Detroit — After an eye-opening football weekend, we’ve gained some clarity. We now know the Lions will pick first or second in the draft, and based on needs and availability, their choice could come down to Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson or Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett.
Oops, looks like I mixed up needs and availability and tossed in a little recency bias. But you get my point, and more important, the Lions have cleared up a few points. At 2-13-1 heading into the finale against Green Bay, they’ve assured themselves at least the second pick. It could be No. 1 if 2-14 Jacksonville beats Indianapolis (there’s a better chance Urban Meyer is named honorary captain for that game). There’s also a chance the Lions will beat the Packers, who clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed and will rest players.
So let’s say the Lions stick at No. 2. They also have the Rams’ first-rounder, which should land in the mid-20s. This is where it gets fun, and dangerous. Ideally they get a pass-rusher and a pass-thrower with those picks. Finding the right defensive player will be easier than finding the right quarterback, and the best thing Jared Goff did this season was play well enough to buy the Lions time, if needed, to find his potential replacement.
Dan Campbell has built a competitive foundation, which is a start. The Lions had their share of complete clunkers but they hammered Arizona and frequently outperformed abysmal expectations, evidenced by their 10-6 mark against the spread.
On offense, they were so depleted they considered signing 5-foot-8 Detroit News Lions beat writer Justin Rogers to fill out the receiving corps, or so I heard. There was a legitimately encouraging development — Amon-Ra St. Brown is having a superb rookie season, drafted in the fourth round out of USC. He was a revelation by himself — 82 catches, 803 yards — and also by Brad Holmes, who did something virtually no Lions GM has ever done. He found a gem in the fourth round.
Don’t believe me? Here are the last 11 players drafted in the fourth round by previous Lions regimes: Logan Stenberg, Austin Bryant, Da’Shawn Hand, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Michael Roberts, Miles Killebrew, Gabe Wright, Nevin Lawson, Larry Webster, Devin Taylor, Ronnell Lewis. How many names do you recognize?
The Lions have gnawing needs all across their defense, ranked 30th in sacks and 25th in yards allowed. No more stats needed than this: The Seahawks scored on nine straight possessions in the 51-29 rout. No coincidence the teams vying for the top pick, Detroit and Jacksonville, each gave up 50 this week.
So you take Hutchinson, right? The Michigan mauler was dynamic all year, although stymied by Georgia’s offensive front and quick-passing strategy. In case you missed it, the Bulldogs won that playoff semifinal 34-11, another talented, speedy SEC team rolling to the title game.
Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux is the other elite defensive end, and that debate will rage deep into March’s NFL Combine. At that point, maybe someone like Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean, Purdue end George Karlaftis, or Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton becomes attractive.
I trust Holmes on this one, mainly because he stuck with offensive tackle Penei Sewell at No. 7 last year and Sewell is a rising star. In fact, when Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow returns, the Lions should have a top-10 offensive line, assuming Taylor Decker doesn’t switch positions — from left tackle to touchdown-tallying tight end.
That 6-yard TD pass from Tim Boyle to Decker against the Seahawks was fun, and also revelatory. Remember the early angst when Campbell took over play-calling from Anthony Lynn? The amount of creativity and fourth-down aggressiveness has been impressive. And it’s had a huge impact on Goff, who shook off a horrible start and was excellent his past four games — 2-2 record, 69% passing, nine touchdowns, two interceptions.
We learned Goff, 27, can be the starter next season, although the Lions need to draft a quarterback somewhere and start grooming him. We also learned Boyle cannot be the starter, and maybe not even the backup.
The good news is, impact defensive players are scattered all across the draft. More potential impact sits on the Lions injury list: Romeo Okwara, Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jacobs. It will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn can do with a replenished roster.
The biggest draft task is the difficult and dangerous one, as it always is. Quarterbacks are franchise-changers, when they’re not being franchise-wreckers. Look what Joe Burrow has done for the Bengals — from last to first in the AFC North. Look what Justin Herbert has done, throwing a franchise-record 35 TD passes and leading the Chargers to playoff contention. Look what Trevor Lawrence has done in one season for the Jaguars — from last to last again but helped get rid of Meyer!
Sorry, there’s no Burrow, Herbert or Lawrence in this draft. There probably isn’t even a Trey Lance, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Tua Tagovailoa. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a quarterback worth taking in the first round. Most experts have this year’s crop going somewhere between picks 12 and 32. If there’s one in the top 10, it’s not a consensus. If there’s one worthy of No. 2, he’s in hiding.
But remember these guys: Patrick Mahomes (drafted 10th), Lamar Jackson (32nd), Josh Allen (seventh). Last season, five quarterbacks went in the top 15, and No. 15 is the most successful so far, New England’s Mac Jones.
Naturally, those revelations raise hope for this year’s prospects: Mississippi’s Matt Corral, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Liberty’s Malik Willis. ESPN’s Todd McShay has the Lions taking Howell late in the first round. (Note to self and to you: Mock drafts are not legally binding.)
If the Lions had a developmental quarterback already on the roster, they wouldn’t need to take a gamble. But they don’t, as Boyle and David Blough have shown. The Lions essentially had variations of Boyle and Blough sitting behind Matthew Stafford for 12 years and were lucky he was durable.
In a sense, Holmes has done plenty to restructure the organization, yet barely has begun. Until we know who the franchise quarterback is, we don’t know much. I do know the Lions are due to have a dual-ability guy who’s accurate and can run. Russell Wilson would be the perfect model if he wasn’t 33 and nearly broken in half.
Old-school dropback passers are becoming a rarity, as virtually every college quarterback has RPO experience. If the Lions want the best running option, it’s Willis, but he’s raw. If they want more balance, it’s Howell or Corral.
If Holmes wants to use both first-rounders on defense, or package them to move up or down, there won’t be a rabid outcry. Yes, teams get burned passing on quarterbacks in the first round. They also get burned taking them too high (See: Josh Rosen, Dwayne Haskins, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold).
Based on all we’ve learned about the Lions and the available college talent, the picture is still fuzzy. Holmes has a lot to collect without a lot of choices, and without a prized quarterback prospect at the top. The Lions also don’t have a prized fourth-round pick at the moment, in case you were wondering. That’s OK, you can miss in the fourth on occasion. You can’t miss when you swing twice in the first, which makes the next three months the most unpredictable and perilous stretch of the year.