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2021 Preview: Lions' Starting Off-Ball Linebackers

SI All Lions projects the Detroit Lions' starting off-ball linebackers for the 2021 NFL season.

The Detroit Lions will have a new-look defense this upcoming season. 

Gone is ex-head coach Matt Patricia’s hybrid defense, and in is Aaron Glenn’s base 3-4 scheme. 

In terms of alignment, there are really only a couple of positional changes in the front seven. Looking solely at the two off-ball or interior linebacker positions -- as both Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara are now technically outside linebackers who will play on the line of scrimmage -- there are a couple of carry-overs from the last regime. Also, there are a few new faces, as well.

The Lions will return Jamie Collins, Jahlani Tavai and Jalen Reeves-Maybin from last year's 53-man squad. 

New additions include free-agent addition Alex Anzalone, waiver-wire pickup Shaun Dion Hamilton and rookie Derrick Barnes. There are a few other names in the linebacker room, as well. But, when discussing starters, the rest of the pack remain true longshots.

So far in OTAs and minicamp, it would appear that the starting spots are Collins' and Anzalone's to lose -- as most expected. 

Collins is a veteran who has had nice stretches of play over his career. He has the size, and still has some plus-athleticism, versatility and ball-hawking instincts to make plays. Last year was really no different in Detroit. He had a few nice games and probably more bad outings than good. Hopefully, he can be a little more consistent in 2021, with a newfound freedom to roam the field with Glenn’s attacking philosophy.

Collins’ versatility is appealing to Detroit's new defensive coordinator, as the veteran linebacker could also be used as a nose tackle in sub packages.

“I have a number of ideas I want to do with him. Could put him as a stack back, could put him on the edge," Glenn said. "Maybe put him at the zero technique and let him beat some of these centers that are slow-footed."

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With the second interior linebacker position, it very well could be a heavy rotation, depending on the game situation. The “starter” label may not hold much value in a heavy timeshare. 

At this time, Anzalone’s experience gives him a leg up on the younger competition. He has never been an elite linebacker, but he has usually been serviceable when called upon.

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Perhaps the biggest threat to take a starting role from Collins or Anzalone is this year’s fourth-round draft pick in Barnes. 

Barnes is a sideline-to-sideline thumper that the coaching staff obviously was very high on, trading up to grab him. As a former EDGE player, Barnes still has some learning to do and might take a little developing.

Lastly, Reeves-Maybin and Tavai. Yes, Tavai is back down to around his pro-day weight of 247 pounds, where he still didn’t test very well. Despite slimming down and being quicker than at his roughly 268-pound playing weight from last season, he still doesn’t seem to fit the mold of the type of linebacker the new Lions coaching staff would like to deploy. 

Meanwhile, Reeves-Maybin has been around for a while, and wasn’t a great fit for Patricia’s gap-control scheme. Now, he will likely be in a situation that better suits his strengths. At the very least, Reeves-Maybin showed some promise his rookie year, before Patricia came to town. Maybe we could be pleasantly surprised with some progression.

Overall, the Lions just don’t have any high-end talent at linebacker. They have a few familiar names, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the strength of the defense.

Expect plenty of players swapping in and out -- a linebacker-by-committee approach of sorts -- until someone proves they deserve to never leave the field.

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