Niyo: In an offense top-heavy draft, could the Lions get defensive?

Detroit News

The Lions are set to make NFL draft history next week, unless they decide to move. Or perhaps take a big risk.

And no offense to Brad Holmes, Detroit’s new general manager, but that’s probably not the best way to make a first impression here, though it’d be hard to argue if Kyle Pitts or Ja’Marr Chase was still on the board when the Lions are on the clock. Same goes for the top offensive tackle, whether it’s Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater in the Lions’ view.

Still, a safer bet might mean passing the buck and adding more capital, provided Holmes can find a willing buyer — and the right offer — for the No. 7 overall pick.

If not, though, it probably means bucking history. Because never before has an NFL Draft started with seven draft picks who all were offensive players. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1999 to find the last time a draft began without a defensive player selected in the top six.

Yet that’s exactly what most draft analysts think is going to happen this year, with quarterbacks expected to go 1-2-3 — 1999 was the last time that happened as well, not coincidentally — and then some combination of quarterbacks, offensive tackles and receivers, along with a tight end who plays like one, coming off the board with the next few picks.

More: Lions 2021 draft preview: At tight end, Detroit could face tough choice with Kyle Pitts

Depending on how those three pivotal picks do shake out with Atlanta, Cincinnati and Miami selecting directly ahead of Detroit, it’ll leave the Lions — and Holmes — with some intriguing options. If one or two of the top quarterbacks is available, possibly Justin Fields and Trey Lance, the phone should be ringing in Allen Park. And as former Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik said this week, “if they could get that trade-back call, I think I’d take advantage of it.”

And if they don’t? Then what?

The Lions have a glaring need at the receiver position, so it’ll be hard to look past a game-breaking talent like Jaylen Waddle or a professional route-runner like DeVonta Smith. The positional value of a tackle like Sewell or Slater carries added weight in the top 10 as well.

But at the same time, we’ve all seen what a disaster Detroit’s defense has become the last few years, culminating in a record-setting fiasco last fall. And while some of that can be blamed on the scheme — the new coaching staff has suggested as much this offseason — there’s no denying the need to add young talent there. In bulk.

So, then, might the Lions be tempted to take the pick of the lot in this draft? Breaking the seal on the defensive talent in this draft with a player like, say, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons?

Parsons boasts an elite athletic profile as a 6-foot-3, 245-pounder who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at Penn State’s pro day last month. He’s an off-ball linebacker who’d be able to stay on the field in sub packages, and his rare physical tools are exactly the sort of thing head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn could use as they try to remake that unit into one that actually makes plays.

“He’s not just a sideline-to-sideline run defender,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said of Parsons. “He can cover and he can also rush the passer. There are so few guys you can get like that, that can step in right away, be ready to play and can be on the field all three downs. That’s so rare.”

But there may be some off-field concerns with Parsons, who opted out of the 2020 season and was among the Penn State players accused in a hazing incident that was part of a civil lawsuit filed by a former teammate. There’s also an alleged fight with that same ex-teammate in 2018, and a suspension in high school NFL teams have asked about.

“We all made mistakes when we were 17, 18,” Parsons said last month. “I’m not going to let it control or dictate the person I am now. I’m not going to let something that happened four years ago dictate who I’m becoming and the father I want to be. Everyone learns and grows.”

Likewise, we’ll learn plenty about what Holmes and Campbell value most by what they do in their inaugural draft in Detroit. But given their backgrounds, and what they’ve said publicly, and the work they’ve done in free agency, we certainly have an inkling.

“Look, I think you saw a little bit of it with that Michael Brockers trade, working on that defensive line,” Dominik said of Holmes’ other trade with the Rams this offseason, adding a veteran defensive tackle in a salary dump. “I think that’s gonna be something that’s really important to Brad, in terms of what he wants to do. And I think Dan Campbell’s gonna be that same mentality as a head coach, trying to build the trenches. I think that’s gonna be their No. 1 focus.”

There’s a pretty good foundation built on the offensive line, with a newly-extended left tackle in Taylor Decker, a Pro Bowl center in Frank Ragnow, and a guard in Jonah Jackson who started every game last season as a rookie. Adding Sewell or Slater – or perhaps USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker in a trade-down scenario – would nearly complete that project.

But on the flipside, this draft class is short on can’t-miss prospects up front.

There are no dominant edge rushers like Chase Young or Nick Bosa or Bradley Chubb, all of whom were top-five picks in recent years. And as for the defensive tackles, if you’re looking for another Derrick Brown – a player the Lions strongly considered before taking cornerback Jeff Okudah with the No. 3 pick last year – don’t bother.

“It’s the worst defensive tackle group that I’ve since I started in 2003,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout with the Ravens, Browns and Eagles.

Adds longtime ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper: “There’s just nobody to consider that high in terms of the first round. I don’t have a defensive player going until 10. I don’t have a defensive lineman going until 21.”

More: Wojo: No need for Lions to jump back in the quarterback pool — yet

How rare is that? Well, consider that there have been three or more defensive players selected in the top 10 in every draft since 1995. And the last time at least one of them wasn’t a defensive lineman was back in 2012.

But what about a cornerback? There is some high-end talent there this year, too, with the likes of Alabama’s Patrick Surtain and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn at the top of the list. (Arguably the most talented cornerback prospect, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, is coming off a second back surgery.) And though it might be a reach at No. 7, Dominik said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they put another corner opposite of Okudah to really kind of lock down that position.”

I would be, for what it’s worth. But I’m not sure a pick at No. 7 that addresses that side of the ball would be indefensible, by any means. History says as much.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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