Each Saturday during the college football season, we’ll highlight five prospects with locally-televised matchups who could be a fit for the Detroit Lions in the 2022 NFL Draft, based on projected needs.
Every week, the list will aim to highlight early-, mid- and late-round prospects. This will give you a chance to watch the players performing live, instead of playing catch-up in the weeks before the draft.
Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati (No. 1)
No. 8 Cincinnati at Indiana, 12 p.m., ESPN
Who knows what the future holds for Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah, but after the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the season opener, there’s far less certainty about his future than there was a week ago.
Detroit has two other young corners in Amani Oruwariye and Ifeatu Melifonwu, but there’s certainly room to upgrade the position, particularly with Oruwariye entering the final year of his contract next season.
While LSU’s Derrick Stingley sits alone at the top of the prospect rankings for most analysts, Gardner isn’t too far behind. The Detroit native helped lead Martin Luther King High School to a state championship in 2018 as a two-way player. Permanently shifting to defense upon arriving at Cincinnati, he found immediate success, earning first-team all-conference honors as a freshman.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds by the school, he uses his size and length to his advantage, racking up six interceptions his first two seasons, and he’s already scored one pick early in the 2021 campaign. His physicality is only problematic when it leads to penalties, which is something that will need to be coached out of him as he comes into the league, given how little leeway NFL officials give defensive backs.
Bubba Bolden, S, Miami (No. 21)
Michigan State at No. 24 Miami, 12 p.m., Noon
It’s early in the season, and early in the tenure of coach Mel Tucker, but Michigan State’s program doesn’t really have many draft-eligible prospects on the radar. Still, I wanted to give you something to watch when the Spartans head south for a high-profile matchup with the Hurricanes.
Bolden is an interesting prospect because his physical gifts jump off the page. At 6-foot-3, 204 pounds, he’s huge for the position. And he’s played a versatile role within the Hurricane’s defensive scheme, lining up deep, in the box, in man coverage against receivers and tight ends in the slot, while proving adept at blitzing.
Making nine starts in 2020, he racked up 74 tackles, an interception and a team-high four forced fumbles, earning second-team all-conference honors.
But any interested team will need to take a close look at his character. Lions coach Dan Campbell has made it clear he doesn’t want any “turds” on the roster. Well, Bolden had to leave USC after he was banned from the program 28 weeks following an incident at a house party, where he was part of a group alleged to have made intimidating threats.
George Karlaftis, Edge , Purdue (No. 5)
Purdue at No. 12 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m., NBC
Football’s version of the “Greek Freak,” Karlaftis moved to United States as a young teen. A member of a highly athletic family, his father played football and ran track at the University of Miami, his brother is a world judo champion, and before Karlaftis played football, he was part of Greece’s national water polo team.
But he’s found his calling on the football field, where he’s developed into one of the premier edge prospects in this year’s class. As a true freshman in 2019, he appeared in 12 games, recording 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 7.5 sacks.
A positive COVID diagnosis wiped out much of his second season, but the 6-foot-4, 275-pounder is off to a solid start in 2021, tallying eight stops, 0.5 sack, two batted passes, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries through two weeks.
Surprisingly, given his size, he’s lagging behind as a run defender. If that can catch up to his advanced pass-rushing skill set, Karlaftis has the makings of an impactful three-down lineman.
John Metchie III, WR, Alabama (No. 8)
No. 1 Alabama at No. 11 Florida, 3:30, CBS
It’s hardly news the Lions need an impact receiver, so expect us to highlight one or more each week in this space. This week, it’s Metchie, the former four-star prospect who is the latest in a long line of Alabama wideouts ready to make a splash at the next level.
As a sophomore last season, Metchie stepped up following an injury to Jaylen Waddle, catching 55 balls for 916 yards and six touchdowns. And following Waddle and Devonta Smith moving on to the NFL, Metchie is now the Crimson Tide’s clear No. 1 option.
He’s traveled a unique road to reach this point. The son of a Taiwanese mother and Nigerian father, Metchie was born and Taiwan and spent part of his youth in Ghana before the family immigrated to Canada. Then, as a high schooler in Maryland, he posted monster numbers, racking up more than 3,800 yards from scrimmage and scoring 42 touchdowns.
At Alabama, he’s shown versatility, producing while lining up outside and in the slot. This year, he’ll be able to solidify his draft stock by showing he can remain as productive when matched up against the opposition’s best defensive back. Florida’s Kaiir Elam figures to be one of the toughest draws he’ll see this season.
Merlin Robertson, LB, Arizona State (No. 8)
No. 19 Arizona State at No. 23 BYU, 10:15 p.m., ESPN
As we mentioned last week, the Lions have clear, long-term needs at linebacker with Alex Anzalone playing on a one-year deal and Jamie Collins’ contract becoming untenable in 2022.
In the offseason, the team should be on the hunt for a partner to pair with Derrick Barnes, and if they don’t find that option in free agency (or even if they do), Robertson would be a solid, mid-round addition to the young, defensive nucleus general manager Brad Holmes is building.
Like Barnes, Robertson has been something of a hybrid during his time at ASU, splitting his time between the line of scrimmage and off the ball. As the conference’s freshman of the year in 2018, he led his team in tackles and sacks, while recording 27 quarterback pressures.
He followed that up with an similarly productive sophomore campaign, although the sack numbers noticeably declined. And 2020, like it was for so many college athletes, was something of a throwaway year. Robertson appeared in just three games, recording 20 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Robertson has good size for the position. He’s slimmed down a bit heading into his senior season, which should help with the fluidity of his movement as he projects to an off-the-ball role in the NFL. Teams will also be looking for continued development in coverage, but he has flashed in that department, recording an interception each of his first three seasons.