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NFC North Grades and Needs: Linebacker

Linebackers are the next position group up for discussion for the NFC North teams. We have already discussed some 3-4 OLBs in the Edge Defenders article. Now we’ll take a look at 4-3 OLB and ILBs.

Green Bay Packers: C-

The Packers have some young ILBs with some talent but lacked production and coverage. Jake Ryan and Blake Martinzez are both 4th round picks from 2015 and 2016 respectively. They were adequate players on the inside against the run and Ryan improved some in pass coverage in year 2. Neither are very good blitzers so far if needed.

Martinez was stronger in coverage but seemed to disappear more as the season went along. However, both players must develop and take the next step to become actual good ILBs in Dom Capers scheme. Backup Joey Thomas had a poor year and is a free agent for the Packers. Green Bay needs to add a backup ILB or re-sign Thomas and hope for improvement from all three young ILBs.

Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones play the run and coverage on occasion along with Clay Matthews at OLB. They are solid players against the run but struggle in coverage. Green Bay needs to re-sign Perry and one other OLB as well due to free agency.

Detroit Lions: C-

Detroit dealt with a ton of injuries at LB. DeAndre Levy missed 11 games this season with a knee injury after Week 1. Strong side LB Josh Bynes missed the first 7 games due to injury. Jon Bostic missed the entire season with a broken foot in training camp after a trade with the Patriots.

Tahir Whitehead stayed healthy but had a poor year in coverage at ILB. Whitehead was not the same player as 2014 and 2015 with good run defense and coverage from the young LB. Whitehead has not been worth the two year re-sign by Bob Quinn so far. Tahir will have one more chance in 2017 to revert back to solid LB play but most have better defensive line play in front of him in 2017.

Levy was average in his return in 2016 after missing almost all of the 2015 season (15.5 games). Levy only played five games in 2016 and the playoff game but was clearly hurt and not full speed after the knee injury that required surgery during the season. Levy had lost some of his speed due to a knee (and hip injury) and couldn’t be the same game changer impactful LB from 2013 and 2014. The Lions hope 2013/2014 Levy returns in 2017 with a full offseason to heal and hopefully no set back injuries. Levy is signed long term and has enough dead cap hit to get another chance with Detroit in 2017.

Rookie Antwione Williams was a 5th round rookie who had to play more than expected out of Georgia Southern. Williams held his own but is more of a run defense thumper than a coverage LB. Thurston Armbrister was a special team pick-up right before the season but really struggled when put on the defense.

Former 2nd round pick from 2015 Kyle Van Noy was traded to the Patriots mid-season for a swap of 6th and 7th round pick in the 2017 draft. Van Noy was having a better season than his first two injury riddled season in Detroit but lacked instincts and coverage. Van Noy was a bust for a second round pick (by Mayhew) but really just didn’t fit the scheme in Detroit and had injury issues his first two seasons. The young LB excelled in Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defense for the Patriots during their Super Bowl run as everyone does.

Detroit’s linebackers must get healthier and play better in 2017. They did not record an interception, sack or fumble recovery in 2017. Levy and Whitehead flat out need to play like they did in 2014 again. Bynes and Bostic are free agents this offseason. Detroit will need to sign or draft one young LB at least to join Levy, Whitehead, Williams and Armbrister. Bynes may re-sign on a cheap deal for depth.

Minnesota Vikings: C

Erik Kendricks had a good second year with an 80.3 grade. Kendricks covers well, plays strong against the run and can blitz from the A gap in Mike Zimmer’s scheme. The Vikings got a very good LB in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft.

Anthony Barr had a terrible year with a 49.1 grade after two good seasons in 2014 and 2015. The Vikings expect a lot more out of their 1st round pick. Barr is a pass rusher but wasn’t consistent in bringing pressure in 2016 and really struggled against the run and coverage.

Chad Greenway continues to hang onto the team as a first round pick in 2006 but played poorly in 399 snaps. Emmanuel Lemur and Audie Cole only played 36 and 38 snaps respectively and are more special team players. The Vikings need a new weak side LB over Greenway. Greenway is a free agent again.

Vikings had great LB health other than a game from Kendricks. Kendricks was the only good LB in 2016 for Minnesota. Cole is a free agent but should be easy to re-sign if they want him as the backup ILB again.

Chicago Bears: B-

Jerell Freeman was the top ranked ILB in the league. This was a great signing by GM Ryan Pace. Freeman is 30 but is a stud for the Bears on the inside. Danny Trevathan was a bigger free agent signing from the Broncos but had an average year and was suspended four games in 2016. Trevathan and Freeman are still a great combo for Chicago in their 3-4 scheme.

The Bears had issues from coverage and run defense from their OLBs. Floyd and Young are purely pass rushers and McPhee had a down and injury plagued 2016 season. Sam Acho really struggled and is a free agent as the 5th OLB for Chicago.

Chicago needs to add one OLB who can cover and play the run on occasion, hope McPhee gets healthy for 2017 and also hope 1st round pick Leonard Floyd improves his overall game in his second season.

Free Agents

Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Demarcus Ware, Melvin Ingram, Erik Walden, John Simon, Paul Kruger, Jarvis Jones, Akeem Ayers, James Harrison are the top 3-4 OLBs available. Chandler Jones will be tagged by the Cardinals.

Don’t’a Hightower is the best ILB available but the Patriots will try to keep him. Lawrence Timmons, Malcom Smith, Kevin Minter, Gerald Hodge are solid young LBs.

DQwell Jackson, Stephen Tulloch, Michael Wilhoite, Daryl Smith, Donald Butler, Perry Riley, Kelvin Shepphard, Brandon Spikes, Keenan Robinson are older decent LBs.

Paul Worrilow and Manti Te’o (sans gf) are solid ILBs that could help a team. The Lions and Packers need one backup ILB at least. Tulloch probably wouldn’t return to Detroit since he is not a coverage LB and Whitehead will get one last chance at ILB but Detroit could use the depth.

Josh Bynes, Jon Bostic, Mark Herzlich, Sean Weatherspoon, Chad Greenway, Dekoda Watson Sio Moore, Zach Brown, Justin Durant and Phillip Wheeler are very lackluster OLBs available for the 4-3. Detroit and Minnesota may have to look to the draft for an upgrade at 4-3 OLB. Detroit could sign Bynes to a vet minimum deal for depth due to his experience in the scheme.

Draft

http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/draft/prospectrankings/2017/ILB

Reuben Foster is the top ILB followed by Raekwon MacMillan from Ohio State.

http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/draft/prospectrankings/2017/OLB

Zach Cunninghm and Takkarist McKinley are the top OLBs.

Summary

The Packers and Lions need two LBS due to free agency. The Bears could upgrade at coverage OLB and the Vikings could use a new weak side LB and better depth.