Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux? That’s the choice the Detroit Lions could be faced with when they’re on the clock with the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft.
Maybe it’s a tad presumptive to assume the Lions will be picking first overall with six weeks left in the season, but after losing Thursday to the Chicago Bears on a last-second field goal — for the third time this season — the stars certainly seem to be aligning that way. The Lions remain the NFL’s only winless team at 0-10-1, and their magic number is five (and shrinking) to wrap up the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since 2009.
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The Lions have six very losable games left on their schedule, including next week’s home tilt with the Minnesota Vikings. And three of the NFL’s four teams with three wins or less — the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9), New York Jets (3-8) and Houston Texans (2-9) — play each other in what I previously dubbed the Round Robin of Suck. (The Seattle Seahawks, at 3-7, take on the Washington Football Team on Monday night.)
That tournament started Sunday, when the Jets beat the Texans, 21-14, and concludes with Houston’s Week 15 trip to Jacksonville and a game the next week between the Jaguars and Jets.
At least two — and maybe all three — of those teams will play their way out of contention for the No. 1 pick. And even if they don’t, the Lions need only to hold serve and keep losing to retain the right to pick first overall.
(In the unlikely event one of the three finish with two losses in the Round Robin of Suck … well, the Lions are bad enough they need to win two games down the stretch to lose control of the No. 1 pick — and we all know that’s not happening.)
Hutchinson is the flavor du jour after his dominant performance Saturday against Ohio State, but he has been on the radar as a top-five pick for months. National Football Scouting, a service provided by and for many of the league’s teams, ranked Hutchinson among the top three prospects (among seniors) back in the spring, and Hutchinson’s Michigan single-season record 12½ sacks have only cemented his place at or near the top of the draft.
Thibodeaux, meanwhile, has been pegged as a potential No. 1 overall pick for even longer. He had a nine-sack, 14½-tackle-for-loss season as a true freshman in 2019, and though he has not been as consistently dominant as Hutchinson, his freakish talents are off the charts.
The Lions’ pick won’t come down to just Hutchinson or Thibodeaux. They must do deep dives on every potential first-round quarterback, given their glaring need at that position, too.
But in assessing potential top-of-the-draft picks for the Lions come spring, that’s where the list begins. Here are the top potential fits for the Lions at No. 1.
Oregon OLB Kayvon Thibodeaux
Stats: 6 sacks, 11 TFLs, 9 games
Scouting report: As I’ve written before, Thibodeaux is not the “1-1” lock that some in the media have made him out to be. Scouts don’t view him as a Myles Garrett-type pass rusher. But he has a lightning-quick first step and the tools to be dominant, and that makes him the favorite — by a smidge — over Hutchinson for now. If the Lions are picking between the top two pass rushers, their choice will come down to fit as much as anything. Thibodeaux projects as a true 3-4 edge rusher, and pairing him opposite Romeo Okwara would bolster the Lions’ dormant pass rush. General manager Brad Holmes saw Thibodeaux’s best game of the season — nine tackles, 4½ TFLs and two sacks against UCLA on Oct. 23 — in person, and he took Pac-12 players with his first two picks in the 2021 draft.
Chance of being a Lion at No. 1: 40%.
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Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson
Stats: 12½ sacks, 14 TFLs, 11 games
Scouting report: Hutchinson isn’t quite the athlete Thibodeaux is, but he’s way more than just a try-hard guy. Hutchinson has a relentless motor and an extremely high floor, and in a season where there isn’t a runaway No. 1, that may be enough to swing the pick in his favor. He can play defensive end or outside linebacker, and he’s a superior run defender to Thibodeaux, though his refined pass rushing skills are why he’s in the “1-1” mix. Hutchinson seems like a Dan Campbell-type. If he doesn’t go at the top of the draft, he won’t slide far.
Chance of being a Lion at No. 1: 35%
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett
Stats: 314-for-464 (67.7%), 4,066 yards, 40 TD, 7 INT; 221 yards rushing, 4 TD, 12 games
Scouting report: Pickett hasn’t quite had a Joe Burrow-type rise, but almost no one pegged him as a first-round pick heading into the season, let alone the potential No. 1 pick. While higher-profile quarterbacks like North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler have tumbled down draft boards — in Rattler’s case, precipitously — Pickett has put together one of the finest seasons in college football. His arm is NFL-caliber, though not amazing, and he has the experience (as a four-year starter) NFL teams covet. The Lions badly need a quarterback, but forcing a pick at the position is never a good thing.
Chance of being a Lion at No. 1: 15%
Liberty QB Malik Willis
Stats: 194-for-315 (61.6%), 2,626 yards, 24 TD, 12 INT; 820 yards rushing, 11 TD, 12 games
Scouting report: Willis is the best athlete among the top quarterbacks in this year’s class, and while he’s not on the Lamar Jackson level — who is? — that is something Campbell desires in his QB. He has struggled at times with decision-making and accuracy, and that is a concern given the level of competition he has faced. The flip side, of course, is that he’s not surrounded by NFL talent, especially on the offensive line. If the Lions believe they can develop Willis into a franchise quarterback, given time, then they should take him No. 1. If they have any doubts, there are better options for the pick and they can turn their attention to a quarterback later in the first round, or wait until 2023.
Chance of being a Lion at No. 1: 4%
Chance of being a Lion: 1%
Ole Miss QB Matt Corral, North Carolina QB Sam Howell: There is no consensus top quarterback in this class and it’s possible the Lions will have Corral or Howell at No. 1 on their board. Corral has had a nice season in the SEC, and Howell was projected as top-10 pick before the season, but there is a down year for quarterbacks overall.
Alabama OT Evan Neal: It seems highly unlikely the Lions will take a first-round offensive tackle for the second straight season, but on the far-fetched chance Taylor Decker is somewhere else in 2022, Neal seems like the best non-pass rusher available.
Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton: The positional value isn’t there for Hamilton to go first, but the Lions have a major need at safety and Hamilton is an incredible matchup on defense.
LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.: A corner going first overall? Incredibly unlikely, especially considering his best season was his freshman year. But Stingley is an impressive-looking prospect who has the traits to be a dominant cover man in the NFL.