Position battles are common for every NFL team at this time of year. From the Baltimore Ravens to the Jacksonville Jaguars, training camp is a time when players wage war against each other for the right to be NFL starters.
The Detroit Lions, especially with all their offseason changes, are no different. They waived goodbye to a number of veteran starters this offseason, and their positions need to be filled.
Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard are duking it out over right tackle, rookie Ezekiel Ansah is trying to prove he's capable of starting from Day 1, while veterans Israel Idonije and Willie Young breathe down his neck. In the secondary, rookie Darius Slay and second-year player Bill Bentley are competing for the cornerback spot opposite Chris Houston.
Every one of those battles will be fun to watch and will impact the Lions success in 2013.
However, there is another battle going on that will be more hotly contested. This competition has flown under the radar, but the three-way battle for the Lions' third linebacker position will be the biggest battle of camp.
Ashlee Palmer, Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead are all vying for one spot, and they're all evenly matched.
The Least Sexy Battle in Camp
When the Lions signed Palmer, their most consistent special teams player, at the end of last year it was clear that linebacker Justin Durant would not be back. In effect, they had made their choice.
They valued Palmer more, and they thought he could contribute more than just on special teams. That's all well and good, but Palmer has started only seven games at linebacker during his three-year career with the Lions.
He's not exactly a sure thing.
It would have been understandable if the Lions tried to make a splash by bringing in a big-name linebacker to fill the void. Palmer is unproven, and their defense was porous against the run last season—a problem due in large part to the linebackers' failure to fill gaps and consistently make tackles.
The Lions made no such high-profile signings. In fact, they really didn't address the linebacker position at all. They did draft Brandon Hepburn in the seventh round, but he doesn't figure into their plans in 2013.
No, the Lions chose to run with whom they had: Palmer, Lewis and Whitehead—a special teams ace and two unheralded second-year players who contributed little or nothing on the defensive side of the ball last season.
Now that's unsexy!
Fortunately for the Lions, sometimes unsexy wins football games. Here's what each of them brings to the table.
Palmer has shown he is a demon on special teams, but how has he performed as a linebacker?
To his credit, he's been solid.
He started five games for the Lions in 2010 and put up pretty good numbers: 55 tackles, one sack, one pass defensed and three forced fumbles. Given the Lions disastrous turnover ratio last season, Palmer's nose for the football might be just what the Lions need in 2013.
Last season he started only two games (when DeAndre Levy was injured) but he still managed 24 tackles and one forced fumble.
Again, his penchant for causing turnovers was evident even in limited action.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Palmer's favor is his versatility. As Tim Twentyman of detroitlions.com reported, Palmer's shown the ability to play both outside linebacker and the "MIKE" position, and the Lions love interchangeable pieces on defense.
Here's Palmer's explanation of how knowing both positions benefits him:
Learning the 'mike' helped me out with my outside stuff. The two outside spots aren't really much of a difference, but that 'mike' spot is really where you have to know everything that's going on and know the defense...Playing the 'mike' just helped me know where my outside guys were going to be, once I got a good grasp of playing 'mike', I definitely got a good grasp on the whole defense.
Palmer definitely has the upper hand in terms of experience and mastery of the Lions' defensive scheme, but that doesn't mean he's an absolute lock to start.
He'll have to earn it.
The Lions clearly saw something in Tahir Whitehead, a rush linebacker out of Temple, when they traded a future fourth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings to move up and draft him in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Unfortunately no one else did. Whitehead was a relative unknown to most Lions fans, and even though he's gotten one year under his belt now, his profile hasn't exactly grown by leaps and bounds.
That's because he only contributed on special teams last season, finishing third in tackles with 10 and forcing one fumble.
Whitehead played a completely different position in college, where he was a 3-4 linebacker with no other responsibilities besides getting to the football. His unfamiliarity with the Lions defensive scheme has contributed to his steep learning curve.
He admitted as much to Justin Rogers of Mlive.com here:
Coming from college, I played a nine technique, but because I was a linebacker, I stood up...It was different keys I was reading. This year, after talking to (Stephen) Tulloch, (DeAndre) Levy and Ashlee (Palmer), they've given me that confidence in myself to stop thinking and just go play.
Whitehead certainly has new-found confidence this offseason and his play reflects that. The coaching staff has taken notice and confirmed that, starting or not, Whitehead will be a major contributor.
His best trait is his speed and quickness particularly as a pass-rusher off the edge. That's not a role the Lions have asked their linebackers to play much, but Whitehead could change that.
At least he'd give the Lions the flexibility to do so.
His speed and quickness also translate into an ability to go sideline to sideline to track down runners, and on special teams he's shown dramatic improvement in his open-field tackling.
He's a long shot, but at this point he can't be ruled out as a legitimate contender.
The Detroit Lions drafted Travis Lewis in the seventh round last year, but unlike Whitehead, he was a name many fans recognized. That's because he was a four-year starter for the Oklahoma Sooners and broke Brian Bosworth's freshman record for tackles
He also led the team in tackles every year he played.
Lewis had all the makings of a first-round pick, so why did he fall to the seventh round? Probably because he's undersized, and he ran a 4.88 40-yard dash according to ESPN. That was the third lowest among linebackers and it made scouts doubt that he could be successful at the NFL level.
His underwhelming athleticism is still a concern, but the Lions are obviously willing to give him a chance.
One thing is clear, Lewis is an exceptional tackler, a vocal leader, and in terms of pure linebacking instincts, he might be the best the Lions have. So, his underwhelming athleticism notwithstanding, the Lions are obviously willing to give him a chance.
Mlive.com's Justin Rogers reports that Lewis has taken reps at all three linebacker positions during training camp. Like Palmer, that versatility gives him an edge.
In addition, Rogers also said that Lewis, "showed early signs of being a vocal leader on the field."
That's a quality the Lions covet. With the departure of Kyle Vanden Bosch, they are in desperate need of on-field leadership. Lewis is young, but if called upon he's proven he can lead.
As might be expected, all three players have strengths and weaknesses. None of them are going to morph into Ray Lewis, but each of them can help the Lions win.
The only question is which of the three players will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity.
That player's performance will have a dramatic influence on the Lions' fortunes and the fortunes of general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. This is especially true since the Lions brain trusts decided not to pursue any free agents to upgrade the position. They chose to upgrade with in-house talent instead.
In other words, they will either soar to new heights or crash and burn because of that decision.
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