Lions 2022 draft preview: Detroit could spend early-round pick to address need at safety

Detroit News

Over the next several days, leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Safety.

► Current roster: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, DeShon Elliott, C.J. Moore, Jalen Elliott, Brady Breeze, JuJu Hughes

► Short-term need: Six out of 10

► Long-term need: 10 out of 10

► Top prospects: Kyle Hamilton, Dax Hill, Jaquan Brisker, Lewis Cine

► Day 2 options: Cine, Jalen Pitre, Bryan Cook, Nick Cross

► Late-round considerations: Kerby Joseph, JT Woods, Percy Butler, Markquese Bell

► Analysis: Heading into the offseason, there wasn’t a bigger need on Detroit’s roster than at safety. So far, they’ve made the necessary moves to address immediate concerns, but a long-term hole remains. 

The team made the prudent decision to bring back Walker as a foundational piece in the secondary — awarding him with a new three-year deal — but there is a clear lack of stability with the second half of the tandem.

Until a week ago, it appeared Harris was in line to be the complement. That changed when the team added DeShon Elliott, a former starter with the Ravens, to compete for the job. 

The Lions like Harris, the former third-round draft pick entering his fourth season, but it’s easy to see he hasn’t found the consistency you’d like from a starter, despite significant opportunity. And after last season, when he showcased some versatility as an injury fill-in at both outside cornerback and nickel, coach Dan Campbell said it’s not clear where Harris will line up in 2023.

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

The idea of making him a matchup piece who can back up multiple spots, similar to the way defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn molded P.J. Williams in New Orleans, might be the ideal fit.

As for Elliott, he was solid as a starter in 2020, but has otherwise battled significant durability issues during the early stages of his career, missing most or all of his three other seasons. Healthy, he could easily win and hold the job, but given he’s coming in on a one-year deal provides little reason to believe the marriage is destined to be long-lasting. 

All totaled, it keeps the door wide open for an early-round pick to be invested in a long-term pairing with Walker, with the potential for the prospect to beat out Harris and Elliott this season. 

The conversation starts at the very top of the draft with Hamilton, the supersized Notre Dame standout who checks the box as a playmaker after intercepting eight passes in 31 games for the Irish.

The obvious point to be raised is positional value. No team has drafted a safety with a top-three pick in over three decades. And while Campbell recently said he’s not concerned about such things if the Lions know they are getting the player who can most help the team, it would be a significant roll of the dice. Maybe it wouldn’t be as much of a debate if Hamilton had run faster at the combine or pro day, but his average speed for the position further casts doubt on the idea.

At the end of the first round, the Lions could have their pick of the remaining options. Michigan’s Hill is a gifted athlete who lined up all over the field for the Wolverines, while Brisker, out of Penn State, brings tone-setting physicality paired with the speed and agility to handle the deep-field assignments that are a big part of Detroit’s defensive scheme. The description also fits Cine, who often gets pigeonholed as a box safety in scouting reports, but surely did enough to quell those takes with an elite 40-yard dash and 10-yard split at the combine.

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

Baylor’s Pitre, who participated in the Senior Bowl, might be the stopping point for potential Year 1 starters. At 5-foot-11, 198 pounds, he doesn’t have the size of the aforementioned options, but he’s an explosive athlete with some playmaking ability on the resume. The biggest concern, beyond his size, would be the schematic shift of playing deep after spending most of his college career defending the slot.

There’s also the realistic possibility, particularly after the Elliott addition, the Lions don’t pursue an immediate starter at safety. Still, there could be developmental options to weigh in the later rounds. 

We’re particularly intrigued by Bell, who has an impressive frame (6-foot-2, 212 pounds), elite speed (4.41-second, 40-yard dash) and viable playmaking production while at Florida A&M (seven forced fumbles and six interceptions the past two seasons).

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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