Lions NFL Draft watch: Five prospects to watch for Week 13

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.

The list aims 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.

Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State (No. 12)

Penn State at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m., ABC

The Lions love Alex Anzalone. The veteran linebacker was brought in to serve as a leader and culture builder, and whatever durability concerns he’s exhibited in the past haven’t been a factor this year. He’s played a team-high 99.6% of Detroit’s defensive snaps.

Yet, on-field, there’s so much more to be desired from an every-down middle linebacker. No one in the NFL has missed more tackles this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and Anzalone’s slow reactions and subpar block shedding frequently leave him out of position when playing the run.

The Lions need a tone-setter in the second level. Maybe that will eventually be Derrick Barnes, but he’s still a work in progress. And with the scheme calling for two inside linebackers on most snaps, and Anzalone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin both operating on expiring contracts, the draft could provide a solution.

Penn State has long held the reputation as “Linebacker U” and Smith is the latest product from that assembly line. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder is an elite level athlete who reportedly ran the 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds coming out of high school. His acceleration is apparent when attacking his run gaps, and when asked to blitz.

More: Lions NFL Draft watch: Five prospects to watch for Week 12

When talking about tone-setting, Smith makes ball carriers who cross his path pay a toll. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage more often than not prior to moving from the SAM to WILL position this season, the coverage skills are still developing. But he has the length and speed to be disruptive in zone drops, getting his hands on five passes in 11 games this season.

David Ojabo, Edge, Michigan (No. 55)

Ohio State at Michigan, 12 p.m., Fox

While Aidan Hutchinson has lived up to his billing as a potential top-10 prospect, Ojabo has skyrocketed out of relative obscurity, to the point where he’s also in the conversation to be selected in the first round this April.

An explosive and bendy edge rusher packaged in a 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame, Ojabo has racked up 10 sacks and five forced fumbles in his first full season as a starter. It’s amazing how effective he’s been given how raw the skill set remains. Born in Nigeria, he moved to the United States for high school and didn’t start playing football until his was a junior.

Obviously, with that lack of experience comes the need for plenty of refinement to the fundamental skill set. While Ojabo is a handful when rushing the passer, he’ll unquestionably need quite a bit of polish to become a three-down player capable of consistently setting an edge against the run or having the needed feel when dropping back into coverage.

The pass-rush upside is certainly enough to merit the talk of going in the first round, but it might be a few years before we know the full scope of Ojabo’s NFL potential.

Christian Harris, LB, Alabama (No. 8)

Alabama at Auburn, 3:30 p.m., CBS

Dipping back to Detroit’s need for an inside linebacker, Harris is another Day-2 option who would fall under the tone-setter category.

A high school safety and receiver, Harris got rushed into Alabama’s starting lineup as a true freshman due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. Racking up 34 starts in Nick Saban’s defense has been highly beneficial to accelerating his development.

An explosive second-level pass rusher, Harris reads the blocking well and can explode like a missile into the backfield, whether that’s up the middle or around the edge. As a run defender, he’s overly welcoming to contact, but plays with a level of violence that prevents him from rarely getting eaten up by a block.

More: Lions mailbag: What does future hold for Goff, Campbell and ’22 draft?

In coverage, Harris can get a little stiff in zone, occasionally focusing more on the quarterback or misdirection than adjusting to the pass-catching options in his area. In man, he faces the normal change-of-direction challenges for his position, but has above-average burst and speed to close ground when he finds himself in a trail position and limit damage after the catch.

Regardless of assignment, he rarely makes plays on the ball, tallying just six pass defenses and one interception in 35 games.

Reed Blankenship, S, Middle Tennessee (No. 12)

Middle Tennessee at Florida Atlantic, 7 p.m., Stadium

A fifth-year senior, Blankenship took advantage of an extra year of eligibility following the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Listed at a hearty 6-foot-1, 204 pounds, the small-school safety has been a versatile playmaker for the Blue Raiders, tallying 25.5 tackles for a loss and nine interceptions during his college career. He’s also dabbled as a punt returner.

Coached by Steve Ellis, who also worked with former first-team All-Pro Kevin Byard at Middle Tennessee, Blankenship will be looking to build on Byard’s legacy following the latter’s third-round selection in the 2016 draft.

Blankenship is capable of playing up high in Detroit’s split-safety scheme, or lining up in the box in more of a nickel alignment. His quickness and strong tackling make him well-suited for either role.

After overcoming a broken leg that prematurely ended his 2019 season, Blankenship made an appearance on Bruce Feldman’s “Freak List” ahead of the 2020 campaign.

“NFL scouts really like how fluid Blankenship is in his movement on the back end of the defense,” Feldman wrote. “… Blankenship has displayed plenty of athleticism in the MTSU strength program as well, vertical jumping 38 inches and broad-jumping 10 feet to go with a 4.5 40.”

The Lions figure to be in need of at least one safety next offseason. Tracy Walker and Dean Marlowe are both set to be free agents, and despite praise from the coaching staff, Will Harris has continued to struggle to develop into a playmaker in the back end.

Wan’Dale Robinson, WR, Kentucky (No. 1)

Kentucky at Louisville, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2

With a glaring need at the position, we’ve featured more than a dozen receivers in these draft watch columns this year. Robinson is the latest, blooming from a modest producer with an intriguing skill set at Nebraska to one of the SEC’s most-productive weapons as an incoming transfer this season.

Robinson isn’t a big-bodied wideout. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder does most of his damage through his speed and quickness. In 11 games this season, he’s racked up 85 catches for 1,067 and seven scores. And he’s continued to have an impact on the ground throughout his college career, rushing for 691 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries across three seasons between the two schools.

More: Lions NFL Draft watch: Five prospects to watch for Week 10

There’s also a little bit of kick and punt return on the resume, but not quite enough to project him into that role at the next level. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to try him there.

Probably best suited to work out of the slot, adding him on Day 2 of the draft would mean the Lions would have to shift Amon-Ra St. Brown more permanently to the outside in his second season.

Robinson is electric with the ball in his hands, able to stop and change directions on the dime and capable of sinking low and ducking under would-be tacklers in close quarters. Obviously, the catch radius isn’t ideal, but Robinson does a nice job getting separation with that change-of-direction burst. It might be easy to think of him as a better version of Detroit’s Kalif Raymond with a ceiling that could look something like dynamic Giants rookie Kadarius Toney.

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