Now that the 2021 NFL draft is in the rear-view, and assuming you’re not too busy consuming 2022 mocks, we thought we’d share seven thoughts on the Detroit Lions’ draft haul.
Faster, quicker and more explosive
Both general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell have a history of downplaying prospect measurables. It’s a reasonable strategy, to use combine and pro day numbers as a validator, not a cause to draft a player. For both, a player’s film tells you most of what you need to know.
The tape shows what a player can and can’t do, as well as their functional athleticism — speed, quickness and explosion wearing cleats and pads, not shorts and a T-shirt. It also gives you insight into the consistency of their effort. If a prospect doesn’t play with passion and intensity, regardless of the score and situation, odds are, Holmes and Campbell aren’t going to be interested.
That approach is welcome news for guys who maybe lack prototypical body types. Penei Sewell’s shorter-than-average arms for an offensive tackle? Not a problem. Levi Onwuzurike being too light or Alim McNeill too short to play defense tackle aren’t a deterrent. They’re good players on film and possess the on-field mindset this organization wants to build around. That compensates for an inch or two here or 10 to 20 pounds there.
But despite an overriding emphasis on film, as opposed to measurables, the Lions still managed to draft one of the most athletically gifted classes in franchise history.
How do we know this? Thanks to a simple metric designed a few years back by Kent Lee Platte called Relative Athletic Score. Platte developed a formula that compares players’ measurables from their combine or pro days performances and historically compares them against others at their position.
Each player is given a score, from 0-10. It’s based strictly on the data, so there’s no room for bias. A player who scores a 10 is the most athletic player at his position with measurables on record. Former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, he scored a 10.
Here are the scores from Detroit’s 2021 draft class.
► Sewell: 8.99
► Onwuzurkie: 8.73
► McNeill: 8.53
► Ifeatu Melifonwu: 9.69
► Amon-Ra St. Brown: 7.14
► Derrick Barnes: 8.42
► Jermar Jefferson: 2.28
Elite athlete after elite athlete, and, well, Jefferson.
Maybe it’s coincidental. One draft class is a small sample size. But there aren’t any outliers until you get to the bottom of the seventh round. Compare that to Holmes’ predecessor Bob Quinn, who also put a premium on film, which translated into taking below-average athletes Teez Tabor and Jahlani Tavai in the second round. Those selections were panned the moment they were made and, arguably ended up as Quinn’s two biggest draft misfires.
Obviously, we won’t have a sense on how well Holmes did in this draft for a few years. And top-flight athleticism paired with elite football character doesn’t always work out. Jarrad Davis is a prime example of that. But the combination, consistently applied across an organization, is bound to have better results, while simultaneously promoting the culture Holmes and Campbell are trying to install.
Of secondary concern
Let’s talk about Detroit’s secondary, which like the rest of team’s defense, is coming off a season everyone would prefer to forget.
To classify the moves the team has made this season as immediate upgrades would be disingenuous. They cut Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman and let Duron Harmon walk. To replace them, the Lions signed Quinton Dunbar, Corn Elder and Dean Marlowe to one-year deals.
Each of those incoming players have potential, but the biggest difference is the price tags. And given those short-term commitments, you might have anticipated the Lions would spend a little more draft capital on the defensive backfield, but Melifonwu, at the end of the third round, was the only investment.
No safeties. No nickel corner to challenge Elder, a one-year starter.
Listen, the Lions were never going to be able to address all their needs, but the limited investment in the secondary says something, right?
If you’re asking me, which you kind of are since you’re still reading, this is an overlapping belief in the young talent on the roster, and, perhaps more importantly, the coaching staff to maximize their potential.
There’s real upside on the outside with last year’s first-round pick, Jeff Okudah, opposite rapidly improving starter Amani Oruwariye. And Dunbar, despite being banged up last year, was outstanding his final couple of seasons in Washington.
Holmes was thrilled to add Melifonwu to the mix, repeating multiple times how surprising it was that the Syracuse cornerback was still on the board. With his size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) and rare athleticism, the GM isn’t wrong. But the fact of the matter is the college production leaves plenty to be desired. We’re talking not enough plays on the ball and too many receptions allowed, particularly last season.
At safety, the Lions are just as young. Tracy Walker is primed for a rebound, while Will Harris, C.J. Moore and Bobby Price have physical gifts that have yet to translate to steady production. That opens the door for Marlowe to play a bigger role than the career-high 230 defensive snaps he played last season in Buffalo.
What it all means is the team is counting on respected defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant and rookie defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn to develop the talent. Both have track records of doing so, established with the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans, respectively, that are the source of that optimism.
If they can get Okudah, Walker, Harris and Melifonwu playing closer to their potential, it will make Holmes look smart for not wasting unnecessary resources that could have stunted the development of the young talent the team already had in place.
Following a successful model
The buzzword around Allen Park this offseason has been collaboration, with the focus being on the working relationship between Holmes and Campbell. Free agency offered minimal insight because the pandemic sharply decreased the salary cap and curbed spending, so we were left looking to the draft to see which organizational philosophies might emerge.
After taking Sewell in the first round, and doubling up on the defensive trenches on Day 2, it’s easy to draw a line to Campbell’s time with the Saints.
When Campbell was with the Saints, the team regularly spent early-round draft picks on their fronts. In fact, during each of his five years with the franchise, they selected either an offensive and defensive lineman in the first round of the draft.
The Saints always have invested heavily in their offensive line. The team’s starting five consists of three first-rounders, a second-rounder and a third-rounder. With Sewell, Detroit now also has three first-round picks in the starting five, as well as a third-rounder in Jonah Jackson. The fifth spot is expected to go to Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a big-money free-agent addition, last offseason.
And if Vaitai doesn’t start delivering after last year’s disappointing, injury-filled debut, don’t be surprised to see the Lions turn back to the draft in 2022 to complete the unit.
Push it real good
We’ve talked about this more than a few times the past couple of years, but one of Detroit’s primary defensive deficiencies has been interior pressure.
You can talk about the lack of sacks all you want, but it’s pressure up the middle that truly affects the offense by making quarterback uncomfortable. And, if you’re moving opposing QBs off their spots with an interior push, it’s going to naturally led to more sacks when they drift into those outside rush lanes.
Just to put some context to Detroit’s struggles in this area, in 2020, the team’s defensive tackles combined for 39 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Holmes is coming from a place where All-Pro Aaron Donald had 105 last year, breaking the century mark for the third time in four seasons.
To address the issue, the Lions traded for Michael Brockers (66 pressures the past two seasons) and drafted Onwuzurike and McNeill. Remember that aforementioned athleticism both possess? That means they’re quick and explosive, both offering legitimate ability to disrupt the pocket.
In 2019, Onwuzurike had 31 pressures in 12 games. McNeill, a 320-pound nose tackle, only had 12 in 11 appearances while fending off a steady diet of double teams, but nine sacks the previous two seasons highlight his ability to get into the backfield.
“Having interior pass rush, that was something that we were looking to add,” Holmes told me after the draft. “I do think that these guys do bring that and that’s just a bonus. That’s what I think the beauty is about both of these kids is that not only are they powerful and strong at the point of attack, but they do have that upside to catch an edge and get up field. You know, just like you brought up a great point about bringing pressure from the edge, but if you can apply that pressure even quicker on the interior inside, then you can even have more of an impact defensively.”
Jobs in jeopardy
After a draft, you usually get a sense for veterans who are on notice, but the Lions did such a thorough housecleaning ahead of free agency that the list is shorter this year.
Obviously, the defensive tackle room is a little full right now. Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand and John Penisini are going to be competing for one or two jobs. Penisini, who had a decent showing as a rookie last season, could be the odd man out given the schematic shift. Unlike McNeill, last year’s sixth-round pick offers little in the pass-rush department.
Another player who could be in trouble is Tavai. The current staff has no allegiance to the former second-rounder who struggled in his second season.
Obviously, there’s no rush to make any immediate cuts. Campbell has made it clear he believes some defenders were hindered by overthinking in the previous scheme, so Tavai will get a chance to respond on the practice field before any decisions are made.
Judging success too lightly?
Holmes was asked how he’ll define the success of his drafts and he said beyond the obvious with Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades, he likes to look at playtime percentage. But is that really a good barometer?
Would any Lions fan call Christian Jones a meaningful contributor the past few years? He averaged nearly 600 defensive snaps, but what did the team have to show for that extensive playing time? About 55 tackles and a sack per year, with one forced fumble and no interceptions across three seasons.
Jesse James played 464 snaps in 2020. Tavai, 624. Those are hardly success stories.
Playing time and games started can certainty be indicative of success, but also of failure to secure a more talented, productive player at a spot. Certainty Holmes has loftier measures for individual success.
Only time will tell
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding Holmes’ first draft. That’s par for the course in these scenarios because fans are desperate for hope and they easily find it in something new and untarnished. Optimism is amplified by Holmes and Campbell both being likable and offering some transparency into their process.
But go back and look at the reactions to Quinn’s first draft, when the rookie GM similarly focused on the trenches in the early rounds, grabbing Taylor Decker, A’Shawn Robinson and Graham Glasgow. Quinn then added Joe Dahl in the fifth.
Even in hindsight, that was a pretty good class, even if it fell apart in Day 3 with guys like long snapper Jimmy Landes, linebacker Antwione Williams and quarterback Jake Rudock.
Quinn was quickly elevated to savior status, with fans adopting “In Quinn we trust” as an unofficial motto. Of course, we know how that story ended.
With Holmes, like Quinn, there’s a vision that makes sense at first glance, but we’re not going to know for years whether it’s going to be successful.
This isn’t an effort to rain on your parade. By all means, be excited. Without hope, what else do Lions fans have? But just try not to get too carried away reading all those glowing draft grades this weekend. We’re a long way from learning if this franchise has finally, after decades of failures, figured out a successful formula.