Detroit — The plan made sense. Then it got sidetracked, as Lions plans tend to do. And now? Now it might work in an entirely different way.
You know the plan. Trade Matthew Stafford to the Rams, get two first-round picks and Jared Goff, who gets a one- or two-year trial to see if he can be the quarterback going forward. In the meantime, the Lions would use a high pick in 2021, or a really high pick in 2022, or the later Rams pick in 2022, to land their first franchise quarterback since they took Stafford No. 1 in 2009.
Audible time. Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 this season and two more quarterbacks followed. The Lions happily settled for Penei Sewell at No. 7 instead of Justin Fields, who went to the Bears, or Mac Jones, who went to the Patriots. You can live with that because Sewell is a budding star and the Lions’ barren roster wasn’t conducive for a rookie quarterback.
Now GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell can get their quarterback in the upcoming draft, right? At 1-10-1, they’d pick No. 1 at the moment, and the guy sitting right there for them is … Aidan Hutchinson. Or Kayvon Thibodeaux. Defensive quarterbacks.
This could be the most important audible Holmes and Campbell ever make. And dare I say, it might work better in the long run.
In a rush
Early draft rankings don’t list any quarterback worthy of going No. 1. The Mel Kiper-Todd McShay dueling-guru combo has Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Liberty’s Malik Willis sprinkled throughout the first round. Pickett appears to be the highest, landing around 15.
Darn the Lions’ luck, right? After all the quarterback mania the past three seasons, with eight taken in the top 10, there isn’t a single one worthy of No. 1 in 2022.
And that’s why apparent misfortune could become good fortune for the Lions. Hutchinson, Michigan’s 6-6 pass-rushing demon, is the looming consensus No. 1 pick. His dominating performance against Ohio State — three sacks, a PFF-record 15 pressures — spurred everything, including a Heisman Trophy invite. Thibodeaux, Oregon’s 6-5 pass-rushing demon, missed time with an ankle injury but is a solid No. 2. Once scouts start measuring and commiserating, Thibodeaux might even be No. 1.
For the Lions, fine either way. They could land a defensive star without the regret of passing on a quarterback, or the pressure to reach for one. Unlikely to be tempted by a quarterback, they get the second-best commodity, a sack-master. Personally, I’d take Hutchinson because he has the relentless energy and leadership skills to be a guy — stop me if you’ve heard this — to change the Lions culture. Thibodeaux might be the same, and the Lions shouldn’t take Hutchinson just for the local connection. They shouldn’t avoid him for that reason, either.
And I’m not here to make Hutchinson nervous about getting sucked into the Lions’ vortex of career-mangling. If he believes in curses, well, he probably should stay away. If he believes in making an immediate impact with a starving franchise, he should be intrigued.
While picking up the Lombardi Award in Houston Wednesday night, Hutchinson was asked about going No. 1, perhaps to Detroit or Houston. Hutchinson is the son of former Michigan All-American Chris Hutchinson and was raised in Plymouth.
“Growing up, it was a little bit hard being a Lions fan,” Aidan Hutchinson said. “The Lions have been struggling for a while. I actually grew up a Patriots fan with Tom Brady and stuff like that. So I never really loved the Lions too much. But hey, if they pick me, they’re getting it all.”
That’s an honest answer, not a pandering answer. If a football player grew up around here and professed to be a rabid Lions fan, you’d question his desire to win, right?
Knowing the player and observing the Lions, I suspect Hutchinson would hungrily join Campbell at the kneecap dining table. Look what Michigan did with two potential first-round pass-rushers, Hutchinson (14 sacks) and David Ojabo (11). They finally beat Ohio State and will meet Georgia in the playoff, where their defense gives them a chance.
Sacking the quarterback is vitally important in the NFL, it’s just not as easy. The Lions historically have been awful at it. Their last top defensive end pick was Ziggy Ansah at No. 5 in 2013 and he was productive before injuries took over. The Lions are 30th in the league in sacks after losing their leader, Romeo Okwara, to an Achilles injury in Week 4.
That’s a pattern that must be broken, almost as urgently as the quarterback quandary. And that quandary might solve itself.
First of all, the Lions (1-10-1) must hold off the Texans (2-10) and Jaguars (2-10) for the No. 1 spot. The Rams’ recent slide keeps improving the pick they sent to the Lions. It’s currently No. 24 and might be the place to grab a quarterback like Corral or Willis.
But there’s no compulsion to do it because the Lions have two more first-rounders the following year. And perhaps with a few more receiving threats, Goff can be adequate. He seems to be developing a bond with Campbell and receivers such as Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Goff goes off
Since Campbell took over play-calling from Anthony Lynn four games ago, the Lions are 1-2-1. Goff has been more aggressive throwing downfield, and although he had an interception and a fumble in the victory against the Vikings, he posted 296 passing yards and three touchdowns. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week, and if you thought a Lion would land one of those this year, you’re already into the 90-proof holiday cheer.
“Man, he had some outstanding throws,” Campbell said of Goff in the Lions’ 29-27 final-play victory. “There was about a three- or four-play sequence where it was rough. And for him to come back and get out of that and be able to drive us down the field I think was crucial. It speaks volumes and will help his confidence moving forward.”
If anyone needed a confidence boost, it’s Goff. He was dragged across the country as a secondary piece in a blockbuster trade, and discovered he had very little personnel support here. The Lions started 0-8 and everyone in Detroit started scouting college talent. To me, the concern was the Lions would be so desperate for a quarterback, they’d pluck one too high, no matter what.
To Goff’s credit, he’s hung in without complaining. Was he too timid at times? Yep. Is he getting more comfortable in the offense and with the head coach? Yep. Gradually the trust is growing. Since returning from his oblique injury two games ago, Goff has completed 69.6% of his passes with five touchdowns and one interception.
“We’ve developed a great relationship,” Goff said of Campbell. “Ever since he took over play-calling that relationship is special, and as you grow together it tends to bring you closer.”
It’s supposed to be a temporary relationship until the Lions draft Their Guy, and that’s still the plan. Goff hasn’t been good enough to change it, but he’s been serviceable enough to buy the Lions some time, perhaps another year as the starter. And that should give them a chance to buy stock in defensive stars at the top of the draft. If it works out that way, not a bad audible.