2023 NFL Combine preview: 10 linebackers the Lions should be watching

The 2023 NFL combine begins on Monday, February 27, with prospects arriving at the position teams. During the first few days, players will receive medical checkups, meet with NFL teams, and take the field to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the tournament will begin four days of televised training sessions on the field.

This is the latest in a series of articles that will explore this year’s conference participants including Detroit Lions should be closely monitored during position activities. If you missed any of our previous coverage, check them out here: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers, defensive backs, and punters.

Next up: Linebackers

Organization needs

The Lions are comfortable with two Brad Holmes drafted linebackers, as Malcolm Rodriguez is the starting WILL linebacker, while Derrick Barnes is among the worst LB3s and could challenge for the starting MIKE role. MIKE’s current starter, Alex Anzalone, is an unrestricted free agent, which could present a potential opening for the Lions to fill during the draft. After MIKE, the Lions’ three linebackers are also free agents – although Anthony Pittman is a special free agent, which suggests he could return in 2023 – and you can look to fill out the depth with a few play youth.

What to look for

The traits the Lions most desire in their linebackers are speed, strength, explosiveness, and the ability to play downfield. During the drills, monitor possible lateral movement, control skills (response and feedback), the ability to open the hips in the take, and if they play with their head up and eyes on the ball.

While this draft offers an interesting linebacker opportunity, there could be a legitimate starting linebacker stack, meaning the Lions could be looking for lightning in a bottle – as found in Rodriguez’s last draft- or the draft and development type like Barnes.

Now, to the prospects.

MIKE Linebackers

Drew Sanders, MIKE, Arkansas, 6-foot-5, 232

Sanders could be the first block-and-play in this draft cycle. A former five-star cornerback at Alabama, Sanders transferred to Arkansas and transitioned to a linebacker role. While Sanders is an instinctive player, he is also still a rookie, though he was far ahead of Barnes (who made a similar transition in college) when the Lions drafted him. 3-4 teams will look to Sanders as a multi-player, while 4-3 / 4-2 teams can keep him in the role and give him the opportunity to rush the passer through A- and B- gaps. .

Jack Campbell, MIKE, Iowa, 6-foot-4, 248

After Sanders, Campbell may be next in line to start in a traditional role. He’s very smart, he’s level-headed, and he’ll play downfield with impressive results, but his reaction time isn’t great at this stage of his development. If the Lions don’t retain Anzalone and develop in free agency, Campbell is the type of player who could challenge Barnes for the starting job.

Noah Sewell, MIKE, Oregon, 6-foot-3, 250

The younger brother of Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Noah was dominant as a player at Oregon. Unfortunately, last season, Oregon went through coaching staff changes, introduced a more defensive style, and Sewell’s injuries were exposed. As of last season, Sewell was a better fit for the Patriots’ system, but there was so much flash in the past seasons, that teams will definitely be looking to see if those traits stick.

Hybrid/closed loop

Trenton Simpson, Hybrid, Clemson, 6-foot-3, 230

While Sanders may be the best offensive lineman in this class, Simpson may be the first linebacker selected because of his experience. A quick/explosive player, Simpson can play at WILL in most schemes, flip into the slot to cover the tight end, and can blitz off the edge as well. Simpson doesn’t fit into your cookie-cutter formula, but rather an adaptive option, this one is worth picking up Day 2 for the photography experience alone.

Daiyan Henley, WILL, Washington State, 6-foot-1, 230

With only three years of experience playing linebacker, Henley is still a little in the position, but he was new to see the Big Bowl, illustrating the ceiling of his development. He is thick, long, and can run, but his lack of production in the run game is concerning. At this point, Henley is a tough coverage defender and projects to the NFL as a package linebacker who can make an impact on special teams.

DeMarvion Overshow, Hybrid, Texas, 6-foot-2 1/2, 220

Overswn is a reversible safety that maintains the rear instinct when in coverage and is at its best when trailing. Like Simpson, he may not be a traditional stack fit, but he offers a lot of skills that teams rely on in national packs. The show seems best suited to the role of the Lions’ Chris Board, where he can be a big special player and a small package lineman on defense.

Jalen Graham, WILL, Purdue, 6-foot-2, 224

Graham, a native of Detroit, played safety at Purdue. Instinctive and quick, Graham is a coverage dynamo who can find the field as a coverage option for a small package in the back line. He may need some time to adjust to playing at WILL at the next level, but he has enough upside to be worth a move on Day 3.

Run the defenders

Cam Jones, ILB, Indiana, 6-foot-1, 227

Arguably the best linebacker in this draft class, Jones is explosive in pursuit. Able to collect and dispose of large forwards, Jones can operate in many areas, filling the right option with aggression and technical accuracy. While he lacks positional size, he has the frame to add weight and could develop into a starting MIKE with help from an NFL weight room program. The Lions will love the leadership skills of this three-time captain.

Ivan Pace, ILB, Cincinnati, 5-foot-10, 231

The pace is not great but it deals with tension. Regardless of whether it is the striker trying to stop him or the ball player, they feel his strength. His contact balance in traffic is reminiscent of the past, as he bounces off interceptors and is still able to maintain his center of gravity. He’s also a good tackler, something he showed in Cincinnati and in big Bowl performances. Shutting down can be a problem, but for teams looking to find the next Malcolm Rodriguez—an unlikely bottom line pick late in the draft—Pace will have their attention.

Anfernee Orji, ILB, Vanderbilt, 6-foot-1, 230

Orji, the brother of Michigan quarterback Alex, has a nose for the football and follows the ground with a ferocity. He’s not as clean and fast as Jones or Pace, but he’s smooth in avoiding traffic and can be used as a blitzer package as well. A three-time captain, Orji has some impressive skills that complement his attacking defensive style and is a late-season option to consider.

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