Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell avoids specifics, but drops a few hints, about NFL draft plans

Detroit Free Press

Where there’s smoke, there’s not always fire, at least during NFL draft season.

That’s why it’s difficult to read too much into anything anyone says or does this time of year.

A general manager shows up at a top prospect’s pro day? He’s not doing it for the airline miles, but it’s also not valid enough reason to slot that player to the GM’s team in your next mock draft.

Ditto those complimentary comments by a head coach. As sincere as they may be, that doesn’t mean the coach is banging the table to get that player on his team.

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NFL teams keep close guard of their prospect evaluations this time of year, especially teams like the Detroit Lions who hold the key to this year’s draft.

While most expect Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson to go No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, predictions for who the Lions take at No. 2 are all over the map.

Kayvon Thibodeaux. Travon Walker. Jermaine Johnson. Malik Willis. Kyle Hamilton.

There are valid reasons to believe the Lions can and will take each of those players, and just as many reasons they won’t. And it behooves the Lions to keep it that way.

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That’s why it’s a fool’s errand to try and interpret Dan Campbell’s comments with beat reporters on Thursday. Campbell sat down for about 30 minutes with reporters after an illness forced him to miss his scheduled session at last week’s league meetings and addressed a variety of mostly draft-related topics.

He offered flatteringly specific comments about two players who seem to be in the mix for the Lions at No. 2, saying Thibodeaux looks “pretty special on tape” and raving about Willis’ “explosive” athletic ability.

But Campbell also left enough wiggle room about the Lions’ plans that if you heard him talk he probably cemented whatever preconceived notions you had about who the Lions should and should not take.

Think Thibodeaux is a mismatch for a Lions team that’s spent 15 months stressing culture? It makes sense they’re going to such great lengths to see if that is in fact the case — and if they need that much convincing he is a fit, well, they probably have their answer on whether they should draft him.

Think concerns about Thibodeaux’s personality are overblown and that the Lions can’t afford to pass on his kind of talent? File this Campbell missive away for your next bar stool debate: “Story short, let me say this: I don’t care about the off-field. Like, does he love football? That’s all I care about. Ultimately, I think that’s all we care about is, man, if this guy loves football then we can handle anything else. So I’m not concerned with things off the field when you know a guy loves football.”

[ No matter the position, Lions want ‘game-changer’ with NFL draft’s No. 2 pick ]

Campbell told an amazing story Thursday to drive home that point.

“I remember I had a guy in Miami — God, he loved ball,” Campbell said. “He was a dynamic football player, but he came in every day just reeking of alcohol. He was probably on a bender for who knows how long, but God he loved football. He showed up, he didn’t have M.A.’s (missed assignments), he hustled non-stop, and it’s like, you know what? You’ll find a way to make that guy work. Not saying we want those guys, but he loved ball, and he had success. And he’s still playing today, by the way.”

About the closest Campbell came to saying anything telling on the draft was when I asked him what the Lions needed to get from the No. 2 pick this fall.

“I mean, certainly you want a guy who can come in and he’s a Day 1 starter,” Campbell said. “That’s really what you’re trying to acquire, a guy that you can feel like can come in and he’s going to be able to have solid production for you. I mean, that’s kind of the idea. We need to feel like, all right, this guy comes in, it may take just a little bit, but you’d like to believe by the time you hit your first game that this player’s starting for you and is going to be able to produce. And then be able to grow every year a little bit here.”

That would seem to rule out taking Willis or any other quarterback at No. 2 who will sit behind Jared Goff this fall, and Campbell seemed to double-down on that sentiment when he talked of “building the roster” and doing “what gives us the best chance” to win now.

But he left the door open just enough for the Willis stans to cling to their belief the Lions will take the Liberty quarterback.

“Look, if you really love a guy, right?” Campbell said. “If you really love a guy and you know people are going to be all over him, and the only way to acquire that guy is pick them where they’re at, it’s something worth thinking about, especially if you think you can develop those guys.”

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I think Willis does and should remain in the mix for the Lions at No. 2. The organization is not sold on Jared Goff as its long-term starter, nor should it be, and Willis would be in an ideal draft-and-develop situation in Detroit.

I can see Thibodeaux as the pick because he is arguably the best talent in this draft, the Lions need pass rush help and Campbell very much embraces players being themselves.

I still believe Hutchinson is the Lions’ preference at No. 2, should he make it that far.

But if I was doing a mock draft today, I would stick with the pick I made in my last mock, Johnson, the Florida State defensive end who wowed the Lions at the Senior Bowl.

Campbell did not talk specifically about Johnson on Thursday, but he said something that very much spoke to reporting I’ve already done on why Johnson could be a match.

The Lions are in the midst of draft meetings this week, meetings where Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes sit down with assorted coaches to go over the prospects at various positions.

On Thursday, they talked receivers and linebackers. Previously, they sat down for the same meetings with Holmes’ scouting staff, and in the coming weeks they’ll meet again to decide what they want to do at No. 2.

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The Lions remain a mystery in one of the most wide-open drafts in recent memory, and Campbell likes it that way.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “All that matters is, man, do we believe this guy can come in and help us right now. He fills a need and he can help us play, no matter what it is.

“Brad and I have had conversations, probably the guys everybody is talking about, but we talked about a couple of receivers yesterday. We’ve talked about the quarterbacks. It might surprise people who think we’re just slotted into, ‘Well, here it is.’ It’s not. We’re looking at every scenario because there’s some guys that are ultimately some might say, ‘Well, is the value worth it at two?’ No, we don’t care. All that matters is this dude is going to come in and play and he’s going to help us and he’s going to be a productive player for a long time in this league for us. That’s what matters to us.”

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

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