OMH: Trouble On The Outside For Lions

Ty Schalter evaluates Detroit's outside linebacker position -- and it ain't pretty.

(This is the fourth in a multi-part series by Ty Schalter evaluating and discerning Detroit's off-season needs. Ty has penned "Old Mother Hubbard" the last few years, an idiom to restocking a franchise that was once left bare - ed.)

Part One: DT's   |   Part Two: DE's   |   Part Three: MLB

Before we delve into the next three defensive positions, let me take a little time to address an email I received about the DE breakdown. Scott D. wrote:

You mentioned while you were watching the Jets game live, that you, in essence, personally discounted the PFF rankings for how KVB played in that particular game because of what ends up being, in your own terms, the "eyeball factor". Yet in every other aspect of the OMH series thus far, you're putting a great deal of credit in the PFF rankings.

It’s important to understand what the PFF data is, and what it isn’t. The PFF player grades are what I’ve been showing on the radar charts. They’re the PFF staff’s opinion on how well a player carries out his assignment. Each player is graded on every snap they play, and the final grades consist of those per-play grades aggregated and normalized. Every-down consistency scores much better than occasional excellence, and penalties weigh heavily on the final grade. On the whole, they present a good benchmark for overall performance, relative to an average NFL starter.

PFF also takes the time to go back and tally sacks, tackles, QB pressures, QB hits, missed tackles, and other stats. These aren’t subjective performance grades, they’re straight tallies of actual results -— and they’re far more accurate than “offical” tackle and sack numbers, which are done on the fly, in real time, by team scorers with varying personal standards.

The KVB “eyeball test” you’re talking about? Here’s what I said:

I had really good seats to the Jets game, and seeing KVB in action live was something else. He never missed an opportunity -— before, during, or after the snap—to remind the Jets that he was there. That he was fighting. That they needed to keep their head on a swivel. That they needed to watch their ass. Vanden Bosch and the Lions out-Jetted the Jets on that day, mostly thanks to KVB and his leadership. PFF graded him at a -2.1 on the day, but I know he had a positive impact.

I was insinuating that KVB was playing, well, not dirty, but ... okay, kind of dirty. He played to, and through, and also a little bit after the whistle. Not trying to injure -- just not letting up, getting in a little extra on every play. He was very physical, very intense, and set the tone for a Lions defense that came to kick the butt-kickers’ butts. That doesn’t mean KVB was unblockable off the edge, or impossible to run on, or anything like that. In the PFF grader’s opinion, KVB executed his play assignments at a below-average level.

But I know his leadership made the whole defense better on that day.

Again: the news is not good. The dark gray line is Kamerion Wimbley, the top-graded 4-3 OLB. The thick black line is the NFL average. The goldish line is Scott Shanle, the backmarker. This means the Saints had both the worst ILB and the worst OLB.

Unfortunately, things aren’t so hot for the Lions, either. Julian Peterson was the only Lions OLB to meet PFF’s 25-percent snap-count threshold; he was also the Lions’ worst-graded OLB. He, like all the Lions OLBs, was right at the NFL average for pass rush, but strongly negative in coverage (-6.6). All that is moot, however, because Peterson was released.

Bobby Carpenter

Carpenter was a deft mid-October signing by the Lions. Apparently the Lions had been high on him for a while; Tom Kowalski reported that Martin Mayhew asked for Carpenter in the Roy Williams trade, Mayhew’s first roster move as Lions GM. The Cowboys ultimately swapped their disappointing first-rounder for the Rams’, OT Alex Barron. The 6’2”, 245-pound Carpenter was cut by the Rams during training camp, picked up by Miami, and then cut midseason after he screwed up badly on special teams.

In Kowalski's article on Carpenter's signing, he points out that Carpenter is solid against the run, and in dropping back to cover; the PFF grades partially back that up. Carpenter was right at NFL averages for pass rush, but a bit above average in coverage. In fact, Carpenter’s coverage grade was the best single grade of any returning Lions OLB. Unfortunately, Carpenter was about as far below average against the run as he was above average in coverage, so his final grade is just a smidge below average. Keep in mind, though, that’s for a 4-3 OLB who played in at least 25-percent of their teams’ snaps (which Carpenter did not).

Bottom Line: In limited reps, Carpenter showed he can be a creditable player for the Lions. He’ll never be the pass rusher the Lions want from the OLB spot—but with a full offseason in the system he should be able to pull his weight out there.

Ashlee Palmer

Palmer was the Typhoid Mary of “One Man’s Trash Syndrome,” a good young player let go because another team was switching schemes. Palmer, 6’-1”, 236 pounds, was a UDFA rookie for the Bills in 2009. He made an impact as a special teams standout, and looked great in backup duty. But, out with the old -— Dick Jauron’s 4-3 -— and in with the new -- Jim Haslett’s 3-4 -— and the Lions got a great value pickup.

Palmer got 240 snaps at outside linebacker, roughly split between the right and left. He also had about a hundred snaps in the middle, so he never had a chance to get comfortable anywhere. He graded out more or less across-the-board average for the first five weeks, then had a really rough streak in weeks 6, 8, 9, and 11. That’s alarming, since he got many of his snaps in that stretch. He finished with another long streak of averageness in lighter action, though, and put an exclamation point on the season with a +3.1 day against Miami where he played 50% of snaps.

On the whole, Palmer was an average rusher, slightly above average in coverage, and below average against the run. He was slightly less effective in coverage than Carpenter, and a full tick worse in run support.

Bottom Line: Palmer is a young, tough, versatile player forced to play all three LB positions as a 2nd-year UDFA, and produced at a slightly-below-average level. He’ll be a valuable rotation player, and possibly an okay starter with a full offseason at OLB. Still, he doesn’t have impact tools or impact upside.

Zack Follett

What a wild ride it’s been for the Pain Train. Zack Follett, member of the Lions Fan Favorite Hall of Fame Class of 2009, entered the season as a starting outside linebacker. After making headlines over the offseason with his Tweeting and vlogging, Follett saw in about 150 snaps at the left linebacker spot, before a scary helmet-to-helmet hit put him out for the season.

Follett was sort of the yang to Ashlee Palmer’s yin. Standing at a nearly identical 6’-2”, 236, Follett was graded slightly below Palmer in pass rush (!), significantly below Palmer in coverage, but significantly above in run support. Follett, to my eyes, is more naturally athletic and has a higher upside, but appeared to be “swimming” out there; thinking instead of reacting. Follett was often a half-step behind, a half-instant too slow in making plays, because he didn’t recognize the need to act quickly enough. However, the recognition did come and the ability is there.

It’s worth pointing out that Follett got heavy reps against the Lions’ stiffest competition, in the front half of the season. Further, defenses were picking on Follett’s coverage more: opponents threw at Follett every 16.45 snaps, as opposed to 21.8 for Palmer.

As a sidebar, they threw at Landon Johnson every 11.4 snaps, which would have been the third-most-frequent in the NFL if Johnson had played more snaps at OLB.

Bottom Line: Zack Follett is still a very young player who showed a lot more pass rush ability at Cal than he’s shown so far in the NFL. With another full offseason to get the defense down pat, he should be able to do less thinking and more reacting. If he’s medically okay to play, he deserves to be in the mix with Palmer and Carpenter, especially being stronger against the run than either.

Right now, the Lions have three very good rotational players who have an interesting mix of youth, experience, and upside. They each bring a slightly different approach to the game, and each have a slightly different skill set. However, my understanding of the Lions defense was that they wanted two (in-his-prime) Julian Petersons at OLB; two big, fast pass rushers who are athletic enough to not be a liability in coverage. Unless Follett puts it together, they don’t have anyone who can rush the passer from the OLB spot.

An interesting observation: note that the best overall 4-3 OLB, Kam Wimbley, was only graded at +23.7, and he had a sizable lead over Nos. 2 and 3: +17.7, and +14.1, respectively. Since the top DT and DE each graded at about +45 , and the top ILB was about +35, this suggests that 4-3 OLBs just don’t play a big of a role in the success of the defense. As long as they aren’t total liabilities against the pass, and don’t miss a slew of tackles, you can get away with a pedestrian OLB -- or two. Perhaps a major investment at OLB is unwise.

Indeed, Mayhew said he’s perfectly comfortable with Palmer and Carpenter as starters in 2011.

SHOPPING LIST:

The Lions, undeniably, lack impact players at OLB. The 2010 performances of Carpenter, Palmer, and Follett suggest the Lions could “get away with” drafting a developmental OLB, letting all four compete for snaps at LB, and featuring all four in special teams units. However, if the Lions are looking for impact pass rushers in these spots going forward, they’ll need to draft one and acquire another.

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