Lions 2021 draft preview: Detroit could look at Day 2 to pocket a nickel

Detroit News

Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Cornerbacks

► Current roster: Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Quinton Dunbar, Mike Ford, Corn Elder

► Short-term need: Five out of 10

► Long-term need: Nine out of 10

► Top prospects: Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn, Caleb Farley, Greg Newsome II

► Mid-round options: Asante Samuel Jr., Paulson Adebo, Elijah Molden

► Late-round considerations: Marco Wilson, Robert Rochell, Shakur Brown

► Analysis: Heading into April, the Lions were concerningly light at the cornerback position, but the team remedied the issue by adding Elder and Dunbar to the mix earlier this month.

Dunbar, a converted wide receiver, is coming off a disappointing season in Seattle. Prior to that, he looked like a rising star in Washington. In 2019, the 6-foot-2, 197-pounder allowed just 29 of the 52 throws his direction to be completed, while snagging four interceptions.

If Dunbar can rediscover that playmaking ability, he could push for a starting job with the Lions.

Those outside spots are projected to be manned by Okudah, last year’s first-round pick, and Oruwariye, who made steady overall improvements to his game in his second season a year ago.

In the slot, Elder is the frontrunner (by default) to replace Justin Coleman. He was released in a cap-savings move last month. Elder didn’t see the field much his first three seasons, but got over 400 snaps for the Panthers in 2020. His fiery competitiveness and compact frame might remind Lions fans of Quandre Diggs.

Of course, the Lions are still in the market for depth, and with Dunbar, Elder and Ford operating on one-year contracts, finding a long-term piece or two in this draft would be ideal.

At this stage, no one has connected the Lions to a cornerback in the opening round. At pick No. 7, it would be too early, but if the team were to trade back several spots, it’s not outlandish to suggest Surtain or Horn could be in the mix. Oruwariye has been solid, with room to grow, but the idea of pairing the elite physical toolset of one of those two prospects with Okudah is an intriguing idea.

That said, the more likely option is the Lions wait until the middle rounds. On Day 2, there figures to be some excellent nickelback options, capable of immediately pushing Elder for playing time. A leading name is Samuel, son of the former Pro Bowler who played 11 seasons with the Patriots, Eagles and Falcons.

Samuel Jr. played outside for Florida State in 2020 and was sensational. Despite his 5-10, 180-pound frame, he permitted a passer rating of just 46.2 when targeted. Obviously, his build suggests he’s a better fit for the slot at the next level. Fortunately, he has plenty of experience inside, manning that spot the previous two seasons for the Seminoles.

Molden, out of Washington, isn’t as athletic as Samuel, but posted similarly impressive on-field production. What stands out is how rarely he allowed opposing receivers to score. His assignments found the end zone just twice during his college career, while he came up with five interceptions in 17 games the past two seasons.

In the later rounds, if Rochell slips to Day 3, he’d be worthy of a long look at the top of Round 4. A small-school standout with a solid frame and long limbs, he has shown the ability to play both outside and in the slot. And while Rochell didn’t come up with any picks during the truncated 2020 campaign, he snagged nine interceptions the previous two seasons for Central Arkansas.

At his pro day, Rochell showcased elite speed, explosion and change-of-direction quickness, further emphasizing his upside.

The same could be said for Wilson, who never really put his physical gifts together at Florida. The appeal for the Lions would be the trust in the coaching staff to develop the talent.

A final name we want to mention is Brown, who might not be as gifted athletically as many other cornerback prospects in the class, but could appeal to the Lions because of his versatility, competitiveness and production at Michigan State.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder allowed one touchdown on 52 targets last season, while intercepting five passes.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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