NFL draft preview: Why Ahmad Gardner, Derek Stingley Jr. should be top-10 picks

Detroit Free Press

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 seventh in an eight-part series.

The Lions had the youngest secondary in the NFL at the start of last season and they likely will have one of the youngest defensive backfields again this fall. But the group has enough injury concerns that there is room to add one or more players in this week’s draft.

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Top cornerback Amani Oruwariye is coming off a career-high six interception season. Oruwariye is in line for a contract extension this summer, but he needs a running mate for the long-term. Jerry Jacobs is one option. He showed promise as an undrafted rookie last season, but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last December and won’t return until summer. Jeff Okudah is another, but the No. 3 pick of the 2020 draft is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon and has had a rough start to his NFL career.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes declined to say where Jacobs and Okudah are in their rehabs last week, perhaps for competitive reasons. It’s risky to assume both will return healthy and play a full 17-game schedule at a high level this fall, though the Lions do have good depth behind them in AJ Parker, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Mike Hughes.

Lions coach Dan Campbell said there are no plans to move Okudah to safety, though the Lions have their share of questions at that position as well. Tracy Walker is coming off the best season of his career, but he’s not a big-time playmaker with one interception in his past 42 games. Will Harris played a hybrid role for the Lions last season, and both he and Deshon Elliott should see plenty of playing time alongside Walker this fall. Harris and Elliott are on expiring contracts, though, so if the Lions don’t spend the No. 2 overall pick on a high-end defensive back, look for them to add a potential future starter at safety later in the draft.

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CBs on the roster: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jacobs, AJ Parker, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Mark Gilbert, Mike Hughes, Parnell Motley, Bobby Price, Saivion Smith. Safeties on the roster: Tracy Walker, Will Harris, Deshon Elliott, C.J. Moore, Brady Breeze, Jalen Elliott, JuJu Hughes.

Top 3 CB prospects: 1. Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati; 2. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU; 3. Trent McDuffie, Washington. Top 3 S prospects: 1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame; 2. Dax Hill, Michigan; Lewis Cine, Georgia.

Other players with Michigan ties: CB: Vincent Gray, Michigan; Teheran Coleman, Western Michigan. S: Brad Hawkins, Michigan; A.J. Thomas, Western Michigan; Trenten Morrow, Sienna Heights; Gage Kreski, Central Michigan.

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Day 3 sleeper: CB: Zyon McCollum, Sam Houston State. S: Sterling Weatherford, Miami (Ohio).

Recent Lions draft picks at CB: 2021 — Ifeatu Melifonwu (third round); 2020 — Jeff Okudah (first round); 2019 — Amani Oruwariye (fifth round); 2018 — none; 2017 — Teez Tabor (second round), Jamal Agnew (fifth round). Recent Lions draft picks at S: 2021 — none; 2020 — none; 2019 — Will Harris (third round); Isaac Nauta (seventh round); 2018-Tracy Walker — (third round); 2017 — none.

Draft dish

In a draft panned for its lack of blue-chip talent, the defensive back position has three borderline elite prospects. Gardner, a Detroit native, is the No. 1 cornerback in the draft and a potential top-five pick. He has the requisite size, speed and length NFL teams want at the position, and the production to go with it having never allowed a touchdown in his career. Gardner is the draft’s premier press-man corner.

Stingley was considered college football’s best cornerback as a freshman in 2019, but he’s played just 10 games the past two seasons because of COVID-19 and a foot injury that cut short his 2021 season. He’s a health risk, but has the athleticism and upside to crack the top 10. Hamilton is the third potential future star defensive back in this draft. He could drop out of the top 10 because of positional value and because he ran a slower-than-expected 40 time (4.59 seconds) at the combine, but he has the range and ball skills to be a 10-year NFL starter.

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There is good value in the safety position beyond Hamilton. Michigan’s Hill and Georgia’s Cine are potential late first round picks who likely will land starting role as rookies. Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker is an enforcer who had five interceptions in his career. Baylor’s Jalen Pitre is a capable sub-package defender and his ex-teammate, JT Woods, has incredible ball skills with nine interceptions the past two seasons.

There is a significant drop off between the top two cornerbacks in this year’s draft and McDuffie, who had a very good college career but had the shortest arms among cornerbacks (29¾ inches) at the combine. McDuffie still should go in the second half of Round 1, and Florida’s Kaiir Elam and Clemson’s Andrew Booth are probable top-50 picks. One other intriguing Day 2 cornerback prospect: Texas-San Antonio’s Tariq Woolen, a converted receiver who ran a 4.26-second 40 at 6 feet 4 and 205 pounds.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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