The Detroit Lions should get one of the top two players on their board when the NFL draft kicks off Thursday night. That’s the benefit of picking so high.
But as general manager Brad Holmes said in his pre-draft news conference last week, this draft is about more than just “narrowing it down to your top two.”
“Anything can happen at any day, I will say that,” Holmes said. “You better have your top five. You better have your top 10 in place because you just don’t know what’s going to happen each day. We do have it narrowed down, and we feel confident where we’re at with how we have it pared down. We’ll just let the process unfold.”
A LOOK AT THEIR BOARD: Lions feel options at No. 2 in NFL draft are ‘evenly rated’
There does not seem to be much clamoring from teams to trade up into the top few picks, but this is a draft whose strength lies more in its depth than the quality of its prospects up top.
The Lions have eight picks, including multiple choices in Rounds 1 (two and 32) and 3 (66 and 97), and what they do with their first few choices will impact the direction they go late.
Here are three ways the picks could pan out for the Lions on the first two days of the draft:
Scenario 1: Defense, defense, defense
First round: No. 2, edge Kayvon Thibodeaux, (Oregon); No. 32, LB Quay Walker (Georgia). Second round: No. 34, S Jaquan Brisker (Penn State). Third round: No. 66, WR Calvin Austin, (Memphis); No. 97, OG Darian Kinnard (Kentucky).
The Lions allowed the second-most points in the NFL last season and lack playmakers on that side of the ball. After signing a few band-aid solutions to one-year deals this offseason, they could target more permanent fixes in the draft.
Thibodeaux would give the Lions the highest-upside pass rusher in the draft. He was dominant as a freshman, played through an ankle injury last season and fits Dan Campbell’s desire to add a Day 1 starter with the pick. At 32, the Lions land another defensive starter at a position of need in Walker, who was one of the top players on Georgia’s star-studded defense. With projected starters Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis on one-year deals, this is a unit badly in need of long-term help.
The Lions have a promising young secondary, but they start Day 2 by adding a ball hawk to the back end. Brisker fills a need at safety, especially if the Lions plan to use Will Harris in more of a cornerback role. I suspect the Lions want to add a bigger-bodied receiver to their pass-catching corps, but the diminutive Austin can fly, has return ability and impressed the Lions at the Senior Bowl. Kinnard is another player the Lions worked directly with at the Senior Bowl. He played tackle in college, but projects as a guard in the NFL, and the Lions have had success drafting that position in Round 3 (Jonah Jackson and Larry Warford, another Kentucky product) in the past.
Scenario 2: The quarterback caper
First round: No. 2, edge Jermaine Johnson (Florida State). First-round trade up: No. 17, QB Malik Willis (Liberty). Third round: No. 66, WR Alec Pierce (Cincinnati); No. 97, LB Brian Asamoah (Oklahoma).
If Thibodeaux isn’t the edge rusher the Lions take at two, Johnson could be. Another Senior Bowl product, Johnson has flown somewhat under the radar of the big three defensive linemen, but he had sack production at Florida State, is a top edge run defender and checks all the appropriate boxes from a character standpoint. If the Lions have doubts about Thibodeaux as a culture fit, Johnson makes sense at two. He won’t be the talk of the draft if it plays out this way, however, as in this scenario the Lions package picks 32 and 34 to move up and draft their quarterback of the future. (They would get a fourth-round pick back in the deal as well, a round where they don’t currently have a selection.)
Willis is an enticing but unfinished product who probably will sit most or all of his rookie season. He has a huge arm, is a threat with his legs and would give the Lions a cost-controlled option around which to build their future team. Holmes said he won’t be shy about moving up to draft a player there is organizational conviction for, and Willis is magnetic enough he could be that guy.
Trading out of Round 2 leaves the Lions with a long wait between picks, but they still should be able to land rookie contributors with their two third-round choices. Pierce had a productive career at Cincinnati and adds much-needed size to the Lions’ receiver room, while Asamoah is an undersized but athletic linebacker who has starting potential. This draft haul would not provide the same type of immediate impact as Scenario 1, but it would leave the Lions in a good place for the future.
Scenario 3: The unexpected
First round: No. 2, CB Ahmad Gardner (Cincinnati); No. 32, LB Nakobe Dean (Georgia). Second round: No. 34, WR Christian Watson (North Dakota State). Third round: No. 66, DL Josh Paschal (Kentucky); No. 97, S JT Woods (Baylor).
Most people expect the Lions to go edge rushers at two, but they could go another direction and still get the best defensive player on their board. In this scenario, Gardner, a Detroit native, gets the call over Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton because of his shutdown abilities at cornerback. Gardner is long, fast and confident. He did not allow a touchdown in his career and he likely would start Day 1 opposite Amani Oruwariye, with Jeff Okudah factoring into the backup mix.
With their second first-round pick, the Lions sit tight and land another starter for their defense in Dean, the All-American leader of Georgia’s defense. Dean probably comes off the board before the Lions are on the clock at 32, but it’s no lock considering his measurables and injury concerns. If he’s there, he should be a no-brainer for the Lions.
On Day 2, the Lions fill needs at other positions. Watson is a borderline first-round talent who is a major deep threat but needs refinement, and the Lions can be patient with his development given the makeup of their receiving corps. Paschal has inside and outside pass rush ability and would give the Lions some flexibility on their defensive front. And Woods has some of the best ball skills in this year’s safety class after tying for the NCAA lead in interceptions last season.