The Detroit Lions underwent an off-season makeover to try to rebuild the defense, both upfront and in the secondary.
The club did nothing, however, to upgrade at linebacker.
In fact, the Lions lost Justin Durant, the team’s second-leading tackler a year ago. Durant signed a free-agent deal with Dallas.
“They didn’t feel they needed to add anything,” said Ashlee Palmer, the projected replacement for Durant at the strong-side linebacker spot. “We’ve got a good group of guys. We want to bring our best every day to show them that they didn’t need to bring anybody in.”
In a salary-cap era, with numerous holes to fill, there’s only so much a team can change in one year.
The Lions opted to focus on improving at defensive end (first-round draft pick Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah and fourth-round pick Devin Taylor plus veteran free agents Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (second-round pick Darius Slay) and safety (standout free agent Glover Quin).
Assuming those positions are indeed strengthened, it leaves linebacker as the suspect area, if not potential weak link, on the defense.
Stephen Tulloch returns in the middle along with DeAndre Levy on the weak side. Palmer, Tahir Whitehead (fifth-round pick last year) and Travis Lewis (seventh-round pick last year) are competing for Durant’s vacant spot.
“We’ve got to get them in (preseason) games, that’s when we’re going to see the real situation,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “Whoever’s going to win the job will show up then.”
To this point, Palmer has gotten the most snaps with the first-team defense entering Friday’s preseason opener at home against the New York Jets.
He is a perfect example of how an undrafted player can make a NFL roster, hang around and eventually be in contention for a starting job.
Palmer, 27, has earned respect and confidence from the coaching staff by turning himself into a solid contributor on special teams. He played on all four units last year and led the club in special-teams tackles with a combined total of 15.
“He was one of our most productive guys (on special teams),” coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s a production world.”
The question now is whether he can produce on defense, too.
He’s played four years in the NFL, one in Buffalo and the last three in Detroit, which gives him the edge in experience over Whitehead and Lewis.
Palmer (6-foot-1, 236 pounds) also has made nine starts in the league, including two last year when Levy was injured, compared to none for the two youngsters.
“It’s a big year for me,” Palmer said. “I came in as a special teamer, excelled well there, excelled well in some backup (linebacker) roles, but this role here is a challenge.
“You’ve got to be consistent every day. Just keep doing it every day. That’s the way you’ll win the job.”
Even if he starts on defense, Palmer insists that he wants to keep a heavy load of his special-teams duties. Starters typically get their special-teams role reduced, if not eliminated.
That’s why Palmer said he worked so hard on his running during the off-season while listening to Tupac on his headphones.
“I live in Lancaster, Calif., and there’s a lot of desert out there, the Mojave Desert,” Palmer said. “Nothing but sun and dirt.
“You might see a coyote run through the field or some hawks in the air, looking for food. Other than that, it’s just me and my music, trying to get my conditioning in.”
Asked if he believes the starting job is his to lose at linebacker, Palmer didn’t hesitate. “Definitely,” he said. “But until they say, ‘Ashlee, you’re the starter,’ we’re just going to keep the rotation going. The best man will win.
“I have the potential, I believe. I can be a starter in this league.”
This is his chance to prove it and show the front office didn’t make a big mistake by trying to replace Durant from within.
The Lions announced Monday that they released former Michigan State receiver Devin Thomas, one day after he came off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and participated in his only practice of training camp.
Linebacker Alex Elkins also was released.
The vacant roster spots allowed the club to sign defensive back Brandon King, who played eight games with Indianapolis in 2010-11 and spent last season on Jacksonville’s practice squad. The Lions’ secondary has been hampered by several injuries during the first part of camp.