It’s safe to call it a trend at this point.
But it’s still a risk the Lions may not want to take at the top of the NFL Draft, spending a premium pick on a wide receiver. It’s also one they don’t need to make, based on recent draft history, to say nothing of their own past mistakes.
And yet in what is increasingly a passing league, this is no passing fancy, it seems.
Most mock drafts project three receivers — LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, along with the Alabama tandem of Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith — among the first dozen picks. And at least two of those figure to be available when, or if, the Lions are on the clock with the seventh overall pick Thursday night.
“They’re all special players,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who has Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and the three wideouts rated as his top prospects behind Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in this year’s draft “They’re not just forced up there.”
By way of comparison, Kiper points to the last time an NFL team drafted a receiver with a top-10 pick. That was in 2017 when the Titans selected Western Michigan’s Corey Davis with the fifth overall choice, and then the Chargers took Mike Williams — no, not that one — at No. 7 and the Bengals took John Ross at No. 9.
Regrettable picks, all three of them. Especially when you consider Christian McCaffrey went eighth and Patrick Mahomes went 10th that year. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that teams haven’t “forced” anything with receivers since, at least at the top of the draft.
“But it’s not that kind of thing here,” Kiper said. “These guys are up there because they were phenomenal players, and they tested out great.”
So perhaps that’ll be the first litmus test for the Lions’ new regime, with Brad Holmes as general manager and Dan Campbell as head coach.
The franchise hasn’t drafted a receiver in the first round since 2007, when the Lions struck gold with Calvin Johnson as the No. 2 pick. Of course, that Hall of Fame choice came not long after Matt Millen infamously invested three consecutive top-10 picks in the position from 2003-06, drafting Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams.
Former Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who now works as an analyst for ESPN, was part of that ’05 draft class headlined by the other Mike Williams, who quickly ballooned into one of Millen’s biggest draft busts. Williams was selected over edge rusher DeMarcus Ware, who become a perennial All-Pro in Dallas, but quickly played his way out of Detroit — he caught 37 passes in two seasons before getting traded to Oakland — and eventually the league. And that’s just part of the reason why Orlovsky, who played in Detroit from 2005-08 and again from 2014-16 before he retired, made an impassioned on-air plea to his former team earlier this week.
“Someone tell me the organization in the NFL that has built itself a consistent winner on skill-position players in the draft early?” he said. “It has never been done. It doesn’t happen in football, OK? I’ve lived it with Detroit. I know the fans of Detroit have lived it. I’ve been on the team when it’s like, ‘Let’s take another receiver early’ when we don’t have the pieces in place to allow those receivers to play.
“The Detroit Lions have to be disciplined. Brad Holmes, Dan Campbell, don’t do what your predecessors have made the mistake of doing, and that’s taking these skill guys and going, ‘Ah, we need a guy for our quarterback to throw to.’ No, you don’t right now. You’re not a good football team. Build from the line of scrimmage. If (Oregon’s) Penei Sewell falls to you, you should be sitting there saying, ‘My goodness, we’ve got a tackle that’s gonna play for 10 years.’”
Indeed, that may be the debate, if there is one for the Lions, on Thursday night. Barring a trade back from No. 7 — quarterback-needy teams like Denver or New England or Washington may be on the phone looking to move up — the Lions could be faced with a sizeable choice about positional value. One that’ll be a bit more difficult if Chase is still available, or if their top-rated tackle — presumably Sewell — already is gone.
“Always take the bigs over the littles,” NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said. “Take the offensive lineman before you take the wide receiver, because it’s hard to find offensive linemen.”
Still, the way the NFL game is going — and the way the college game is going, for that matter — the role of the little guy is growing with each passing season. So the fact that this year’s receiver class is long on slot-receiver types and short on bigger-bodied targets may not be a deal-breaker for many teams.
“There are more rules, and it’s more of an offensive league,” said Dolphins GM Chris Grier, who seems poised to take one of those receivers with the sixth overall pick Thursday. “I just think the game has changed a little bit, and these smaller players are given more room and freedom to showcase their talents.”
Last year’s draft set a record with 13 receivers selected in the first two rounds, surpassing the previous high of 12 set in 2015. Kiper has 13 projected to go in Rounds 1-2 again this year and says he has 40 receivers with draftable grades overall.
And while it’s true that many of the league’s top receivers at the moment were originally drafted in the second round or later — a group that includes Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, D.K. Metcalf, Tyreek Hill and Allen Robinson, among others — there’s reason to believe this year’s first-round picks will flourish.
The best teams in college football are passing more, with games often looking more like 7-on-7 drills. But the NFL may not be far behind, as coordinators utilize the speed and playmaking ability of athletes like Waddle, who will add value in the return game as a rookie, and Smith, who draws comparisons to Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison for his size (6-foot, 166 pounds) but also his sublime route running and sure-handed toughness.
“Over the last couple years, the hit rates have been a little bit more improved,” Eagles GM Howie Roseman said.
The Vikings appeared to hit the jackpot with Justin Jefferson last year with the 22nd overall pick, while fellow first-round picks CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy and Brandon Aiyuk all had productive rookie seasons.
That doesn’t mean this year’s rookies will, of course. Nor does it mean the Lions should grab one before addressing other needs in the draft, which is what Orlovsky was railing about this week.
“You as an organization, I’ve watched you make mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake, taking pass-catchers,” Orlovsky said. “Do not get caught up in the shiny, sexy object. Do this the right way for the first time in Detroit in 30 years.”
His view of the Lions’ draft history may be a bit skewed, no doubt tainted by the Millen-era busts and some of the gambles (Eric Ebron, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles) that didn’t pan out for GM Martin Mayhew. Truth is, the Lions have mostly gone big at the top of the draft. Of the 15 first-round picks for Detroit since Megatron in 2007, eight were linemen, five of them on the offensive side of the ball.
And more to the point, none of that has anything to do with Holmes, who insists he’s mindful of history but won’t feel trapped by it.
“You’ve got to approach every single player in its own silo, and then the same thing with every single position,” he said. “We take it all case by case. I think that’s good drafting, to make sure that the players can kind of paint their own picture.”
Top-10 WR picks last 10 years
(Draft, pick, player, team, Pro Bowls)
2011 — No. 4, A.J. Green, Cincinnati, 7
2011 — No. 6, Julio Jones, Atlanta, 7
2012 — No. 5, Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville, 0
2013 — No. 8, Tavon Austin, St. Louis, 0
2014 — No. 4, Sammy Watkins, Buffalo, 0
2014 — No. 7, Mike Evans, Tampa Bay, 3
2015 — No. 4, Amari Cooper, Oakland, 4
2015 — No. 7, Kevin White, Chicago, 0
2017 — No. 5, Corey Davis, Tennessee, 0
2017 — No. 7, Mike Williams, San Diego, 0
2017 — No. 9, John Ross, Cincinnati, 0