Lions NFL Draft watch: Five prospects to watch for Week 8

Detroit News

Allen Park — 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.

Alec Pierce, WR, Cincinnati (No. 12)

No. 2 Cincinnati at Navy, 12 p.m., ESPN2

Pierce hasn’t been a volume producer for the Bearcats, averaging fewer than three catches per game during his four seasons at the school. That said, he makes the most of his opportunities, averaging better than 18 yards per grab and scoring more than one out of every 10 times he touches the ball.

Against the best competition Cincinnati has seen this year, the 6-foot-3, 213-pounder was at his best, hauling in six receptions for 144 yards against Notre Dame. It will be interesting to see what he runs at the combine, but there’s reason to believe it’ll be good, given he was a high school track star.

Pierce will probably need some polish to his route running. Most of his production, unsurprisingly given the numbers, comes off vertical concepts. He’s certainly comfortable using his length and leaping ability to snatch the ball out of the air, taking defenders out of the equation.

Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh (No. 8)

Clemson at No. 23 Pitt, 3:30 p.m., ESPN

Pickett’s stock is red-hot coming into a matchup that could rubber-stamp the idea he’s a first-round talent. The fifth-year senior’s production has taken a major leap forward in 2021. Through six games, he’s completing 69.8% of his passes with 21 touchdowns to just one interception.

What you see on film is not only an accurate passer, but a quarterback comfortable making throws on the move. He keeps active feet in the pocket and showcases the ability to step up or roll away from pressure while keeping his eyes downfield.

Pickett might not have a rocket for an arm, but he puts adequate zip on the ball and isn’t afraid to challenge a tight window to make a play downfield. And while he’s not a traditional dual-threat, he can do damage with his feet, including plenty of film showing a willingness to plunge into the heart of his line to pick up a first down or get the ball across the goal line. He’s rushed for 18 touchdowns during his collegiate career.

The biggest concerns are his age, seeing as he’ll be 24 at the start of his rookie season, and his hand size. He’s had some struggles holding on to the ball at times.

Boye Mafe, Edge, Minnesota (No. 34)

Maryland at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m., ESPN2

The son of Nigerian parents, Mafe seemingly would be a natural fit on Detroit’s defense that has several players with Nigerian roots, including pass-rushing brothers Julian and Romeo Okwara.

After a slow start to the 2021 season, Mafe has been coming on strong and has already set personal bests for sacks and tackles for loss in just six games. The 6-4, 265-pounder has the requisite size to set an edge, with an explosive first step to disrupt the pocket. When he combines that strength and explosiveness, his bull rush can be difficult for an offensive tackle to handle.

A preseason pick for Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List,” Mafe’s weight room accomplishments are impressive and figure to contribute to an eye-popping performance at the combine.

Henry To’oTo’o, LB, Alabama (No. 10)

Tennessee at No. 4 Alabama, 7 p.m., ESPN

After pacing Tennessee in tackles the past two seasons, To’oTo’o jumped ship to an SEC rival after the Volunteers dismissed coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Like many of the inside linebackers we’ve featured in this space in recent weeks, he’s more speed than size, listed at 6-2 and 228 pounds. That hasn’t hindered his ability to quickly diagnosis plays, get downhill and rack up stops in droves. The explosive linebacker hasn’t missed a beat in his new surroundings, racking up 54 tackles in seven games for the Crimson Tide.

And in the spirit of Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford going against their former teams when the Lions play the Rams this week, we figured what better time to feature To’oTo’o than against his former squad.

Drake London, WR, USC (No. 15)

USC at No. 13 Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC

When we went back to watch Amon-Ra St. Brown’s film after the Lions selected him in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, it was London who consistently stood out as USC’s best receiving option.

The first thing you notice is the frame. At 6-5 and 210 pounds, London could inject some much needed height and length into Detroit’s corps. But what makes London a first-round talent is he pairs that size with impressive athleticism, whether it’s his releases off the line of scrimmage or his quickness out of his breaks.

London is also strong both in contested-catch situations and after making the grab, when he’s more likely to plow through a tackler than try to juke by them. And he’s a willing blocker, which will resonate with Detroit’s talent evaluators.

Unlike Pierce, London is a volume produce. Through six games, he’s racked up a staggering 64 receptions for 832 yards and five touchdowns. In USC’s last outing, he tallied a career-high 16 catches for 162 yards.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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