Each Saturday during the college football season, we’ll highlight five 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.
Mazi Smith, DT, Michigan (No. 58)
Michigan at Ohio State, 12 p.m., FOX
It seems unlikely any defensive tackle will have a combine performance that matches what Jordan Davis did at last year’s event, but the nearly 330-pound Smith is going to turn some heads. The No. 1 player of Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freak’s List” coming in the year, Smith’s impressive workout feats include 22 reps on the bench with 325 pounds (100 more than is lifted at the combine) and short shuttle and three-cone times that would have been the best of any interior lineman in 2021.
On the field, Smith is a force. Comfortable playing anywhere from the 0-tech, aligned directly over the center, to the 3-tech on either side, he’s been consistently stout against the run, while showing some ability to disrupt the pocket on passing plays, tallying 38 quarterback pressures the past two seasons.
In Detroit, Smith would provide much-needed depth on the inside, either as a replacement for the Isaiah Buggs/Benito Jones tandem — who are working on expiring deals — or as a complement to Buggs if the team opts to re-sign the popular veteran.
Pairing Smith with Alim McNeil, another 330-pounder, would give opponents a tough time running up the gut against the Lions.
Will McDonald, Edge, Iowa State (No. 9)
Iowa State at TCU, 4 p.m., FOX
One of the biggest disappointments for the Lions this season has been Charles Harris’ encore. Hoping for a repeat of his 2021 breakout performance, Harris has just 11 quarterback pressures and a single sack. On top of that, he’s been hampered by a groin injury that’s sidelined him for four games and limited him in two others.
With half of his close to $8 million cap figure set to count whether he’s on the roster or not, Harris is probably a safe bet to be back with the Lions in 2023, but that shouldn’t stop the team from trying to land a long-term replacement.
The similarly-built McDonald could be that answer. A 6-foot-3, 245-pound flamethrower, he exhibits great burst off the snap and the ability to bend an edge or get narrow and slice through an interior gap when working against an offensive tackle.
Like Harris, McDonald isn’t great against the run. Early in his career, he’ll probably be best suited as a pass-rush specialist, while working on adding some weight and strength to not be a liability on early downs.
Jaylon Jones, CB, Texas A&M (No. 17)
LSU at Texas A&M, 7 p.m., ESPN
After holding opposing quarterbacks to a 51.7 completion percentage and intercepting two balls in 2021, passers have wanted nothing to do with the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Jones this season. Through nine games, he’s been targeted just 14 times in coverage, where he’s surrendered a grand total of 81 yards.
With his size, he’s able to play physically, both in coverage and when defending the run. That latter trait will play well in Detroit, where they lean on their corners to contribute in run support. With more experience playing in zone schemes, he’ll likely need his technique refined to be relied on in man-coverage situations.
It’s not surprising, given his measurables, but it should be noted Jones is strictly an outside corner. There’s some special-teams potential here, as well, but he’s been asked to do very little with those units during his three seasons at A&M.
Michael Mayer, TE, Notre Dame (No. 87)
Notre Dame at USC, 7:30 p.m., ABC
The Lions haven’t gotten a lot of value out of the three tight ends they’ve selected in the first round since 2009. Brandon Pettigrew had some high-volume production early in his career, but quickly tailed off and petered out. Eric Ebron was unceremoniously waived after four seasons. And T.J. Hockenson, despite earning a Pro Bowl nod, never lived up to the lofty expectations of being a top-10 draft pick prior to being traded to the Vikings a few weeks back.
But when you look around the league, there’s little doubt the type of impact a top tight end can have. It’s why the Kansas Chiefs were able to trade Tyreke Hill, one of the game’s elite receivers, and are still scoring more points than anyone this season.
Of course, there’s only one Travis Kelce, and pinning your hopes on finding the next isn’t good roster-building strategy. That said, there’s little question Mayer is the best prospect at the position this year.
Highly productive in the pass game, he’s caught 172 passes in 35 games for the Irish, including 16 touchdowns. Attached to the line of scrimmage more often than split into the slot or out wide, he’s also a capable blocker, particularly with the run. That probably makes him more like George Kittle or Mark Andrews than Kelce, but if Mayer reaches the level of any of them, he’d be a worthy first-round choice.
For it to make sense for the Lions, it couldn’t be in the top 10. Let someone else take that risk. But if they end up with pick 14-16 and Mayer is there, it would be a justifiable selection.
Daiyan Henley, LB, Washington State (No. 1)
Washington at Washington State, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
The Lions have gotten good early returns out of rookie Kerby Joseph, a converted wide receiver who is now putting those ball skills to use at safety. Henley is following a similar path, just playing a little closer to the line of scrimmage.
A high school quarterback, Henley was recruited as an athlete and played two seasons as a wide receiver at Nevada prior to switching to defense. His production took off as a redshirt senior in 2021, when he tallied 94 tackles and four interceptions, and it’s continued into this season, following a transfer to Washington State. Through 11 games, he’s racked up 102 tackles, including a dozen behind the line of scrimmage.
Athletic and instinctual, the 6-foot-2, 232-pound Henley should only continue to get better with experience and improved technique.