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The Detroit Lions middle linebacker dilemma 

Who would you rather have as your starting middle linebacker, a 25-year-old, athletic, up and coming thumper, or an aging, overpaid and declining veteran? Clearly, the first option is the choice without any second thoughts. The Detroit Lions are in this exact predicament as we speak.

Stephen Tulloch, 31, has been a mainstay at the MIKE backer for the past half-decade with the Lions. He has started every game in four of his last five years. Back in 2014, Tulloch tore his ACL in week three during a celebration mimicking Aaron Rodgers signature “discount double check” dance. Subsequently, in a bit of a surprising move, Tahir Whitehead slid over to the middle from his strong-side linebacker position. The Lions went on to have one of the best run defenses in the history of the NFL and were ranked second in overall defense. Whitehead can’t take all of the credit for that tremendous success, but he definitely proved he was capable of manning the middle. He finished second on the team in tackles (86) behind only DeAndre Levy.

After Tulloch returned healthy this season, many penciled Whitehead back in his native position as the SAM linebacker. To the surprise of fans, Whitehead couldn’t crack the starting lineup in either of the outside linebacker spots. Both, Josh Bynes and Travis Lewis, received the starting nod over him for the first eight weeks of the season.

Defensive Coordinator, Teryl Austin, explained the reasoning behind Whiteheads initial second-string status,

“Early in the year, he wasn’t making the plays and he’d be the first to tell you that, but since he’s been reinserted and been in more packages, basically playing almost every down now, he’s making a lot more plays and I think that’s a testament to how hard he works and how hard he studies.”

Whitehead still had a minimal role averaging 22 plays a game the first half of the season, but he never played over 50 percent of the defensive snaps in any outing. Maybe it was no coincidence that when Whitehead and Isa Abdul-Quddus were inserted into the starting lineup, the defense seemed to turn around and resemble our D from the year before. There was only a single game in his last eight starts were Whitehead did not account for more than 73% percent of the defensive snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, Whitehead graded out as the top run defender on the team, and the 14th rated LB in the entire NFL.

Tulloch meanwhile, graded as the 50th overall LB with less than desirable pass coverage grades. The Lions began to limit his usage in passing down situations and restricted his time spent playing in open space. Maybe Tulloch was still recovering from the ACL injury or father time had finally caught up with him, but our longtime MLB looked a step slower than usual this past year. The N.C. State alumnus was never fast to begin with but was always quick enough to act on his elite instincts. For whatever reason, that didn’t seem to be the case this season.

On the contrary, Whitehead has done nothing but seemingly improve on a yearly basis with Detroit. He was mainly a special teamer his first two seasons until he finally broke into a starting role with the departure of Ashlee Palmer and the injury to Tulloch. Martin Mayhew gave up a 2013 4th round pick to move up and select Whitehead in the 5th round of the 2012 draft. The then 233lb linebacker was known as more of a two-down hitter who was too small for the middle and struggled in coverage. Although he may not have excelled in the passing game at Temple, he has used his speed and quickness to develop nicely into a three-down NFL MIKE. Now, at 242 lbs with solid game tape to his name, his rookie contract has expired and is expected to become a hot commodity as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

The good news is Whitehead stated he would like to return,

“Over the years, this place has really become home. I’d like to be back here, but the business is the business. We have a lot of things up in the air, with a new president, a new GM that’s going to be in place soon.”

“As much as I would love to be back here, it’s a matter of letting it all play out and if I’m even wanted back here.”

The bad news is Whitehead has two conditions for his future team. He considers himself a middle linebacker and a starter. Neither of those stipulations would be met playing for Detroit if Tulloch remains on the roster.

“When I look at it, me personally, I see myself as a MIKE. To be able to utilize my speed and being able to play sideline to sideline,” said Whithead.

When he was asked about wanting to start, Whitehead had this to say,

“Yes, that’s definitely one of the big factors because as a player in this league you don’t go somewhere or be on someone’s team just to be someone’s backup. You want to go somewhere where you’re wanted, where you’re needed and you’re going to play. So I definitely want to be a starter. I think I’ve shown that I can be a starter in this league.”

There has been plenty of rumblings that Tulloch will be released due to his $7.3 million cap number for 2016. The Lions could free up $6 million from the cap if they were to cut the 31-year-old veteran. To Tulloch’s credit, he has been a great leader and solid player for Detroit, but this is the NFL where decisions aren’t made on emotion. New GM, Bob Quinn, has been brought up through perhaps the most callous organization in the league. The New England Patriots are the poster child for kicking aging stars to the curb, and Quinn has spent his last 15 years there.

With the salary cap increase, teams will have money to spend. Whitehead will not come cheap, but maybe with Tulloch’s salary off the books and a vacancy at the middle linebacker spot, the Lions could persuade their homegrown talent to return. Or maybe Quinn has a new plan in mind, one better than the obvious.

 

 

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