The Detroit Lions have a laundry list of important roster decisions to make before the 2021 NFL draft begins on April 29th. Included in that list is whether or not to trade out of their current seventh overall position.
Should they decide to stay at that spot and select a player, recent history would seem to favor them landing a difference-maker. Over the last ten drafts, the seventh overall selection has produced four Pro Bowlers, as well as one Super Bowl Champion.
The Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, the lone quarterback selected at that spot since 2011, got off to a shaky start to his NFL career in 2018, as many rookie quarterbacks do. In just three seasons, however, he has become one of the best young signal-callers in the league and brought his team to within a win of a Super Bowl appearance this past season. His arrow is firmly pointing up, making it a home run of a pick.
Just a year later in 2019, the Jacksonville Jaguars chose another Josh Allen at number seven, one spot before the Lions. The athletic edge defender was widely thought to be a prime target of Detroit, but the Lions just missed him and went with tight end T.J Hockenson at eighth overall. Allen was a Pro Bowler as a rookie.
Defensive Tackle DeForest Buckner has become one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL after going seventh overall in 2016. He helped the San Francisco 49ers reach the Super Bowl in 2020, and was subsequently traded to the Indianapolis Colts due to salary cap constraints. He signed a four-year, $84 million contract extension with the Colts and helped them field a top-10 defense in 2020. Nice one.
Edge defender Aldon Smith exploded onto the NFL scene as the seventh pick in 2011, notching a jaw-dropping 33.5 sacks over his first two seasons. Substance abuse issues led to multiple suspensions though, and he did not play at all between 2016-2019. Incredibly, Smith re-emerged with the Dallas Cowboys in 2020, playing in all 16 games and seeming to get his life and career back on track.
The lone Super Bowl winner from this group is receiver Mike Evans, who has spent his entire career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and helped them become the first team to win the big game in their home stadium just a few weeks ago. He has steadily risen to the upper echelon of NFL wideouts and has recorded at least 1,000 receiving yards in all seven of his seasons.
Naturally, there have been some misses as well. Guard Jonathan Cooper was taken at seven by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. He broke his leg during the preseason, costing him his entire rookie year. He never really recovered from that setback and played just 46 games for four teams between 2014 and 2018.
In 2015, receiver Kevin White was selected at seven by the Chicago Bears. A slew of injuries has limited him to just 17 career games and 25 receptions. He spent last season with the San Francisco 49ers, registering zero catches in just three games. His time in the NFL is likely up.
Aside from these more notable selections, safety/linebacker Mark Barron (2012) and receiver Mike Williams (2017) have had above-average NFL careers, though their output has not measured up to the expectations for a seventh overall pick. Williams had his 2021 contract option exercised by the Los Angeles Chargers last May, though his injury history could cloud his future with the team. Barron spent most of 2020 with the Denver Broncos, though he did not appear in a game.
Twice over the last ten years, the seventh overall selection has been involved in a trade. In 2012, the Buccaneers moved down two spots in a deal with the Jaguars and selected Barron. In 2018, the Buccaneers were again involved in a deal at that point in the draft, when the Bills traded up with them to select Allen.
It seems to have worked out for both teams. Allen has quickly become a star and the Buccaneers emerged from that deal with defensive tackle Vita Vea, cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead, all key members of Tampa Bay’s championship-winning defense this past season.
The Lions, with Jared Goff slated to be the starter at quarterback in 2021, do not necessarily have an immediate need at the position. However, if they have the chance to land a quarterback of Allen’s caliber and let him sit and learn for a year, they would be wise to select him at number seven as a long-term answer under center.
If they aren’t enamored with the options at that spot, they will undoubtedly have multiple offers on the table from quarterback-needy teams looking to move up. They could use the extra capital in a trade down to target valuable contributors and hope for a similar return that the Buccaneers received in 2018.
Regardless of what path the Lions choose this April, there is some promising modern history behind the seventh overall selection. The misses at that number, however, underscore the importance of getting it right.