The Lions have their quarterback, like it or not, agree with it or not. They launched the Great Quarterback Carousel of 2021 when they traded Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff, and in the process, they bought some time. And some sanity.
Every team anywhere near the top 10 of the NFL draft is scrambling and smoke-screening. Oh, the Lions are too, as they should, but they don’t have to commit to anything. GM Brad Holmes does have to pretend he’s sweating this one out, but the Lions likely are sitting this one out, while others pick through quarterback prospects of varying potential.
There are five quarterbacks considered possible top-10 picks, but is this group really that deep, or are teams just really that desperate? Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville at No. 1? Sure. Zach Wilson to the Jets at No. 2? Fine. Justin Fields or Mac Jones to the 49ers at No. 3? Well, it’s a debate, so it’s not a consensus. The evaluations of Alabama’s Jones, Ohio State’s Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance are all over the map (literally), which is why teams keep trudging off to multiple pro days.
This was the wisdom in trading Stafford early and getting a younger, accomplished quarterback in return. The Lions don’t have much right now, but they have flexibility and can flex it by the April 29 draft. Ultimately, there’s no need to grab the fourth- or fifth-best quarterback when you can get the best (or second-best) offensive tackle. That’s why my guess today is, if they stay at No. 7, the Lions will take one of the premier tackles — Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater. Their offensive line is the only unit that has a chance to be a strength, so strengthen it. However, there are options.
► Option One: Trade down, which would be ideal. Other teams will be hungering for a quarterback or a receiver. Maybe entice your old buddies, the Patriots, into moving up for a quarterback. If Holmes can pry multiple picks from New England to drop to No. 15, we’ll commission a statue of him. (Our standards are not very high here). Use your leverage, even if it’s minimal.
► Option Two: Stick with the pick and grab the best player available, which likely would be a top receiver. This is not ideal, although not a disaster. I don’t care how dynamic Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Florida receiver-tight end hybrid Kyle Pitts appear to be, it’s a luxury position during a massive rebuild. None of the top 20 players in NFL receiving yardage last season was drafted in the top 10. This year’s class is loaded, but the Lions are much farther than one playmaker away from being any good.
► Option Three: The logical (sensible, safe, boring) one. The Lions could grab one of the touted offensive tackles, Sewell or Slater, at No. 7 and be quite satisfied. Ecstatic? Maybe not. But here in Detroit, we’ll settle for satisfied, for now.
No team has reached for positions of need more fruitlessly than the Lions over the years, from cornerback Jeff Okudah last season to the staggering litany of receivers and tight ends. The gaffes of the past don’t shape the Holmes-Dan Campbell regime, but they are, shall we say, illuminating. Holmes has made astute, aggressive moves so far, but the draft is where front offices are defined. He’ll clutch his cards to his chest, which is different than Bob Quinn, who oddly played solitaire at a poker table.
That said, I don’t think the Lions are fooling anyone when it comes to their quarterback situation, although it’s imperative they try. Holmes made it clear Goff, 26, was as important a piece of the trade as the two No. 1 picks. Of course, he has to say that. But Holmes was part of the Rams staff that drafted Goff No. 1 in 2016, and he backed his endorsement by restructuring Goff’s deal to make it more likely he’s here at least two seasons.
“I do expect Jared to come in and be our starting quarterback,” Holmes said last month. “I don’t see anything other than that. With respect to No. 7 overall with the draft, when you’re picking inside the top 10, you’re not in a position to ignore any positions. So, the quarterback position is very important and if the value is there and the right guy is there, then he’d be in heavy consideration.”
Sounds convincing, sort of. I suppose if Fields slides to No. 7, the Lions might be tempted. He’s a wild card, a supremely talented player who starred in an Ohio State system that doesn’t necessarily prepare quarterbacks for the pros. (See: Dwayne Haskins).
Okudah was a last-ditch, short-view gambit by a regime that knew it was in trouble. Holmes is taking a much, much longer view, another reason it makes little sense to grab a project quarterback.
Vegas pegs the Lions’ over-under win total at 5.5 — only the Texans are lower. If they somehow exceed expectations, it’ll be because of Goff, and you can’t rule out that possibility. Yes, his relationship with Rams coach Sean McVay fell apart last season, but he gutted through two playoff games — winning one — with a broken right thumb.
The narrative the Lions exchanged an all-time tough guy in Stafford for a California softie in Goff is cheap and narrow. Goff is 2-3 in playoff games and started a Super Bowl. He played 62 of 64 regular-season games the past four seasons.
“I think (the trade) builds that chip on your shoulder a little bit,” Goff said. “I won’t lie about that.”
Stick to the plan
The Lions have time to see if Goff can recapture his confidence, and they have a plan whether he does or doesn’t. As much as Holmes has touted him, it would seem disingenuous if he drafted his replacement so soon.
Any doubts either will dissipate, or be reinforced, during what likely will be a rough season. The Lions are barren at the receiver position. Their defense is a mess. Wisely, almost everything is being done on a prove-it basis, with all their free agents signed to one-year deals, outside of running back Jamaal Williams, who got two years.
The Lions might finally, truly, be constructing from the inside out with their offensive line. Taylor Decker is entrenched at left tackle, Frank Ragnow is an excellent center, Jonah Jackson is a developing guard. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is not the answer at right tackle, which is why someone like Sewell — who’s willing to play either tackle position — would be a tidy fit.
One lingering theory is the Lions should draft a quarterback high and stash him for a year, while Goff plays. The risk is, the history of top-10 quarterback busts is so long, there’s no room for flyers. For every success such as Justin Herbert or Josh Allen, there’s a Josh Rosen, Blake Bortles, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert or Mitchell Trubisky. Do not make me go all the way back to Joey Harrington in 2002!
And as more quarterback-starved teams leap for one, the carousel will keep spinning. I get the hunger, and you want something to nibble on anyhow. OK, I can accommodate.
If the Lions get, say, a top-five pick next year, and Goff has been only adequate, there will be plenty of names to explore in the 2022 quarterback class. Among them: North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, USC’s Kedon Slovis, Oregon transfer Tyler Shough, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan.
Who, who and who? Pretty much what people said about out-of-nowhere Joe Burrow two years ago, or Wilson and Lance a year ago. The Lions’ new regime already picked one quarterback in Goff. Barring a crazy draft day scramble, they’ll wait a year before choosing their next one.