-yard dash (4.60 seconds), vertical jump (40.5 inches), broad jump (124.0 inches) and the three cone drill (7.16 seconds). Standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 235-pounds, Jones has all the tangibles it takes to succeed in the pros.
Pierre-Louis lacks ideal size for a linebacker but his speed provides usefulness in sub-packages. He is labeled as a “tweener” by many, saying he is too small for linebacker and too slow for safety but that shouldn’t steer the Lions away from drafting him. At 6-feet tall and 232 pounds, his size is comparable to Tulloch’s 5-foot-11 240-pound frame.
The group that worked out on Monday offers many freakishly-athletic players, some who can start from day one and others who have the tangibles but lack the art of their position. Either way, the Lions should find somebody who can provide versatility to their defense.