Detroit Lions 2023 NFL Draft watch: Six prospects to watch for Week 12

Detroit News

Each Saturday during the college football season, we’ll highlight five (or in this case, six) prospects with locally televised matchups who could be a fit for the Detroit Lions in the 2023 NFL Draft, based on projected needs.

The list aims to highlight early-, mid- and late-round prospects. This will give you a chance to watch the players performing live, instead of playing catch-up in the weeks before the draft.

Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois

Illinois at Michigan, 12 p.m., ABC

We already know Michigan prefers to keep the ball on the ground and ride its backfield tandem of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, but we’ve been trying to find a place to squeeze Witherspoon in for a while, and we’re running out of time.

Versatile and sticky in coverage, the 6-foot, 180-pounder has allowed just 35.2% of the 54 passes his direction to be completed this season for 178 yards and zero touchdowns, while splitting his time between outside the numbers and in the slot.

A high school track standout, he’s got plenty of speed, which he pairs with competitive toughness when asked to play man coverage and adequate instincts to handle zone assignments.

Given he didn’t start playing football until his junior year in high school, the ball skills are still developing (three interceptions in the past three seasons), and his size could be an issue when trying to shed blocks on receiver screens or coming downhill in run support.

Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern

Northwestern at Purdue, 12 p.m., FS1

If we’re being realistic, it’s unlikely the Lions invest another first-round pick into the team’s offensive line, but it’s also not out of the realm of possibility general manager Brad Holmes could want to further solidify the strength of the roster for years to come.

With Halapoulivaati Vaitai a potential cap casualty, and lineup replacement Evan Brown tracking toward a significant pay raise as a free agent, the Lions should be in the market for a guard.

You might be asking, well, how does Skoronski fit that discussion as a three-year starter for the Wildcats on the blindside? While he’s shown all the necessary skills to handle the position in the pros, there are notable concerns with his arm length. They reportedly measure around 32 inches, which is well below average for the position, which is why some teams will consider him a better option on the inside.

Moving an elite college tackle inside isn’t unprecedented. Some prime examples at the top of the draft are Zach Martin and Brandon Scherff. Skoronski could easily follow suit, and if he lingers on the board into the middle of the first round, he could help turn a good offensive line into one of the league’s elite units.

T’Vondre Sweat, DT, Texas

Texas at Kansas, 3:30 p.m., FS1

The Lions have patchworked the middle of their defensive line with Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones, but it’s one of the easiest areas on the roster to earmark for improvement.

Sweat is a behemoth, listed at 6-foot-4, 340 pounds. As you might imagine at the size, he’s been consistently reliable as a run defender. But this season, we’ve seen the emergence of an ability to affect the pocket on passing downs. After tallying just 16 pressures in his first three seasons (487 pass snaps), he’s disrupted the quarterback 20 times as a senior.

Pairing Sweat alongside Alim McNeill would give the Lions nearly 700 pounds of beef at the heart of their defensive front, without stripping that unit of an ability to collapse the pocket from the inside.

Cedric Tillman, WR, Tennessee

Cam Smith, CB, South Carolina

Tennessee at South Carolina, 7 p.m., ESPN

Assuming the matchup materializes, Tillman vs. Smith will be one of the top battles to watch in college football this weekend.

Tillman, who topped 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns for the Vols last season, has been limited to five games due to an ankle injury this season. He didn’t play last week but is expected back in the lineup for this one. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder is a long strider who thrives in contested-catch situations and has the physicality to handle press coverage and break tackles after the catch.

Smith, who plays both sides of the field, should see a fair share of Tillman, assuming the receiver does suit up.

Opposing quarterbacks have been reluctant to test Smith this season, throwing his way just 23 times. That makes sense, since he’s giving up completions on fewer than 45% of those targets the past two seasons, while getting his hands on the ball better than one-of-four opportunities and coming away with four interceptions during that 20-game stretch.

The heart of the matchup should be physicality. Even though he’ll be at a clear size disadvantage, you can count on the six-foot, 188-pound corner not backing down, attempting to bring the fight to Tillman.

Zach Charbonnet, RB, UCLA

USC at UCLA, 8 p.m., FOX

If asked today, I imagine the Lions will make a strong push to bring back Jamaal Williams. He’s not necessarily a foundational piece, but in some ways, he represents the team’s heartbeat. He’s reliable and on pace for the first 1,000-yard season of his career, and given he will only be 28 years old at the start of next season, there’s plenty of tread on the tires.

But if the team deems the price tag is too high, at a position where it’s proven unwise to overinvest, the Lions would need to be on the hunt for a north-south running back to replace what Williams brings to the offense.

Charbonnet fits the bill as a proportional back who does his best work between the tackles, while also doing plenty of damage after contact. The former Wolverine has already crossed the 1,000-yard plateau for the second straight season, averaging 7.5 yards per carry and scoring 13 times for the Bruins. He’s also expanded his role as a receiver this year, catching 29 balls for another 270 yards with only one drop.

He also has some experience pass blocking, which means he won’t be starting from scratch like many college prospects, although there’s plenty of room to improve after allowing six pressures on 52 protection snaps.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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