How Detroit Lions landed Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson in my 2022 NFL mock draft 1.0

Detroit Free Press

There is no Trevor Lawrence in the 2022 NFL draft. No Joe Burrow. No Justin Herbert. Heck, there’s not even a Matthew Stafford, who more than a few people thought was a reach when the Detroit Lions took him with the No. 1 pick in 2009.

It’s the Lions’ luck that in a year where they have the No. 2 pick and the only team in front of them has a generational quarterback prospect in place, there is no signal caller worthy of taking that high.

The Lions need a young quarterback to build around, let’s be clear. And if one was there for the taking, they would have to consider trading up to No. 1 to get him, lest someone leapfrog them.

But with all due respect to Malik Willis, who is the best quarterback prospect in this year’s draft, that player does not exist this year.

Willis may turn out to be a good NFL player. Maybe even a very good one. He has the arm and the athleticism to be a difference-maker at the position.

But in my early draft reconnaissance, I have yet to come across anyone who thinks the Lions will take him or any of the draft’s other top quarterbacks — Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral are the others in the mix to be QB1 — at No. 2.

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This year’s draft seems light on sure things at every position, not just quarterback. There is no Myles Garrett-type edge rush prospect or Orlando Pace-like offensive lineman available, but that does not mean the Lions won’t be getting a good player at No. 2.

They will. Or they should, at least.

And when I sat down to do my first mock draft this week, I had them picking from a group of three defensive talents, with a fourth worthy of being mentioned in that group: Michigan pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, and Florida State edge Jermaine Johnson II.

If you read my mock Thursday, you know I slotted Hutchinson to the Lions. He is the best prospect in this year’s draft and the Lions have an easy choice if he’s there.

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Hutchinson had an ultra productive senior season at Michigan with 14 sacks and two forced fumbles. He plays a premium position. He would fill a major need on a Lions defense that ranked 27th in sack percentage last season. And his motor, work ethic and personality seem to be a fit for what Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes are looking for.

Two offensive linemen currently project as top-five picks: tackles Evan Neal of Alabama and Ikem Ekwonu of North Carolina State. I gave Neal to the Jaguars in my mock, with the belief Jacksonville will do everything it can to help Lawrence succeed, and knowing those linemen will grade out similarly to Hutchinson.

If Jacksonville prefers to build its defense and takes Hutchinson at one, the Lions’ choice isn’t so clear.

I can’t see a tackle being in the mix, not with Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker anchoring a line that returns all five starters plus a few top reserves. That’s where one of Thibodeaux, Hamilton or perhaps Johnson comes into play.

Thibodeaux has long been considered a potential No. 1 overall pick. He’s a blur of an edge rusher and might have more upside than any player in the draft. But I wrote in October, when most were projecting him to go first overall, that some NFL teams weren’t as high on Thibodeaux as many in the media.

Holmes saw Thibodeaux play in person around that time, and Thibodeaux put on a show for the Lions GM, logging two sacks, a forced fumble and 4.5 tackles for loss vs. UCLA. He would be my choice if Hutchinson was not there, but I’m not sure if he’d be the Lions’.

Hamilton is the next best defensive player in the draft, a unique safety prospect with extraordinary ball skills, athleticism and on-field production. Like Hutchinson and Thibodeaux, he would fill a need for a Lions team that could lose its top two safeties to free agency. But unlike those players, he does not play a premium position that typically warrants that high a pick in the draft.

Birkett’s mock draft 1.0: Lions get help for defense, pass on QB in Rounds 1-2 ]

Since 2011, quarterbacks, edge rushers and offensive tackles have gone with the first two picks of every draft except 2018, when the New York Giants took running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2.

Expand that to the top three picks of the draft, and Jeff Okudah (2020), Quinnen Williams (2019) and Trent Richardson (2012) are the only non-quarterbacks, edge rushers and tackles taken, and only Williams has come remotely close to living up to his draft billing.

Taking Hamilton at No. 2 would be as unorthodox as taking Okudah at No. 3 was two years ago. This is a different regime and a different defense, but I can’t quite get there yet.

That’s why Johnson was the fourth player in the mix for the Lions at No. 2. He plays a premium position, had a productive season (11.5 sacks) after transferring from Georgia to Florida State and most importantly, was dominant at the Senior Bowl where he played for the Lions coaching staff.

Johnson might rank higher on the Lions’ draft board than on that of other NFL teams, and if the Lions are down on Thibodeaux, I would not rule out Johnson as a dark horse pick in a draft that reminds me very much of 2013.

The 2013 draft was quite average, with no real star power up top. Offensive linemen Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson went with three of the first four picks, and after an Oregon edge rusher (Dion Jordan) was the first defensive player off the board, the Lions took a less-heralded pass rush prospect (Ziggy Ansah) who they worked closely with at the Senior Bowl.

Ansah was a good player for the Lions, though injuries shortened his career. Some of that draft’s best players turned out to be late-first, second- or even third-round picks: Tight end Travis Kelce, receiver DeAndre Hopkins, cornerback Darius Slay and safety Tyrann Mathieu.

That’s a reminder that good talent can be found anywhere and at any position, and perhaps it strengthens the case Hamilton has to go No. 2.

With two months until the draft, that’s a scenario the Lions will have to work through: Who to take if Hutchinson goes No. 1?

For now, though, I think he makes it to No. 2 and I think the Lions have an easy call if he does.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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