One of the primary worries for Detroit Lions fans heading into the most recent offseason was the situation at linebacker.
Veteran Stephen Tulloch was solid in the middle after being locked up with a long, lucrative contract prior to the 2012 season. But both starting outside backers, Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy, were free agents coming off underwhelming campaigns.
The Lions opted to invest in Levy. Per Spotrac, Levy and the Lions agreed on a three-year, $9.75 million deal, with $3 million guaranteed. That's not big money on the open market, indicative of the type of player Levy had been in his first four seasons.
He was a decidedly average player. Levy could reliably make tackles, but they were often away from the line of scrimmage. In addition, he almost never produced impact plays like sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles.
|Year||Solo tackles||INTs||Passes Defended|
He forced just three fumbles in his first four campaigns, and has two career fumble recoveries. Because the Lions seldom blitz, Levy's lack of sacks are somewhat irrelevant; he has just one in his career.
Now look at what Levy has done in the first 10 games of 2013:
|Solo tackles||INTs||Passes Defended|
He's already matched his four-year career total in interceptions in the first ten games. Levy has also doubled his career-high in passes defended, tacking on two more in the loss to Pittsburgh.
At his current pace of six solo tackles per game, Levy will break his career-best mark early in Week 14, if not sooner.
The major increase in plays on the football has been a welcome surprise for the Lions, who are used to getting very little from their linebackers other than tackles.
Last season, the three primary backers—Tulloch, Levy and Durant—combined for just one interception, three fumble recoveries (one by Levy) and 12 passes defended.
This season, Levy is producing the impact plays the unit has been unable to make in recent times. He's also bolstered up an impressive turnaround in run defense.
The following table is derived from statistics available at TeamRankings.com. The first number is the actual data, followed by the NFL rank out of 32 teams.
|Year||Yards per game||Yards per carry||Opp. Rushing 1st Down Percentage|
|2012||118.1, 16th||4.5, t-23rd||35.08%, 28th|
|2013||94.6, 5th||4.1, t-12th||18.18%, 1st|
That is significant, across-the-board improvement, and DeAndre Levy has played a major role in that improvement.
Hours of film review tell me that Levy is quicker to read and react to run plays. He's also become more assertive, going after more opportunities and taking the initiative to make the play himself.
The bigger visible improvement in Levy's game is his awareness and anticipation in pass coverage. The major uptick in interceptions and passes defended are tangible evidence. Yet even when he's not getting his hands on the ball, he has been much sharper.
Pro Football Focus agrees. In their advanced charting and scoring metrics (subscription required), the former third-round pick from Wisconsin has positively spiked.
They currently rate Levy with an overall score of 7.2. His pass coverage score is 9.0, which ranks second in the league for outside linebackers. It should be even higher, but they assigned the Andre Ellington touchdown in the Arizona game on Levy when it was Darius Slay who was the culpable party.
Those figures are quite an improvement over his recent campaigns.
An improvement of 16 in his score from the end of 2012 to this point of 2013 is a dramatic upswing. It has certainly paid major dividends for the first-place Lions. But is it good enough to merit league-wide recognition?
Unfortunately for Levy, it probably won't get much more than an honorable mention.
My hypothetical vote for the award would go to Chicago Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery. Lions fans have witnessed his marked improvement firsthand. Twice, unfortunately.
Jeffery caught 24 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season. He already has 54 receptions for 818 yards in 2013, his second year.
He would be the fourth wide receiver in the last five seasons to win, joining Dez Bryant (2012), Victor Cruz (2011) and Miles Austin (2009). The complete list of winners is available from the Pro Football Writers of America, which votes on the award.
Others who merit consideration for the award include:
- Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe
- Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron
- St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn
- Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward
- New York Giants safety Will Hill
One thing to note is that all of those players are not nearly as deep into their careers as Levy. Heyward and Cameron are in their third seasons, while all the others are in their second years.
To me, that makes Levy's improvement all the more improbable. He has progressed to a new level at age 26. Perhaps it was his unusual offseason diet, as documented in this video from last summer...
Even crazier, he did so after a contract season. NFL fans are quite savvy to the contract-year wonders, players who rise to previously unprecedented levels of performance in order to score a fat payday. That would have made sense for Levy a year ago, but not after signing a modest three-year deal.
While he might not win any awards, the major improvement in DeAndre Levy's game is real. He's had a big positive impact on the Detroit defense and is a key reason why the Lions currently sit in first place in the NFC North.