Malcolm Rodriguez

Lions Notes: LBs, Gibbs, Branch

The Lions had two picks in the first round of the 2023 draft, and they used both of them on non-premium positions. Detroit selected running back Jahmyr Gibbs with the No. 12 overall pick and added inside linebacker Jack Campbell with the No. 18 selection.

As the first off-ball ‘backer taken in the draft, it was fair to expect that Campbell would immediately be inserted into the starting lineup alongside veteran Alex Anzalone, who signed a three-year, $18.75MM deal in March to remain with the Lions. However, it became clear that such an assumption was a bit premature. 2021 fourth-rounder Derrick Barnes impressed during OTAs, while Campbell acknowledged that he was perhaps trying to do too much in his first taste of the pros (via Tim Twentyman of the team’s official website).

“I came in and I felt like maybe I was pressing a little bit early on,” Campbell said yesterday. “But right now, I’m just trying to settle down. My personality type I like to make sure everything is perfect. I just need to understand that mistakes are going to happen and as long as I’m playing fast everything is going to work out.”

While Barnes has earned the starting job next to Anzalone, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn made it clear that the team’s top four LBs — a group that also includes 2022 sixth-rounder Malcolm Rodriguez — will see plenty of action. Campbell showed off his tackling ability in Detroit’s preseason slate, and given the club’s investment in him, it is certainly possible that his snap share will increase as the regular season unfolds.

Gibbs, meanwhile, split first-team training camp reps with free agent acquisition and former division rival David Montgomery and will start the year as the pass-catching complement to Montgomery (he will likely get his fair share of carries as well). Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson told reporters, including Twentyman, that, “we might use Gibbs in some ways that people don’t quite think we might,” though it’s unclear exactly what that means. Most are already expecting Gibbs to line up as a receiver, but perhaps he could line up as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation (or maybe, with the season set to kick off on Thursday against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, Johnson is simply engaging in a little misdirection).

Another rookie, Brian Branch, has secured the starting nickel corner job, per Twentyman. The second-round pick out of Alabama began taking first-team reps at the position after C.J. Gardner-Johnson suffered a knee injury early in training camp, and he immediately impressed. GM Brad Holmes, who engineered a trade-up to land Branch, said that the team had a first-round grade on the defensive back.

“He fits who we are, so you don’t know exactly how quick it’s going to turn on, but we’re not surprised that he’s making the plays because he’s doing, really a lot of the same things that he did at Alabama,” Holmes said.

Branch’s emergence will presumably allow the team to move Gardner-Johnson to safety, where he thrived with the Eagles in 2022.

Latest On Lions’ LB Competition

Expectations will be raised on defense for the Lions in 2023 given the unit’s struggles through much of last year and the team’s investments on that side of the ball this offseason. Those endeavors have set up a notable training camp competition at the linebacker spot.

The Lions have Alex Anzalone in place as an entrenched starter after he parlayed his highly-productive 2022 campaign into a three-year, $18.75MM deal in March. A repeat of his career year would go a long way in helping Detroit make the needed improvements on defense to put the team in postseason contention. Who will be alongside him in the starting lineup remains unclear, however.

The Lions doubled down on their selections of non-premium positions in the first round of the draft by selecting Jack Campbell with the No. 18 pick. That decision made the Iowa product the top off-ball linebacker in the 2023 class, and led to the expectation he would be a plug-and-play starter. OTAs and minicamp demonstrated that the team’s veterans seemed to be in the lead, though, and Campbell still has a long road to a first-team position.

“Probably in 20 other rooms that player is starting and there’s nothing you can do about it as a position coach,” linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said of Campbell, via Tim Twentyman of the team’s website“Well, that’s not the case here. If Jack isn’t the top two or three Jack will continue to go through the process of rookie development until he’s hit that mark.”

Detroit also has 2021 fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes and 2022 sixth-rounder Malcolm Rodriguez as options for a starting role. The latter missed signficant time during the spring, allowing the former to take first-team reps alongside Anzalone. Rodriguez proved himself to be productive as a rookie, though, totaling 87 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble despite logging only a 57% snap share. Increasing his workload this year could come as a result of a strong training camp, and doing so would consign Campbell to a special teams role to start the year.

After a standout college career, Campbell (like fellow first-rounder Jahmyr Gibbs) will need to perform at a high level to justify the Lions’ investment in him – and their avoidance of other, potentially more attractive options based on position – in the eyes of many evaluators. His pro tenure will no doubt involve a heavy workload at some point, but he finds himself behind Rodriguez and Barnes on the depth chart heading into his first training camp.

NFL Draft Pick Signings: 5/13/22

Several more mid- and late-round picks agreed to terms on their four-year rookie contracts Friday. Here are the latest agreements:

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

  • LB Malcolm Rodriguez (sixth round, Oklahoma State)
  • LB James Houston (sixth round, Jackson State)

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

Los Angeles Chargers

Miami Dolphins

New England Patriots

New Orleans Saints

New York Giants

Pittsburgh Steelers