Grading the Lions’ 2019 NFL draft picks, three years later

Detroit News

If you’ve tuned into my Detroit Lions coverage during the decade I’ve been on this beat, you should know by now I’m against grading draft picks the night they’re selected.

While I acknowledge there’s a thirst for those kneejerk reactions, that level of analysis always has felt disingenuous. How are we supposed to evaluate something without seeing how it comes together on the field?

In place of those instant grades, I’m long preferred to look back at each draft class after three seasons, when we have a clearer picture of how the prospects have fit, developed and produced.

And while it’s been more than a year since former general manager Bob Quinn was dismissed from the position, his draft classes have a lingering fingerprint on the present and future of the franchise.

So as we approach the 2022 draft, the second under Quinn’s replacement Brad Holmes, we wanted to go back and take a closer look at how the 2019 class has turned out.

► Tight end T.J. Hockenson (Round 1, pick No. 8)

Analysis: When you choose to buck history, addressing a position not typically considered with a top-10 pick, that prospect immediately inherits even loftier expectations than those normally attached to a player selected at that early stage of the draft.

In 2019, the Lions made Hockenson only the second tight end taken top-10 in 13 years. The other, Eric Ebron, who the Lions grabbed at No. 10 five years earlier, was dumped after four so-so seasons.

To justify grabbing a tight end that early, the player must develop into either an elite receiving threat like a Travis Kelce or Jimmy Graham or a elite dual-threat such as George Kittle or Rob Gronkowski.

Ironically, none of those four were selected in the first round of their respective drafts.

Hockenson always was projected to be more in the dual-threat mold. Following in Kittle’s footsteps at Iowa, Hockenson posted 49 catches for 760 yards and six touchdowns his final season, while showing advanced blocking ability.

But three years into his career, it’s fair to say the blocking hasn’t carried over. And while Hockenson has been a good and consistently improving receiver, his career-high 67 catches was dwarfed by the 105 balls Kelce caught that same season.

More: Justin Rogers’ 2022 NFL mock draft 2.0, post-free agency edition

Again, the steady improvements Hockenson is making as a pass-catcher shouldn’t be dismissed. He came into the league young and doesn’t turn 25 years old until July. Prior to suffering a season-ending thumb injury in 2021, he was on pace for 86 receptions, 826 yards and six touchdowns. Elite? Not quite, but it would be the best production the franchise has ever gotten from the position.

And while the blocking will probably never reach Kittle or Gronkowski’s level, there’s hope for improvement there, too, given Hockenson’s age.

Could the Lions have been better served addressing a more traditional position in the top-10, by taking a player such as defensive tackle Ed Oliver or edge rusher Brian Burns? Sure, that case can be made. But Hockenson has been anything but a bust, remains an ascending talent and is rightfully on the cusp of earning a second contract with the franchise.

Grade: B+

► Linebacker Jahlani Tavai (Round 2, pick No. 43)

Analysis: In an effort to mold the team’s defense into the vision held by former coach Matt Patricia, there was the need to add size at the linebacker position. And while colleges are largely producing smaller, faster players at the position to counter the proliferation of spread offenses at that level, the 250-pound Tavai offered the frame and physicality the Lions were desperately seeking.

Still, even knowing the Lions had placed an emphasis on getting bigger in the second level, Tavai immediately felt like a reach inside the top-50 picks. Go back and look at the NFL.com prospect profile, which projected him as a fourth- or fifth-round choice.

Obviously value is in the eye of the beholder, and, for what it’s worth, it was reported other teams were prepared to take Tavai later in the second round, including the New England Patriots. Whether that rumor was floated by the Lions to save face, it’s impossible to say, but we know, in hindsight, it would have been better for Detroit to pass on the Hawaii product.

More: Justin Rogers’ draft previews by position: LB | TE | CB | RB | DT 

Tavai actually showed the most promise during his rookie season, appearing in 15 games and starting six. And despite suffering a shoulder injury required surgery late in the campaign, there were enough positives to believe the Lions had found a schematic building block.

That hope was quickly erased during Tavai’s second season, where he regressed across the board and graded 93rd out of 96 qualifying linebackers by analytics site Pro Football Focus.

The further downside of a player like Tavai is he’s so specific to scheme. When the Lions fired Patricia, Tavai went above and beyond to transform his body to fit the incoming staff’s vision, but it wasn’t enough and he was cut after just two seasons.

Grade: F

► Safety Will Harris (Round 3, pick No. 81)

Analysis: A year after selecting Tracy Walker in the third round, the Lions added the similarly sized, but even more athletically gifted Harris.

At the time, the Lions didn’t have an immediate need for a starting safety, but the team clearly had a long-term plan for the Walker/Harris pairing in the back end. That plan was accelerated when Quandre Diggs was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in October of that year.

Harris immediately moved into the starting lineup after the trade, but the rookie proved unready for the role, struggling in coverage and with his pursuit angles, leading to a high number of missed tackles.

In 2020, the Lions acquired veteran Duron Harmon and created a convoluted timeshare between Harris and Walker. Despite Harris seeing the bigger part of the split to start the season, he quickly gave way to Walker, who was clearly the better option, even when playing out of position in the box.

With a new coaching staff in 2021, there was renewed optimism the team would be able to capitalize on Harris’ physical gifts. But outside of vastly improved tackling, he continued to be an underwhelming starter.

Harris’ impressive understanding of the scheme did allow him to showcase some versatility late in the season, when he started games as both an outside and slot corner. Still, it would be a stretch to say he thrived in either of those spots. That said, those reps provide an opportunity to potentially develop him for a different role heading into the final year of his rookie contract.

Grade: D+

► Defensive end Austin Bryant (Round 4, pick No. 117)

Analysis: The Lions thought they were getting good value at this slot with Bryant, who had recorded 8.5 sacks each of his final two seasons at Clemson. On top of that, he had showed impressive toughness in 2018, playing through a torn pectoral muscle to appear in all 15 games for the national champions.

But instead of value, the Lions got a player who struggled with durability his first two seasons. That surgically repaired pectoral muscle was aggravated during training camp his rookie year and sidelined him the first 11 games. He wound up appearing in just four contests, recording eight tackles and zero sacks.

Bryant missed 10 more games his second season, once again going sackless in six appearances, while playing a little more than 200 defensive snaps.

It wasn’t until last season that Bryant was finally able to start living up to his potential. Appearing in 14 out of 17 games (he missed the final two with a knee injury), he recorded 31 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rotational edge rusher.

Still, even with the expanded opportunity, he finished with fewer quarterback pressures than Romeo Okwara, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the fourth game of the season. Assuming the Lions add an edge rusher in the early stages of the upcoming draft, Bryant could find himself on the outside of the roster bubble looking in heading into training camp.

Grade: D

► Cornerback Amani Oruwariye (Round 5, pick No. 146)

Analysis: Despite good size, above-average athleticism, quality ball production his final two seasons at Penn State and no character concerns, Oruwariye inexplicably dropped into the fifth round in this draft. And outside of some minor durability issues not uncommon to the position, he’s spent three years proving teams wrong for repeatedly passing on him.

Missing the first half of his rookie season with a knee injury, Oruwariye flashed some ball skills later that year, incepting two passes, despite being in coverage fewer than 150 snaps.

Projected as a backup his second season, Oruwariye ended up starting 15 games in 2020. He proved more than ready for the expanded responsibility, allowing only 55.3% of the 76 passes his direction to be completed.

He carried that success into last season, once again holding opposing quarterbacks under 60% when throwing his way. Additionally, he took his turnover production to another level, intercepting six passes, which ranked third in the NFL.

A thumb injury sidelined Oruwariye the final three games in 2021, but there’s no long-term concern with the injury. He figures to return to the starting lineup as the team eyes locking him up with a multi-year contract extension ahead of hitting the open market next offseason.

Grade: A-

► Wide receiver Travis Fulgham (Round 6, pick No. 184)

Analysis: During the preseason of his rookie year, Fulgham flashed some potential, catching seven of nine targets for 147 yards. But with Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola ahead of him on the depth chart, there wasn’t any playing time to be had once the regular season rolled around.

After initially making Detroit’s 53-man roster, Fulgham was cut in late September, spending most of his debut season on the practice squad. He did appear in three games late in the year, but failed to catch a pass.

Fulgham’s time in Detroit would come to an end the following August, and after a brief stint in Green Bay, he was claimed off waivers by Philadelphia. With the Eagles in 2020, he appeared in 13 games, catching 38 passes for 539 and four touchdowns, highlighted by a huge 10-reception, 152-yard performance in Week 5 against Pittsburgh.

Unable to maintain that momentum, Fulgham spent time on three rosters and appeared in only one game last year. He’s currently with the Denver Broncos. He clearly has some ability, based on that 2020 production, but the Lions get no credit after cutting him prematurely.

Grade: F

► Running back Ty Johnson (Round 6, pick No. 186)

Analysis: Similar to Fulgham, Johnson has done his best work with another team. But unlike Fulgham, Johnson at least posted some stats during his short time in Detroit.

As a rookie in 2019, the speedy running back out of Maryland racked up 382 yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.3 yards on 63 carries. He added another 109 yards on 24 catches, while also seeing more than 100 snaps on special teams that year, handling a few kickoffs along the way.

Johnson would be cut early in his second season after getting pushed down the depth chart by new additions D’Andre Swift and Adrian Peterson. He quickly landed with the Jets, where he’s tallied 963 yards from scrimmage and scored six times in 27 games across two seasons.

Grade: D-

► Tight end Isaac Nauta (Round 7, pick No. 224)

Analysis: Splitting two seasons between the team’s practice squad and active roster, Nauta appeared in 13 games for the Lions, but averaged fewer than eight offensive snaps in those contests.

Primarily used as a run blocker — both out of the backfield and off tackle — Nauta did catch three passes with the Lions, netting 16 yards and one first down.

Cut in the final month of the 2020 season, he signed on to the Packers practice squad and was waived, with an injury settlement, last August. He’s currently out of the league and has co-founded a marketing and branding agency that works with college athletes navigating the NIL marketspace.

Grade: D-

► Defensive tackle P.J. Johnson (Round 7, pick No. 229)

Analysis: After seeing extensive playing time during the preseason, Johnson didn’t make Detroit’s roster as a rookie and surprisingly wasn’t even brought back as a member of the team’s practice squad.

He went on to spend time with four other rosters prior to surprisingly rejoining the Lions for a brief stretch last season. Three years after being drafted, he’s yet to appear in a regular-season game.

Grade: F

► Overall

Analysis: While it remains a positional reach that early in the draft, the Lions did manage to land a foundational piece in Hockenson at No. 8. And Oruwariye has been a clear home run as a Day 3 pick.

As for the rest of the class, it’s been a dud.

Harris and Bryant still remain on the roster, but haven’t been productive enough with their opportunities to date, while five other selections didn’t make it to the end of their rookie deals in Detroit. Even worse, the Lions had to watch Fulgham and Johnson produce elsewhere, an indictment of their former coaching staff’s ability to properly evaluate and develop talent.

Grade: D+

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers 

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