| The Detroit News
As the Senior Bowl’s slogan states, the journey to the draft begins in Mobile. This week, more than 100 college seniors will practice and play in front of decision-makers for all 32 NFL franchises, vying for an opportunity to impress and earn a shot at the next level.
This week is especially valuable for the Detroit Lions as they put the finishing touches on their new front office and coaching staffs, headed by general manager Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell.
The two Senior Bowl teams will be coached by the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins, with the practices airing live on ESPNU Tuesday-Thursday, culminating with Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game on the NFL Network.
Although there are still plenty of questions for the Lions to answer this offseason, here are 12 players, six from each team, we’ll be watching this week.
► Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
With the news the Lions are planning to trade Matthew Stafford, the team will be looking for a new franchise quarterback. While there is a group of exciting juniors who will be available at the top of the draft, Jones is the top senior in this class.
After posting a staggering stat line for the national champions — completing better than 77% of his throws with 41 touchdowns to just four interceptions — Jones will be looking to solidify his case as a first-round talent. He doesn’t possess the athleticism that’s becoming increasingly in demand at the position, but he’ll deliver the ball to the right spots with reliable protection.
► Marvin Wilson, DT, Florida State
Had he come out last year, Wilson almost certainly would have gone in the first round as a productive, penetrating interior defensive lineman. But the production and overall film weren’t as good during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Durability is a concern, as the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder finished each of the last two seasons with issues, but NFL teams will also be curious about his passion and drive after this year’s letdown performance.
► Richie Grant, S, UCF
The Lions are at a weird spot at safety. Tracy Walker is coming off a down season and is entering the final year of his rookie contract, while Will Harris hasn’t come close to figuring things out after two seasons. That leaves the door open for a revamping of the room.
Grant, listed at 6-foot, 194 pounds, was a highly productive safety largely patrolling the deep middle of the field for the Knights. Not only did he racked up nearly 300 tackles over four years, he also came down with 10 interceptions, while forcing five fumbles. If that kind of turnover production can translate to the next level, he’ll be a solid contributor.
► Carlos Basham, DE, Wake Forest
Who knows whether the Lions will be able to retain defensive end Romeo Okwara, but even if they do, you can never have enough juice off the edge.
The big-bodied Basham, listed at 6-5, 275 pounds, racked up 15 sacks and seven forced fumbles over his final 19 games. He also has the size and strength to set the edge against the run, making him a more complete option than many defensive ends coming out of college.
► Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
The Lions are certainly lacking long-term receiving options at the moment, but they’re also light on offensive playmakers. Toney checks both boxes. Versatile enough to play inside and out, most of his damage comes out of the slot. The key is getting the ball in his hands and letting him work because of his rare elusiveness in space. He generated more than 60 missed tackles during his four seasons at Florida, better than one every three touches.
► Hamsah Nasirildeen, S, Florida State
Unlike Grant, Nasirildeen has tantalizing size for the position. You can envision sticking the 6-4, 220-pounder closer to the line of scrimmage and move Walker back to free safety, where he thrived early in his career. The Florida State product accelerates well in short areas, making him valuable in both zone and man coverage where, combined with his length, he can pose problems for opposing running backs and tight ends. Operating as a big nickel could be a good path to early playing time as a rookie.
► Chazz Surratt, LB, North Carolina
The Lions are in desperate need for fresh talent at the linebacker position, but it’s not a particularly exciting group in Mobile this season. Surratt, a quarterback recruit who flipped to defense just two years ago, might be the most intriguing of the participants.
Interest starts with the weigh-in. He’s listed at 228 pounds and it would be comforting to know he’s heavier than that. Regardless, his elite athleticism should play at the next level, where speed-and-space players are increasingly valuable in the second level. With some quality coaching, he could develop into a mid-round steal.
► Elerson Smith, DE, Northern Iowa
One of the best parts of the Senior Bowl is the small-school standouts working against a higher level of competition. That’s especially true for Smith, who didn’t get a chance to play this season because the pandemic wiped out Northern Iowa’s season.
As a junior, Smith posted eye-popping numbers. Living in opposing backfields, he racked up 21½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 14 sacks. If he has a strong practice week against offensive tackles from the Power Five conferences, you might as well strap a rocket to his draft stock.
► Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest
Did we mention the Lions need receiving help? Surratt is an option if the franchise doesn’t address the position either in free agency or the early rounds of the draft.
Originally committed to Harvard, he decided to make a run at playing football for a living. Before opting out of this past season, he posted 66 catches for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019.
He isn’t quite as big as Kenny Golladay, but Surratt possesses a thick frame and a similar ability to win with control and physicality, excelling in contested-catch situations.
► Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington
If new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn wants to flip the Lions to a 4-3 front, similar to the one run in New Orleans, he’s going to need some new pieces up front. That might be an even bigger issue if the team opts to clear out some bloated contracts, like the $5.7 million due to Nick Williams.
Onwuzurike is a smaller (6-3, 290 pounds) but quicker style of interior lineman who can be disruptive with his ability to attack a single gap. But more than that, he built a reputation as a steady run defender because of his ability to play with strong leverage and technique, using his length to his advantage.
He sat out the 2020 season, so this week will be an important barometer on where he’s at heading into next level.
► Quinn Meinerz, G, Wisconsin-Whitewater
Whether the new regime is sold on Logan Stenberg’s potential as a starter, the Lions are still likely to be in the market for interior offensive line depth. Also, we wanted an excuse to highlight another of the week’s small-school prospects, especially given the Senior Bowl has brought us similar success stories in Ali Marpet and Ben Bartch in recent years.
A first-team All-American as a junior, Meinerz has the requisite size, which is paired with an always enticing wrestling background. He’s technically proficient, but that will be tested against bigger, stronger defensive linemen this week.
► Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, Oklahoma
D’Andre Swift is the clear-cut future of Detroit’s backfield, but if he’s this franchise’s version of Alvin Kamara, it’s important to remember the Saints superstar’s snap count typically hovers around 60%. There needs to be a complement.
Last year, that was Adrian Peterson, but there’s no reason to bring him back. If the Lions want some power to round out what Swift brings to the table, the 245-pound Stevenson is worth a long look. As a bonus, he’s not devoid of receiving ability, catching 28 balls over two seasons for the Sooners.
► Bonus: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Smith, this year’s Heisman winner, is on the roster, but won’t play after needing surgery on the finger he injured in the national championship game. The electric receiver will go through the interview process and is the only player in town worthy of Detroit’s No. 7 pick.