Evaluating Detroit Lions rookies: Not every draft pick has been disappointing

Detroit Free Press

Bob Quinn had his best draft in five seasons as Detroit Lions general manager. At least, that was the consensus back in April.

The Lions came away from the draft with arguably the best players at two positions — cornerback and running back — a likely starter (or two) on the offensive line and help for their anemic pass rush.

Sure, there was the coronavirus pandemic to deal with, and no one knew then how it would disrupt the entire offseason and start of training camp. But even internally, the Lions were psyched about the talent they brought aboard — and the lift it could give a team they felt was better than last year’s 3-12-1 record.

For subscribers: Pump the brakes on bashing Lions rookie Jeff Okudah.

Detroit Lions' D'Andre Swift leaps over Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos and Raven Greene during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

“A successful draft to me is the great majority of your picks are contributors and obviously a couple of them turn into dynamic players,” Quinn said in April. “And really what it comes down to is you win. You win. You build a team that’s good enough to compete week in and week out, no matter what the situation.”

It’s far too early to make any meaningful evaluations of this year’s rookie class. The group has been a part of two games and about seven weeks of practice, and two of its key members — top picks Jeff Okudah and D’Andre Swift — have missed some of that time with injuries.

But five months after the Lions earned rave reviews for their draft haul, it’s clear that expectations, for 2020 at least, were a bit too optimistic.

Sunday review: Why WJR called Lions’ flop from Ford Field and not Green Bay

Only a handful of Lions rookies are currently meaningful contributors, none has proven to be a dynamic player in the small sample size of the season, and at 0-2, the Lions certainly have not thrived “no matter what the situation.”

“I don’t really think my philosophy’s ever changed on rookie players, ever,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said Wednesday. “I think it’s always been the same. If you go back to conversations when everyone was just getting to know me a little bit, even when we were talking about Kerryon Johnson, there was a lot of conversations early in his rookie year about projections and what is he going to be and all that stuff. I think we always keep all that at a very moderate level. We understand that the jump from college to the NFL is different and we tried to make sure that the expectations of those guys is just to go out and try to do their job at a high level and learn as we go and grow as players.”

While Okudah, the third overall pick, was the crown jewel of the class, it’s his former college teammate, third-rounder Jonah Jackson, who has been the Lions’ most impactful rookie so far.

Detroit Lions offensive lineman Jonah Jackson (73), Frank Ragnow (77) and Beau Benzschawel (63) on the field during practice at Ford Field, Tuesday, September 2, 2020.

Jackson has started and played every snap at right guard, and “held his own in the first couple weeks,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said.

“We saw we had something in Jonah and I think you’re starting to see it,” Bevell said. “He’s a physical player, but he’s also super-athletic, so he’s done a nice job of fitting in there. He’s got good leaders and guys to communicate with him, guys that are veteran players that are next to him, so I think that helps him.”

While Jackson opened training camp as starter and has not ceded that role, most of his fellow rookies have spent their days biding time as backups.

Here’s a look at where things stand with each of the Lions’ rookies, and what to expect from them the rest of the season:

Jeff Okudah

Quinn made no bones about his expectations for the No. 3 overall pick back in April.

“I would hope that Jeff Okudah would come in and start Day 1,” Quinn said after the draft. “I sure hope so. But listen, if we don’t have an offseason program, would it take him a couple of weeks? Maybe. You never know. But I think he’s a very mature kid, very smart football-wise. I mean, I’m very confident that even if we do a virtual offseason program for six weeks, he’ll know enough of our defense to be a very capable player very, very early in his rookie season.”

Detroit Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah catches at practice Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Allen Park.

Okudah dealt with a minor hamstring injury in camp and made his first start as an injury fill-in for Desmond Trufant in last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. He had a rough day against Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams and seems best suited for a backup role for now, though he’ll likely start again Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals if Trufant does not play.

No one should be down on Okudah’s long-term potential, but he’s a long way from being a difference maker in 2020.

D’Andre Swift

Swift seemed destined to at least split reps in the backfield when the Lions made him the third pick of the second round, but that changed over the past month. First, Swift missed about two weeks of training camp with a hip injury, which elongated his learning curve. Second, the Lions signed Adrian Peterson.

Week 1: Swift on dropped TD pass: ‘That’s not me at all’

Peterson, Swift and Kerryon Johnson now form a three-headed backfield, with Swift playing the defined role of third-down back. He dropped a touchdown pass in the opener, but should remain a significant part of the passing game going forward. Still, for the Lions to get adequate value for the No. 35 overall pick, they need to give him more opportunities in the ground game.

I expect Swift’s role to expand at some point, but when and in what capacities might depend on the health of his backfield mates and the Lions’ competitiveness on the field.

Detroit Lions player, Romeo Okwara, center, and his brother Julian, right, lead protesters arm and arm as they march across the MacArthur Bridge across the Detroit River to and from Belle Isle during a rally in Detroit, Friday, June 5, 2020, protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd.

Julian Okwara

Okwara played seven defensive snaps in the opener and was a healthy scratch last week. He was drafted as a pass rusher, but has not been able to crack the rotation for a team that struggles in that department.

As disappointing as it is to see a high third-round pick languish on the bench, the other defensive players taken after Okwara in the draft — New York Jets safety Ashtyn Davis, Miami Dolphins safety Brandon Jones, Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Maubuike and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Davon Hamilton — are in similar situations. 

It’s tough to imagine Okwara’s role growing much in the coming weeks, barring injuries to the some of the Lions’ other linebackers.

Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg

I lumped these two together both because I mentioned Jackson already and because they play the same interior line position. Jackson was inserted into the starting lineup immediately at right guard (no matter what Bevell says about him not being handed a starting job), while Stenberg spent training camp working with the second- and third-team offensive lines at guard and center.

The Lions have a left guard problem with Joe Dahl’s injury, so it’d be nice to see Stenberg step in and start. Alas, that does not appear to be in the cards anytime soon.

“He’s coming along,” Bevell said Tuesday. “He was in a different place, in a little bit different style than Jonah, but he’s gotten better. We did the same thing with him, we moved him to center, we moved him to guard, kind of working some of those spots, and he’s settling in at guard and I think the longer we leave him there and the more he’s able to work on his technique I think he’s going to be a good player for us.”

Detroit Lions receiver Quintez Cephus (87) celebrates a first down against the Chicago Bears during the second half at Ford Field, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020.

Quintez Cephus

Cephus has six catches for 97 yards and has played more snaps than every Lions receiver but Marvin Jones through two games. His role is bound to shrink now that Kenny Golladay is back from his hamstring injury, and it might disappear altogether, given his limited role on special teams. Still, he has contributed more than many fifth-round picks will all season, and he’s obviously next up in the rotation if someone goes down. 

Jason Huntley

It’s highly likely that the Lions won’t come to regret their decision to cut their second fifth-round pick. There just aren’t many fifth-rounders who go on to long, impactful careers. Still, it never looks good when a team cuts a fifth-rounder out of camp, much less when their decision to do so backfires when another team (the Philadelphia Eagles) claims him on waivers.

John Penisini

The Lions’ run defense has been atrocious so far this season. Penisini certainly is not to blame for those struggles, nor should the sixth-round pick be expected to solve those woes. He has played a limited role as a backup through two games and likely will continue in that role this fall.

Draft flashback: Penisini calls himself ‘most slept on’ player in draft

Jashon Cornell

The seventh-round pick’s season ended early because of a torn Achilles tendon.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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