Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell made it clear this week he doesn’t want his team chasing needs in the draft, preferring to target the best player available when they’re on the clock.
If you polled NFL decision-makers, that would be the overwhelmingly popular approach to the draft. And in the Lions’ case, it will probably be a relatively easy strategy to follow, at least this year, given the team could stand to upgrade at just about every position.
While the Lions currently hold five picks in the upcoming draft, the spotlight is predictably on the first-round selection, where the team is slotted to select in the top-10 for the third consecutive year.
There’s no way to know exactly who will be on the board when it’s the Lions’ turn, but the overwhelming consensus is the draft is top-heavy on offensive talent. And with the recent trades at the top of the order setting up an early run on quarterbacks, things are trending toward a pass-catcher being the best player available for the Lions if they stand pat with the No. 7 pick.
That would work out well for the Lions, who are not only in the beginning stages of a rebuild, but short on long-term solutions in that department.
The focus will be on the top three receivers in this class — LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Three different flavors, to be sure, but each offering explosive playmaking ability paired with inside-outside versatility.
The present consensus is Chase is slightly ahead of the two Alabama standouts, and he did little to alter that perception during his pro day Wednesday where he showcased impressive explosion and top-end speed, leaping 41 inches and running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash. Those are elite measurables.
Chase sat out last season, one of many who opted out due to the pandemic. In 2019, as a true sophomore, he was college football’s best receiver for the national champions. The Biletnikoff Award winner caught 84 passes for 1,780 yard (21.2 yards per catch) and 20 touchdowns.
Whether working out wide or from the slot, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is a menace in the open field because of his ability to break tackles and do extra damage after the catch.
Smith, meanwhile, picked up the mantle of college football’s most-productive receiver with Chase out. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner caught a staggering 117 passes in 2020, scoring 25 total touchdowns for the Crimson Tide.
His success is built around his exceptional route running, which focuses on exploiting the weaknesses of whoever is covering him.
“It’s really just seeing if they’re comfortable in front of me,” Smith said. “You can just look at some guys and tell if this is something they really want to do or something they really don’t want to do. That’s the first thing. Then just going along in the game, find those things they’re uncomfortable doing. Just keep them uncomfortable.”
The biggest concern with Smith is his size. Standing at 6-foot-1, the lanky wideout weighed in at just 170 pounds at Alabama’s pro day last week. Naturally, that makes him an injury risk, but he was able to play in 39 of 41 games the past three seasons, including all 26 the last two.
Smith’s game has netted favorable comparisons to Marvin Harrison, who was listed at 179 pounds during his playing days, but had minimal durability issues during his Hall of Fame career.
Waddle, on the other hand, is coming off a season where he missed extensive time with an ankle injury. Still, his determination to make it back for the championship game showed his passion for the game.
At 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, Waddle is also on the small side, but his game film suggests he’s the fastest of the three receivers as the top of the draft. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to run at Alabama’s pro day to quantify his speed.
In three seasons at the school, he appeared in 34 games, averaging 18.9 yards per reception. He was also a lethal punt returner, scoring twice and averaging 19.3 yards on 38 attempts.
Beyond the traditional receivers, the Lions must also consider Florida tight end Kyle Pitts if he makes it to pick seven.
A significant segment of the fan base will buck at that suggestion after the Lions have twice addressed the position in the top-10 the past two years. But Pitts’ unique skill set, which saw him abuse some of the top cornerbacks in the SEC when split out wide or working out of the slot, could make for a lethal pairing with Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson.
“I think he’s an elite wide receiver and I think he’s an elite tight end,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said about Pitts on Wednesday. “When you’re that, that’s what causes problems — what personnel groupings are you in and who are you going to match up against him?
“I was in a meeting the other day and some guy came up and said, ‘He’s kind of like a unicorn,'” Mullens continued. “And the only way you can defend a unicorn is with another unicorn. So if you don’t have a unicorn on defense, you’ve got a problem.”
Pitts, like Chase, rubber-stamped his resume with a stellar pro day showing. Measuring in a 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, he ran his 40 in 4.4 seconds. Compare that against Hockenson, who ran a 4.7 at the combine two years ago and is considered to have plus-athleticism for the position.
In eight games for the Gators in 2020, Pitts caught 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. Perhaps most impressively, he didn’t drop a single pass.
“He’s a different bird than what a traditional tight end has been, or certainly has been when I played,” Campbell said earlier this week. “Look, he’s one of those guys that’s talented, but there’s a number of guys up there that are talented. You look at the quarterbacks that are up there, you look at the receivers, you look at him, you look at the tackle – there’s a number of guys that you’d be fired up to have one way or another.”