ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The Detroit Lions lost one of their three starting linebackers in free agency. His likely replacement will be a familiar face.
Ashlee Palmer, who saw plenty of action on special teams last season, will join Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy in the middle of the defense this fall. He replaces starter Justin Durant, who’s now battling for a job in Dallas.
“Some people might not realize I’ve been here four years now,” Palmer said Tuesday. “Being in this system has helped me learn it a lot more.”
The lead trio also has been helping a largely inexperienced group get acclimated this summer. Aside from the presumed starters, only Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead were on the field for an NFL snap in 2012.
Palmer led the Lions in special teams tackles last season and got a pair of starts in place of the injured Levy at linebacker. Spending a fourth season in defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s system has made the transition to a starting job easier.
“It’s just knowing the scheme and what we’re going to run week in and week out,” he said.
He was an undrafted rookie free agent with Buffalo in 2009, and the Lions signed him off waivers the following season. Palmer’s seen action in every game since.
Coach Jim Schwartz wouldn’t say Palmer has locked up the starting job, but added he’s done nothing to work his way out of it.
“He certainly has taken the lead,” Schwartz said. “He’s been consistent through training camp, he’s made plays in preseason games, he’s played physical.
“He’s put together a nice string and he’s been consistent, and that’s what he was working to become as a player.”
Whitehead, a fifth-round pick in 2012, was mostly a special teams player last year, as was Lewis, a 2012 seventh-round selection.
Rookie Brandon Hepburn, a seventh-round selection in April’s draft, also is in camp. The focus for him and the other relative newcomers has been the same.
“Throughout camp we’ve been working them in for [first-team] reps,” Palmer said. “We’re just trying to get those guys the reps they need and help them see the plays they need to see.
“It’s a good responsibility.”
The Lions host New England on Thursday for the third exhibition game. They open regular-season play Sept. 8 against Minnesota.
NOTES: Schwartz said it’s too early to tell if receiver Calvin Johnson (knee), backup quarterback Shaun Hill, and safety Louis Delmas (knee) will play Thursday night. “Today would be like a Friday in the regular season,” the coach said. “A lot of those decisions we don’t make until Saturday night before the game. We still have some time.” ... Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, who earned his MLB-best 18th win Sunday, and actor Jeff Daniels watched practice Tuesday. ... Detroit officially broke camp Tuesday, but Schwartz said a lot has changed from the days he began coaching in the NFL. “It used to be sort of a celebrated day in the NFL, breaking camp,” he said. “Now they’ve got to check out of the hotel.”