Five things to watch as Lions coaches ‘get eyes’ on Senior Bowl prospects

Detroit News

For the fourth time since 2010, the Detroit Lions will serve as one of two coaching staffs at the 2022 Senior Bowl. The annual all-star game, which has been run since 1950, offers a final chance to see many of the top prospects in a traditional football setting ahead of NFL Draft.

“We’ll get eyes on these guys,” Lions general manager Brad Holmes said earlier this month. “The roster looks good. I know back when I was with the Rams, we were able to acquire a lot of guys that played in the Senior Bowl in that game and guys that had success. So, there is a lot of gold to be found there at that game.”

The week of practice kicks off Tuesday, running through Thursday, culminating with Saturday’s game, which will air on the NFL Network at 2:30 p.m. Here’s five things we’ll be watching during the week.

QB conundrum

The first thing that stands out about this year’s Senior Bowl lineup is the quality of the quarterbacking talent. That hasn’t always been the case, but this year you can make a convincing argument that five of the top six prospects at the position will be in Mobile. Oh, and the lone outlier, Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, set FBS records with 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns last season.

It’s unclear what the Lions are thinking at the position. Obviously, Jared Goff’s contract ensures he isn’t going anywhere in 2022. Plus, with the way he finished the season — completing 69.6% of his passes with 11 touchdowns to two interceptions his final five starts — he’s earned an extended audition to prove he’s more than a bridge to the next guy as the franchise’s rebuild shifts into its next gear.

Ultimately, it boils down to what the Lions’ ceiling is with Goff under center? It’s difficult to dismiss the way the Rams felt about that when they shipped him to Detroit, along with two first-round picks, to acquire Matthew Stafford. And the fact the San Francisco 49ers aggressively moved up to draft a quarterback to eventually replace the stylistically similar Jimmy Garoppolo is another vote against building around Goff.

Assuming the Lions feel the same way behind closed doors, the decision becomes whether to address the long-term need now or later. A week of up-close, personal interaction with some of this year’s top options could have the ability to sway that decision, one way or the other.

On the team Detroit will coach, they’ll be working with Liberty’s Malik Willis, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Zappe.

Willis stands to benefit more than most from the week. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder has unquestionable physical gifts, but the level of competition he battled weekly in college casts reasonable doubt on his pro projection. At the Senior Bowl, he’ll get an opportunity to showcase how his skill set holds up against better talent, while also having a window to display his ability to absorb and apply coaching points to some concerning mechanical flaws.

As for Howell, he was formerly viewed as a top-10 pick, but saw his stock sink with an inconsistent 2021 following an exodus of most of his top weapons to the NFL. His frame, dual-threat ability and above-average arm strength draws comparisons to Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, who went No. 1 overall in 2018, but has failed to ascend to the league’s upper echelon at the position.

As for Zappe, his production is jaw-dropping, but he faces competition level questions, similar to Willis. And while Zeppe is an above-average athlete, he doesn’t possess the same physical gifts as Willis, particularly when it comes to arm strength. That leaves one to wonder whether he can ever be anything more than a high-caliber backup, similar to Case Keenum.

On the other squad, led by the Jets coaching staff, all three passers could interest the Lions, although it’s difficult to see Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett being available in a range that isn’t a reach or too rich to trade back up.

With the Lions’ second first-round pick — acquired from the Rams in the Goff/Stafford swap — or the early second-rounder, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Nevada’s Carson Strong could be in play.

Ridder is another dual-threat talent who made steady improvements throughout his college career, culminating with a 30-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio while leading the Bearcats to a playoff berth in 2021.

Strong is more of a big-armed pocket passer, who might be the best downfield attacker in the group, although he won’t make many plays with his feet.

Second helping of pass rushers

The prevailing expectation is Detroit will snag an edge rusher at the top of the draft, either Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux or Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. That would be a strong start to solving a longstanding issue of generating a consistent pass rush, but there’s always the possibility the team could double dip at the position.

There’s precedent with Holmes, who selected defensive tackles in the second and third rounds last season. If there’s a glaring need, and the team’s internal draft rankings support it, the GM won’t hesitate to execute the strategy.

Beyond that potential addition with the No. 2 pick, let’s consider the rest of the Lions’ situation. Trey Flowers is likely to be a cap casualty and Charles Harris is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in line for a big pay bump that could prove too rich to justify. That leaves Romeo Okwara, coming off a devastating Achilles injury, Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant, who is entering the final year of his contract.

In Mobile, the Lions will have an opportunity to coach several Day 2 options who could bolster the team’s pass rush.

Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II is a physically gifted, high-energy rusher who racked up 70 tackles, 12 sacks and two forced fumbles for the Seminoles this past season. South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare and Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders didn’t have nearly that level of production, but each have workable frames and coachable physical traits. And Cameron Thomas, out of San Diego State, is a 270-pound inside-outside option who made a home in opposing backfields last season, tallying 20.5 stops behind the line.

Mining for another gem

Even with the emergence of Amon-Ra St. Brown, and to a lesser extent, Quintez Cephus, on top of the potential re-signing of Josh Reynolds, it’s pretty clear the Lions will be in the market for additional reinforcements to the team’s receiving corps this offseason.

And while the free-agent market is setting up to be chock full of high-end options, so is the draft, which figures to be much more cost-friendly way to accomplish the same end.

Now, to be clear, the very best of this year’s prospect class won’t be represented in Mobile, and for good reason. Most of that group are underclassmen, not eligible for the game, with only Ohio State’s Chris Olave declining an invite.

But there’s still plenty of talent to be mined in that second-tier group, headed by Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, a sure-handed option with elite route running skills that could see him come off the board as early as the back end of the first round.

The Lions won’t work directly with Dotson, who is on the other squad, but they’ll have some middle-round talent to closely evaluate throughout the week. From that group, Jalen Tolbert, representing the local University of South Alabama, carries particular intrigue.

Like a couple of the aforementioned QBs, Tolbert is looking to prove he can be more than a big fish in a small pond after racking up 146 catches and 16 touchdowns the past two seasons, while doing plenty of damage as a downfield threat.

Additionally, Detroit didn’t get assigned much height with their group, so Tolbert’s 6-foot-3 frame adds to his appeal.

Heart of the defense

Holmes emphasized the need for Detroit to get better on the defensive edges, but the team’s general manager would be wise to also be looking for ways to fortify the middle of the unit, where the team’s linebackers and safeties weren’t consistently good enough in 2021.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they miss out on the opportunity to coach the two best linebackers in this game, Utah’s Devin Lloyd and Wyoming riser Chad Muma. Still, Detroit’s staff should be excited to see what Georgia’s Channing Tindall and Quay Walker have to offer.

Playing for the best defense in the country, Tindall and Walker were somewhat overshadowed by junior Nakobe Dean, a surefire first-rounder come April. The 230-pound Tindall is a supreme athlete with blazing speed who doesn’t miss many tackles in the open field, but has a lot of room to grow as a coverage option. Walker, meanwhile, offers impressive size at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, which aids him in coverage. He also has the versatility to situationally play on the edge.

Another fun prospect to keep an eye on is sixth-year senior JoJo Domann. There are understandable concerns with both the Nebraska standout’s size (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and the fact he’s torn an ACL twice, but he remains an instinctual, athletic second-level defender who flies to the ball and is one of the best in this class in coverage.

And in the next level of the defense, Detroit will have to dig deep to uncover starting-caliber talent on their roster.

Safety Kerby Joseph intercepted five passes for Illinois last season, but is he athletic enough to play the position at that level as a pro? Baylor’s Jalen Pitre showed similar playmaking ability with two picks, three fumble recoveries and seven pass defenses as more of a box defender, which probably isn’t an ideal fit for the Lions’ split-safety preference.

Opportunities for assistants

As part of some changes being made to the Senior Bowl’s format this year, the head coaches will be taking a back seat to provide additional opportunities for their staff members to showcase their ability to handle more responsibility. This could be critical for a couple of Detroit staffers, namely Duce Staley and Ben Johnson.

Staley, who coaches the Lions running backs and serves as Dan Campbell’s assistant head coach, came to Detroit from Philadelphia with an eye on improving his resume for bigger opportunities. The week in Mobile looks to be a prime opportunity to hand Staley the reins, in terms of organizing practices and handling head-coaching obligations during Saturday’s game.

As for Johnson, he’s in the running for Detroit’s vacant offensive coordinator job. Excelling in an expanded role following a midseason promotion, Johnson received a steady stream of praise from both players and other staffers for his contributions to the team’s late-season offensive success. In Mobile, he should have the opportunity to call plays, something he hasn’t done during his NFL career.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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