Sifting through various scenarios for Detroit Lions’ first three picks in NFL Draft

Detroit News

Allen Park — NFL draft talk was briefly paused last week as the league went through its annual free-agency frenzy. And while signings will continue to trickle in for weeks, the significant spending already has taken place.

The thing about free agency is it shapes roster needs around the league. What was once a hole for a franchise might no longer be because the void was filled with a veteran. That, in turn, gives us insight on how those teams might approach the draft.

With many of the best available players signed to new contracts, we’re being introduced to a fresh wave of mock drafts, and for the Detroit Lions, the equation was barely altered by free agency. Yes, the team filled one of its biggest holes, but with a stopgap solution that doesn’t really impact the big picture.

Instead of regurgitating those mock drafts — which we’ve admittedly done plenty and will continue to do in the month leading up to the April event — we thought there might be more value exploring the various scenarios the Lions face at the top of the draft, both with the No. 2 overall pick, as well as the No. 32 selection at the end of the first round and the the No. 34 choice early in the second.

Let’s start with the names and scenarios being mentioned at No. 2:

► Aidan Hutchinson

Because he played at Michigan, there’s a perception among some fans there’s a local bias in favor of Hutchinson, but the national media’s shared affinity for the 6-foot-7, 270-pounder should offset those sentiments. Hutchinson isn’t an ideal pass-rushing prospect due to his shorter-than-average arms, but he checks just about every other box. He’s an elite athlete with an unquestioned motor and passion for the game who produced at an impressive level as a senior, racking up 14 sacks and 74 quarterback pressures in 2021.

If he’s available, it’s an easy pick for the Lions. Hutchinson not only would fill a position of need — or more specifically a skill set of need with his pass-rush prowess — but it’s clear he’s a culture fit for general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. But, following the first wave of free agency, signs point to the Jacksonville Jaguars being less inclined to select an offensive tackle. That makes Hutchinson the likely selection and leaves the Lions to go to Plan B.

Hutchinson’s ceiling is Jared Allen, a four-time All-Pro and one of the great pass-rushers of this era. He obviously had different expectations as a fourth-round pick out of Idaho State, but had similar concerns about his length which proved unfounded. At worst, Hutchinson is a high-effort edge rusher with less consistent production sack production. Sticking with the idea of local connections, someone like former Lion Kyle Vanden Bosch comes to mind.

More: Niyo: UM’s Hutchinson feels right at home atop this NFL draft class

► Kayvon Thibodeaux

Sticking with edge rushers, because it’s perceived to be a premium position, Thibodeaux remains at the forefront of the conversation at No. 2.  For starters, while he hasn’t fully tested, opting only to do the bench press and 40-yard dash at the combine, he’s likely going to establish an athletic profile with his Pro Day performance at a similarly elite level to Hutchinson. As for the production, Thibodeaux didn’t get to the quarterback nearly as often at Oregon, in part because he didn’t have a talented complement like David Ojabo to absorb some of his double teams, but also because Thibodeaux’s pass-rush move set is still developing.

There’s also questions about his effort. At the combine, Thibodeaux explained his lack of counter moves when his rush is stalemated can give the perception he’s giving up on plays. The other side to this concern is he’s an excellent run defender, which is where a lack of effort is easier to point out. So it stands to reason Thibodeaux has a great deal of untapped potential if he can better refine his move set, particularly his counters, to match his impressive first-step quickness.

More: For Thibodeaux, potential reunion with Lions’ Sewell a ‘chance at greatness’

► Travon Walker

Multiple national analysts were already hyping Walker as a player who could be selected in the first half of the first round, but his dominant showing at the combine is enough to make you wonder why he only managed 9.5 sacks in 36 games at Georgia. At 6-foot-5, 272 pounds with 35.5-inch arms, he possesses an ideal build. Combined with his elite sprint speed, explosion and strength, you seemingly have an ideal edge prospect.

Not surprisingly, Walker is an excellent run defender. He has the bulk to set a hard edge and the length to keep offensive linemen off his frame to quickly shed blocks and control gaps. That rare speed for his size gives him added value in backside pursuit. But, as noted, the pass-rush production wasn’t there at Georgia. Some of that can be attributed to playing a significant portion of his snaps lined up inside the offensive tackle, but it also points to the need for significant development of his hand usage as a rusher. His bull rush figures to be an immediate asset, and with the burst he showed at the combine, transitioning from speed-to-power should also be an early strength. But if he’s going to become a dominant pro, he’ll need to add more moves to his tool box.

► Jermaine Johnson II

After a couple pf seasons of modest production as a rotational piece at Georgia, Johnson broke out as a senior at Florida State, racking up nearly a sack a game in 2021. And he hasn’t lost any momentum during the pre-draft process, dominating two days of practice while being coached by the Lions staff at the Senior Bowl, before flashing some impressive speed with a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the combine.

Having just one season of high-level production under his belt is enough to give some pause, but he’s a more polished pass rusher than both Thibodeaux and Walker at this stage. Johnson also has long limbs and good lower-body strength, which have helped him perform well against the run.

Finally, we can’t dismiss the opportunity the Lions had to spend time with him behind the scenes at the Senior Bowl, adding a layer of familiarity that’s invaluable in this late stage of the evaluation process.

► Kyle Hamilton

Getting away from the edge rushers, there are some, including NFL.com and CBS Sports, who view Hamilton as the best prospect in this draft class. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, they just don’t build many safeties like this, which has earned him the “unicorn” label. You pair that frame with above-average speed and agility, plus elite leaping ability, and it’s tough to poke holes in the profile.

Bringing experience in a variety of alignments, he’s coming into the league with proven playmaking ability, having recorded eight interceptions and 16 pass breakups in 31 career games. The concern is positional value. Safeties aren’t often selected in the top five and it has been three decades since a franchise invested a top-2 pick in one. That’s because safeties, on their own, rarely elevate a defense. The perennial Pro Bowlers at the position often thrive as part of an overall dominant unit, particularly those with a good pass rush. Hamilton is unquestionably gifted, but without a consistent pass rush, his abilities could be negated.

► Malik Willis

It’s been thoroughly noted this is a less-than-stellar crop of quarterback prospects, but Willis’ ceiling brings him to the front of the class. A dual threat who makes tacklers miss like a halfback, while possessing one of the strongest arms in the class, there’s simply so much to like about his potential. But banking on that potential being realized, particularly at quarterback, is a dangerous risk to take at the top of the draft for a franchise still so deficient on talent, across the board.

There’s so much projection involved when discussing Willis. He showcased his impressive skill set throughout his time at Liberty, but he wasn’t playing with or against NFL-caliber talent most weeks. And when he did go against a top-tier opponent, his offensive line wasn’t capable of consistently providing enough time to properly evaluate him in those settings.

Willis is almost certainly going to need a year, maybe two, to transition from the scheme he ran at Liberty to a far more advanced NFL system, while also adjusting to the speed and precision demands of the pro game. With Jared Goff under contract for another three seasons, the Lions are in position to wait, but there should be an added level of concern given the limited experience of offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and quarterback coach Mark Brunell, when it comes to developing talent at the position.

More: ESPN’s Mel Kiper: No. 2 too high for Willis, but could see QB going in top 10

► Trade down

Every year, there are plenty of fans who would love to see the team trade down, but that’s easier said than done, especially at the top of the draft. Teams usually have to pay a premium, even to move up a couple of spots, inside the top five choices. Typically, we’ll see a team willing to meet that asking price when the target is a quarterback, as we saw with the 49ers moving up to grab Trey Lance last year.

There isn’t going to be a quarterback teams covet to that degree this offseason, although the Falcons and Seahawks are conceivably more desperate after both franchises dealt their longtime starters in recent weeks. But do we really suspect they’ll give up multiple first-round picks for Willis or Kenny Pickett? It truly feels like a longshot.

More realistically, the Lions might be able to convince the Giants or Jets to jump the Texans and secure their preferred offensive tackle. To do so, the Lions might have to take a lesser return package than we’d normally see with these deals, but it still might be worth dropping back two or three spots for an extra Day 2 pick. But I will continue to repeat, it takes two to tango.

► An offensive tackle

Speaking of the offensive tackles, there are three, potentially four who could go in the top 10, with either North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekwonu or Alabama’s Evan Neal expected to be the first off the board. The Lions clearly don’t need help along the offensive line, especially at tackle, with both Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell locked up the next few years.

But if the Lions are truly following a best-player-available strategy, they at least need to consider the possibility of snagging a tackle and sorting out the fit down the road, whether that means plugging the rookie at guard to start their career or shopping Decker. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense to even temporarily weaken the one, obvious strength on the roster, but I wanted to acknowledge the scenario, however unlikely.

How that pick impacts No. 32 and No. 34

The direction the Lions go with the team’s first selection likely will dictate where they go with their next two choices. Let’s play out those scenarios, as well.

►All defense

In many ways, the Lions’ offense is close to complete. With the addition of DJ Chark and re-signing of Josh Reynolds, the unit had its biggest void filled via free agency. Any draft additions would largely be focused on long-term fits, as opposed to immediate contributors. But on defense, there’s still room to add players capable of competing for starting jobs.

In this scenario, we’re starting with the assumption the team takes one of the edge rushers. At the end of the first round and top of the second, Holmes can easily justify continuing to fortify his defense. Presently, the biggest needs remain at linebacker and safety. Yes, the Lions managed to re-sign Tracy Walker and Alex Anzalone, plus brought back former first-round pick Jarrad Davis and added Baltimore Ravens linebacker Chris Board to the mix, but there’s still plenty of room to upgrade at both positions.

At safety, there’s a reasonable possibility Detroit could have its choice of any of the prospects outside Hamilton. Michigan’s Dax Hill is an explosive athlete with versatility, Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker is an aggressive run defender who also has the range to make plays on the ball when playing deep, and even Georgia’s Lewis Cine, who sometimes gets pigeonholed as a box safety because of his propensity for big hits, has more than enough speed, agility and smarts to handle the split-safety responsibilities within Detroit’s scheme.

At linebacker, the Lions are certainly going to miss out on Utah’s Devin Lloyd and Georgia’s Nakobe Dean. In the next tier, there are some top-shelf athletes such as Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal, Penn State’s Brandon Smith and Wyoming’s Chad Muma. Each could give the Lions a long-term pairing with last year’s fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes.

Outside of those obvious positions, it’s not out of the question the Lions address lesser areas of need such as defensive tackle and cornerback. Sure, the team invested a pair of Day 2 picks on interior linemen a year ago, but still lack steady pass-rush production from the position. Plus, there’s a good chance Michael Brockers is entering his final season with the Lions. If Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt slides that far down the board, there’s a strong case to make he’d be the best player available. Similarly, UConn’s Travis Jones hasn’t generated anything close to the hype of Wyatt’s Georgia linemate Jordan Davis, but the 325-pound Jones also is shockingly athletic, impressing at both the combine at Senior Bowl.

At cornerback, the Lions just recently added solid depth, signing former first-rounder Mike Hughes. But that’s a one-year deal, which paired with Amani Oruwariye entering the final season of his rookie contract and lingering uncertainty about how Jeff Okudah returning from a torn Achilles, creates an argument for adding further reinforcements at the position. Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. would be one to watch at this point in the draft.

Also, let’s double back to the top of the board. If the Lions were to select Hamilton at No. 2, it leaves the door open to address edge rusher later in the first round. Among the options who could be available at that spot are Purdue’s George Karlaftis, Michigan’s David Ojabo and Minnesota’s Boye Mafe. Ojabo is a complicated conversation after tearing his Achilles at his pro day last week. That’s a huge risk for a player who relies on his explosion, but also provides an opportunity to get value at a time when you can afford patience. Mafe, on the other hand, gives you much of the same, elite athletic profile, and is similarly in need of considerable development to reach his potential, but doesn’t carry the question marks with his health.

► Targeting a receiver

Detroit has invested plenty of resources into its receiving corps this year, not only signing Chark and re-signing Reynolds, but also retaining Kalif Raymond, who contributed 48 receptions in 2021. Still, collectively, it’s a below-average group, with Chark’s one-year deal leaving a long-term need.

This draft might not have clear-cut star power at receiver, but there’s plenty of quality talent at the position. It’s really just a matter of which of those top prospects will be available to the Lions. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said it best earlier this offseason; a couple of guys everyone expects to get drafted in the first round, always end up sliding out. We’re not going to pretend to know which receiver will make it to the Lions, but if one of the Ohio State tandem of Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson are there at 32, or even Alabama’s Jameson Williams, who is recovering from a torn ACL, the case is easy to make.

It might be a slight reach for either, but we also like Georgia’s George Pickens and North Dakota State’s Christian Watson here. Both are big, athletic and physical receivers who will appeal to the Lions because of their willingness to mix it up as blockers when not the intended target on a play.

►Revisiting quarterback

If the Lions aren’t comfortable with Willis at two — and who could blame them — there should still be an opportunity to grab a developmental dual-threat backup, even gaining the benefit of a fifth-year option if they select that player at the end of the first round.

You’ve already seen many of the likely names mocked to Detroit at one point or another, with North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder being the most popular projections. If the team truly believes any of those options can be as good or better than Goff by 2024, it should actually be considered an easy decision.

The cap savings that come with shifting to a younger option would provide the team with future financial flexibility to build a better roster around that passer, compared to the $30 million cap hits Goff has due in 2023 and 2024.

► Trading up

Finally, much like the trade-down scenario at the top, it’s worth at least mentioning the possibility of Detroit moving up at the end of the first round to secure a specific target.

Whether that’s a linebacker such as Lloyd or a higher-end receiver like USC’s Drake London, the team shouldn’t be afraid to utilize its accumulated resources to secure a premium asset.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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