Detroit Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2022 NFL draft. This is the first in an eight-part series:
The Lions have said all the right things about Jared Goff, pointing out how well he played in the second half of last season and throwing their support behind him for 2022. But it’s telling that no one in the organization has ordained him their long-term future at the position.
Goff turns 28 this fall and has three years (including 2022) left on the extension he signed with the Los Angeles Rams. He is an ideal bridge for a young signal caller, but not the same caliber playmaker as top NFL quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
Along with Goff, the Lions return both of last year’s backups, Tim Boyle and David Blough, so they don’t need to force a draft pick at the position. Goff is a capable game manager who played good football down the stretch last season, when the Lions won three of his final four starts. Boyle, similarly, showed improvement in three fill-in starts in the second half of the year.
The Lions appear unlikely to take a quarterback at No. 2. Dan Campbell said he wants an immediate starter out of that draft spot and this year’s quarterback class is considered unusually high-risk with no guaranteed Day 1 starter. But they have two other high picks (Nos. 32 and 34) to address the position and could use those choices to move up if one of their preferred targets falls.
The other option is waiting another year. But if the Lions don’t find Goff’s successor soon, be it a high-level replacement or a rookie quarterback on a cheap deal, they risk stagnating their rebuild.
Lions NFL draft preview: QBs
On the roster: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough, Steven Montez.
Top 3 QB prospects: 1. Malik Willis, Liberty; 2. Kenny Pickett, Pitt; 3. Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati.
Other players with Michigan ties: Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan; Connor Sampson, Western Illinois (Belleville).
Day 3 sleeper: Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky.
Recent Lions draft picks at QB: 2021 — none. 2020 — none. 2019 — none. 2018 -—none. 2017 — Brad Kaaya (sixth round).
There is not a superstar quarterback prospect like Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow in this year’s draft, but NFL teams are desperate enough to upgrade the position that one or more could go in the top 10. Pickett is the most NFL-ready signal caller of the group. He started 49 games at Pitt and had a phenomenal senior season in which he threw 42 touchdowns against seven interceptions while completing 67% of his passes. His mobility is sometimes underrated and his hand size (8½ inches) will be an issue for some teams, but Pickett should go in the top half of the first round.
Willis is the highest-upside quarterback in the draft and my No. 1 prospect at the position, though he probably needs a year of seasoning before he’s ready to start. He’s a premium athlete with a cannon for an arm and desirable leadership qualities. The Lions worked closely with Willis at the Senior Bowl and should know better than anyone how realistic it is he reaches his massive upside.
Two other quarterbacks could come off the board in Round 1. Ridder is a bit erratic as a deep passer, but he led Cincinnati to the national semifinals and has good size (6 feet 3, 211 pounds) and mobility. Matt Corral has drawn Baker Mayfield comparisons because of his size (6 feet 1) and spunk, but he played in an Ole Miss offense that did not require quarterbacks to make full-field reads and has had to endure questions about his maturity.
North Carolina’s Sam Howell was considered a first-round prospect coming into the season, but appears to be more in the Day 2 mix now. Howell and Zappe joined Willis on the Lions-coached American Team roster at the Senior Bowl, and Campbell said he was impressed by Howell’s ability. Nevada’s Carson Strong is a pocket passer with a big arm. If teams are comfortable with his medical evaluations, he could come off the board on Day 2 as well. Eleby projects as a late-round pick or priority free agent. If he’s the former, he will become the first Western Michigan quarterback taken in the modern draft.