Standout QB performances at NFL combine give Detroit Lions something to chew on

Detroit Free Press

Anthony Richardson surprised no one Saturday when he turned in an NFL combine performance for the ages.

Richardson, the talented Florida quarterback, set combine quarterback records in the vertical jump (40.5 inches) and broad jump (10-foot-9) and ran a blazing fast 40-yard dash time of 4.43 seconds while showing off his incredible arm strength.

Richardson wasn’t the only impressive quarterback at this year’s combine. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud was laser-perfect with his ball placement in throwing drills, adding to his reputation as the best pure passer in this year’s draft; Kentucky’s Will Levis did as promised and put some powder in his cannon of a right arm; and Alabama’s Bryce Young won the weekend without working out by weighing in at 204 pounds.

Combine performances matter, some more than others, though none are as important as they seem in the moment, as Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell reminded everyone this week.

“To me, you grade (draft prospects) off the tape,” Campbell said Wednesday. “You don’t grade off somebody out here in pajamas running around a 40 with no defender around or offender.”

Good teams have and always will value college performance over combine measureables, but the league’s annual testing and medical event concluded Sunday with a distinct quarterback buzz in the air.

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All four of the draft’s top signal callers left Indianapolis looking like top-10 picks, and that could leave the Lions with an interesting decision to make at No. 6.

None of Young, Stroud, Richardson or Levis is in the same class as recent No. 1 overall picks Joe Burrow (2020) or Trevor Lawrence (2021), but all have considerably more upside than last year’s first quarterback taken, Kenny Pickett.

Young is the most polished of the group and the favorite to be the first player drafted. Stroud’s size and passing acumen will make him the No. 1 quarterback on some boards. And Richardson and Levis have drool-worthy traits with the downside of much lower floors.

Campbell intimated in an interview with CBS Sports last week that the Lions would be willing to take a quaterback with one of their two first-round picks, No. 6 or 18 overall. General manager Brad Holmes has been less enthusiastic about that idea publicly, and it’s fair to wonder if Campbell’s remarks were simply acknowledging the diligence the Lions must do at the top of the draft mixed with a dash of smokescreen.

Jared Goff, after all, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, the Lions’ window to contend begins in 2023, and bolstering the roster in areas other than quarterback would do wonders to help win now.

“What we were hopeful and thought we were going to get (in Goff) is a guy who, man, he’s our guy. He’s bought us time here. We believe we can win with Jared Goff,” Campbell told CBS Sports. “In the meantime, we also know he’s not going to be here for the next 10 years. I mean, he’s not — it’s not like Jared Goff’s a rookie, so certainly our eyes are on, man, potentially a quarterback. And the question is, where do you acquire that at? And that’s something that Brad and I kick around all the time, but we don’t feel like we’re pressed right now. We don’t feel like we’re pressed. But that doesn’t mean our eyes aren’t on a quarterback.”

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The Lions are right to keep their eyes on a quarterback. It’s in the best long-term interests of the franchise.

If they love one of Young, Stroud, Richardson or Levis, and believe that player can be Goff’s successor, they should take him if he makes it to six, let alone 18.

I’ve been on the quarterback train for years, and extolled the virtues of taking (the right) one many times. But I also came away from the combine this week with the distinct impression the Lions’ intention is to go elsewhere in the first round of the draft.

Young has the tape to make a quarterback-needy team happy with the first pick of the draft. Stroud does, too. Richardson and Levis are more projects who would benefit from redshirt year, which the Lions have the luxury of providing but don’t seem willing to given the risk-reward of the No. 6 pick.

There’s an eclectic mix of teams at the top of this year’s draft. There’s the usual quarterback-desperate suspects, teams like the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders and Carolina Panthers picking in the top 10. The Chicago Bears, owners of the No. 1 pick, already have a young quarterback and seem ready to auction the pick off for a boatload of future assets. The Arizona Cardinals at No. 3 probably should be in the QB market, but they just gave Kyler Murray a new deal. And the Seattle Seahawks at No. 5 are similar to the Lions in that they have a capable veteran in place (assuming Geno Smith returns) but could go the draft-and-develop route.

The Lions’ real hope has to be that the jockeying for quarterbacks at the top of the draft pushes one of the big defensive prizes, Alabama’s Will Anderson or Georgia’s Jalen Carter (if his legal situation is resolved), down to No. 6.

If four quarterbacks go in the top five, that could happen and Holmes won’t be able to stop himself from turning his draft card in too early for the NFL’s tastes for the third straight year.

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If one or more quarterbacks fall out of the top five and the Lions, as I suspect, don’t want to roll the dice on a young signal caller who won’t aid their chances of winning their first division title in 30 years in 2023, the next best option is that the love for Richardson or Levis or whoever is left is fervent enough than some team will want to trade up to No. 6.

The Panthers (No. 9), Atlanta Falcons (No. 8), Tennessee Titans (No. 11) and Washington Commanders (No. 16) are reasonable trade-up candidates, with the Raiders sitting at No. 7.

So, yes, Richardson was maybe the biggest star of combine week, Stroud cemented his status as a top pick, and Young and Levis held firm as top prospects, too.

Whether they truly are in the market for a quarterback or not, that’s all good news for Holmes, Campbell, the Lions and what they’re trying to build.

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

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