Earlier this week, the strange saga of Detroit Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch came to a close. After five seasons, four 100-tackle campaigns and one sack dance-inspired ACL tear, the Lions finally bid adieu to Tulloch, releasing the veteran in a move that’s been expected for months.
It’s move that leaves a large hole in the middle of the Detroit defense, and one that creates the potential for the rarest of IDP creatures — a bona fide sleeper at the linebacker position.’
The issue then becomes figuring out just who that sleeper is — because it’s far from certain who the Lions will tab to replace Tulloch at MIKE.
Some might point to fifth-year pro Josh Bynes, who started 11 games for the Lions last year with DeAndre Levy on the shelf. Bynes told Dave Birkett of The Detroit Free Press back in February that he’s ready, willing and able to step into Tulloch’s shoes.
“If they need me to play middle linebacker, which I will do, I’m fine for,” Bynes said. “And it’s an opportunity to get on the field and I’m fine with that because I love that control of the defense and I think I’ve been doing that for the last several years.”
Others will point to former Bears second-round pick Jon Bostic, a hard-hitting prototypical inside linebacker the Lions acquired in a trade with the New England Patriots back in May. However, for every big play Bostic has made in his brief NFL career there’s been a bigger gaffe, and the fact he’s on his third team entering his fourth NFL season is what we in the sportswriting game call a red flag.
I expect that the Lions will turn to the same player they turned to when Tulloch went down in 2014. A player who tallied 86 tackles and ranked as a top-15 inside linebacker at Pro Football Focus while in that role for a stout Lions defense two years ago. A player general manager Bob Quinn already said he sees as the Motown MIKE moving forward.
Fifth-year veteran Tahir Whitehead.
“As of today he’s going to play MIKE,” Quinn told Tim Twentyman of the team’s website in March.
Whitehead told Carlos Monarrez of the Free Press his status as the presumptive starter has allowed him to better prepare for the season, and while he hadn’t played in the middle before 2014 it’s now the spot where he feels most comfortable.
“It’s extremely beneficial knowing I’m going to be the MIKE going into the season because now I can solely focus on playing that position,” he said. “The last two years I’ve always — am I SAM, am I MIKE, am I WILL? Trying to figure out which position.”
“I believe it gives me the opportunity to utilize my speed and coverage ability, be in the middle of the defense,” he said. “And over the last two years I’ve gotten comfortable with getting the call with the sideline and giving it to the defense. And just that comfort level has definitely gotten better.”
Now, it’s not a certainty that Whitehead will stick in the middle. The Lions could choose to instead put Bynes inside and avail themselves of Whitehead’s experience playing on the strong side. Quinn’s statements were made before the team acquired Bostic, who will have an opportunity in training camp to make an impression on his new team.
And even if Whitehead does win the job, he’s unlikely to be a game-changer in IDP leagues. In his time as a starter two seasons ago, Whitehead was an up-and-down fantasy LB4 in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring. His ceiling as a full-time, three down middle linebacker probably lies in no better than middling IDP LB3 territory in 12-team leagues.
But Whitehead knows the position. Knows the scheme. And he’s a better player in coverage than Bynes or Bostic. Not to mention that Levy is returning from a serious hip injury that wiped out his 2015 season. In other words, it isn’t that hard to imagine Whitehead hitting that season in 2016.
That’s not bad at all for a player who would have to generate more buzz this summer to generate no buzz.
If you’re looking for a depth add late in deeper IDP drafts with the potential to emerge as at least a viable bye-week player or even “flex” option, keep Tahir Whitehead in mind.
No one else is.