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: Quarterbacks.
► Current roster: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough, Steven Montez
► Short-term need: Three out of 10
► Long-term need: Seven out of 10
► Top prospects: Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder
► Day 2 options: Sam Howell, Carson Strong, Bailey Zappe
► Late-round considerations: Cole Kelley, E.J. Perry, Kaleb Eleby, Aqeel Glass
► Analysis: A good rule for roster building in the NFL is to not rely on exceptions to the rules. Can a team have sustainable success without an elite quarterback? Yes, but it takes everything else to be close to perfect.
That’s the dilemma the Lions face now and going forward. At the end of last season, we saw Goff at his peak. In his final five starts, he completed 69.6% of his passes with 11 touchdowns to two interceptions. His 107.1 quarterback rating during that stretch was the third best in the NFL. Most importantly, the Lions went 3-2, the team’s only three wins on the season.
That QB rating was also slightly better than what Goff posted during his Pro Bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018, the latter of which he led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl. So clearly, when the circumstances around him are right, he’s good enough to have success at the highest levels in this league.
On the other side of the coin, no one who watched the thrilling postseason game between the Chiefs and Bills in January could feel like Goff is capable of leading multiple game-saving drives in the closing seconds like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen did that day. It’s not a knock on Goff to suggest those two passers exist on a higher plane of performance.
Speaking generally on the topic when asked whether a team needs a superstar quarterback, Lions coach Dan Campbell acknowledged you would love to have that caliber of player at the position, and they certainly make life easier, but you don’t have to have one.
Of course, if the opportunity arises for the Lions to get a quarterback capable of residing in that upper echelon, they would have to pull the trigger. Then again, no one really believes that quarterback exists in this draft.
In terms of ceilings, Willis’ is the highest. But it’s a fair argument to suggest he’s got the longest path to reaching his ceiling among the top group. A dual-threat standout at Liberty who can move like a running back in the open field and has among the strongest arms in this draft class, Willis will be making one of the biggest jumps in competition, having played with no NFL-caliber talent and rarely competing against it, all while having played in a scheme that has minimal translatable elements to the next level.
Without trading future assets to move up later in the first round, the only way for the Lions to secure Willis is to use the No. 2 pick. Obviously, that possibility should be fully explored, but even with the franchise in good position to let him sit a year and develop, is it worth the lofty bet on the hope he reaches his ceiling, or exceeds it and becomes the next Allen? That’s a difficult question general manager Brad Holmes has to ask himself, because its the type of decision that can make or break a GM’s tenure.
If the Lions pass on Willis, it doesn’t mean the team is out on adding a quarterback later. And there are some other potential starters in this class, but it’s unfair to suggest any are potential superstars. Whether it’s Corral, Howell or Ridder, each has the ability to develop into a starter, but can they be better than Goff at his best? If not, the argument becomes more of a financial one, where the team looks to build around a young, cheap starter on a rookie deal while investing the remaining cap space into the rest of the roster.
That takes us back to the initial point, where you can have success without an elite quarterback if everything else around them is right. But once that rookie deal expires, in four or five seasons, you face the daunting choice of overpaying for mediocrity or starting over.
The third option with drafting a quarterback this year is looking for a talent worthy of developing as a backup. Detroit opted for continuity behind Goff this offseason, re-signing Boyle and Blough, but both return on one-year deals. There’s room for the Lions to draft a QB in the middle or late rounds and make them third-string their first year with an eye on the backup job in 2023.
In the late stages of the draft, taking a chance on a player like Kelley would be an interesting decision. He has an impressive build (6-foot-7, 249 pounds) with a strong arm and solid production, but a history of questionable decision-making, resulting in 25 interceptions during his college career.