Ah, the 2021 NFL draft. It’s almost here.
Can’t wait, right? Which player will the Detroit Lions draft with the No. 7 pick? Will they go offense or defense? Will they trade back?
To quote “Jeopardy!” host Aaron Rodgers, it’s a beautiful mystery.
That’s why we love it, especially in Detroit, where the excitement and promise of the draft is as close as Lions fans get to the Super Bowl. It’s the only NFL event of any consequence the Lions are guaranteed to participate in every year. As Jim Brockmire might say, the Lions are the New England Patriots of not being the New England Patriots.
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So instead of “The Big Game,” we get “The Big Guess” in Detroit.
Don’t worry, I’m not here to kill your enthusiasm for the draft. In fact, I celebrate that enthusiasm because the genius of the NFL is that it sells hope every year for every team. And the draft is the engine that drives that hope.
But I’m also a realist. So lean in, because I’m going to tell you two secrets about this NFL draft as it pertains to the Lions.
Come on. Real close.
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Here’s the first secret: NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT THE DRAFT!
This is why my colleague Dave Birkett worked tirelessly to bring our treasured Free Press readers every morsel of information while being cloistered in a secure location and kept alive with a daily smoothie of gummy bears and Skittles has he hammered away at Mock Draft 14.0 – or maybe 4.0, I lost count.
Look, I could tell you the Lions absolutely, positively have to draft a certain player. That would garner interest, but the same could be said for cat videos.
The truth is the Lions are embarking on a massive rebuild that’s going to take years, and that means almost any draft pick can help them now or down the road. I’ve always hated when general managers protest the idea that they’re drafting for need. (When exactly did that become a bad thing?) But in the Lions’ current situation, it’s true. Even if they used every pick on defense, the defense still wouldn’t be good this year because most rookies struggle.
This is why the best move the Lions can make is to trade down and still take a quality player somewhere in the middle of the first round while acquiring more draft capital for 2022 or 2023, when going after a coveted player could make a big difference.
That brings me to secret No. 2. Go ahead and lean. I promise not to shout this time.
Here it is: No matter what, the Lions should not draft an offensive lineman seventh overall.
Don’t talk to me about Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater. I don’t want to hear about quick feet, long arms and strong hands. The fact is offensive linemen are easily the worst athletes among the 22 players on the field. If they were better athletes, they’d be defensive linemen.
The real reason offensive linemen have value is because they have to stop defensive linemen. And even then, the five offensive lineman often need help blocking. I remember defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham laughing at the idea that left tackles were paid so much. “It’s a party over there,” I remember him saying, “with the tight end and the running back.”
I’m not denigrating the effort of offensive linemen. They’re tough as nails and work as hard as anyone. Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims and Jason Fox have also been some of my favorite Lions in the locker room. Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow are great guys.
I just wouldn’t draft any of them in the first round, and that goes double for interior linemen. Mark Schlereth once told me longtime offensive line coach Alex Gibbs believed he could get hitchhikers and hobos to play center and guard, though he conceded you need elite tackles.
Ragnow just made the Pro Bowl and Decker’s also a very good player. But I think a GM worth his salt should find good offensive lineman after the first round and preferably after the second. The first round should be reserved for special playmakers. It’s telling that the best thing you can say about an offensive lineman is that if he does everything perfectly you don’t notice him.
I’m not saying the Lions shouldn’t pursue good offensive linemen. I’m saying they shouldn’t fall prey to the NFL’s accepted inflation that makes teams overspend for an offensive lineman. Believe me, really good offensive linemen can be found in Day 2 or 3 of the draft.
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Look no further than> this year’s Super Bowl. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs was the only first-rounder who started on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line. Left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Ali Marpet were second-rounders. Center Ryan Jensen was a sixth-rounder and right guard Aaron Stinnie was undrafted. That’s a Super Bowl title with one first-round offensive lineman.
It was similar for the Super Bowl champs the year before, when the Kansas City Chiefs’ only first-rounder was left tackle Eric Fisher. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and left guard Stefen Wisniewski were second-rounders. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was a sixth-rounder and center Austin Reiter was a seventh-rounder.
That’s two Super Bowls with four out of 10 offensive linemen drafted in the sixth round or later. The Lions started last season with two first-rounders, a third-rounder (Jonah Jackson) and two fifth-rounders (Tyrell Crosby and Joe Dahl).
The good news for the Lions is that they’re in good shape on the offensive line. They have an opening for a guard and a right tackle, but they also have Hank Fraley, who was one of the few coaches retained from the previous regime and should be able to get the most out of whatever talent general manager Brad Holmes brings him.
Now, bring on the draft. With any luck, it should be as entertaining as a cat video.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.