When the Detroit Lions took Eric Ebron with the 10th pick of the 2014 NFL draft, they passed on the best defensive player of this generation and a future first ballot Hall of Famer in Aaron Donald.
Ebron played four middling seasons with the Lions, where he was a part-time starter and sometimes weapon on offense. The seven players drafted directly after him have each made multiple Pro Bowls in their careers, and three of the seven — Donald, Odell Beckham Jr. and Zack Martin — were at one point at least in the conversation for the best player at their position in the game.
Ebron, by any measure, was a mistake of a draft pick at 10. Had the Lions taken Donald, the past decade might have looked significantly different in Detroit.
But to the regime that drafted him, Ebron was not their most regrettable choice.
Three years before doinking that draft pick, in the midst of building what they hoped would be a long-term contender, the Lions spent the 11th pick of the 2011 draft on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
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The Lions had drafted cornerstone players for their rebuild each of the previous two springs in Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, and when Fairley slid from his perch as a projected top-five pick on draft day due to character concerns, the Lions were too enamored with his talent to pass up.
Fairley played well when he wanted to in Detroit, but his flashes of dominance were few and far between. As well liked as he was, he didn’t fit the vibe of what the Lions were trying to build. And his presence came at an opportunity cost to the team.
That draft pick was far from the only reason things went off the rails for the Lions a decade ago, but it does serve as a cautionary tale for what these Lions are trying to build now — and for the choice general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell might have to make next month.
By taking cornerstone players Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson with their top picks of the first two years of their latest rebuild, the Lions have poured the foundation for what could be something special.
They have a gritty, nasty, try-hard group of players that’s talented enough to win games and tight enough in the locker room to stay even-keeled when they don’t.
It’s an exciting but still delicate time in Detroit, and with two first-round picks in this year’s draft — including the No. 6 overall selection — the Lions have a chance to put more pillars in place of a long-term contender.
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Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter could absolutely be one of those pillars. He is the most talented player in the draft, and he would fill one of the Lions’ biggest needs as a disruptive interior pass rusher to pair with Hutchinson and James Houston for years to come.
But like Fairley in 2011, Carter is dogged by character concerns a month out from the draft. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor counts of reckless driving and racing in connection with an accident that killed one of his teammates and a Georgia football staffer. He reportedly showed up 9 pounds overweight to his pro day, then could not finish drills in front of scouts. And ESPN analyst Todd McShay referenced more character concerns, specifically his locker room demeanor, back in December before it was popular to bag on Carter as a draft pick.
None of those things by itself is a disqualifier for a prospect. Carter is an excellent football, and there are plenty of all-time greats who weren’t universally beloved in locker rooms. One scout on a team with a top-10 pick told me Carter looked like his dominant self at the start of his pro day workout, only to tire as the session wore on. And Carter has resolved his legal charges, will pay a fine and do community service, and has no known criminal culpability for the crash.
But collectively they raise red flags, and that’s why I passed — for now — on slotting Carter to a Lions team that’s very specifically built its roster with football-first personalities.
The same scout who downplayed Carter’s pro day struggles told me Carter was the biggest enigma in the draft. He called Carter unquestionably this year’s most talented prospect, but said teams spend the spring trying to answer questions about players and Carter has done nothing but raise more concerns — both on and off the field.
How well Carter does assuaging those concerns over the next month will determine his draft stock.
He could be the first defensive player drafted, though he’s got a long way to go to pass Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. (a favorite of scouts). He could be a fit at No. 5 for the Seattle Seahawks, who historically have been more willing to roll the dice on character concerns than other teams. He could make sense for the Lions at six. Or he could slide outside the top 10.
Between private workouts and top-30 visits and good old-fashioned legwork, the Lions and other teams must determine the risk-reward with Carter, how likely he is to reach his massive potential and at what point in the draft that risk is worth taking.
Twelve years ago, the Lions thought Fairley was worth the risk at No. 11 and came to regret that choice. At Pick No. 6, the decision has the potential to be even more far-reaching with Carter.
If the Lions decide Carter is not for them, they still should be able to land a cornerstone-type player at six. Anderson almost certainly will be off the board. I don’t see the Lions going quarterback early, though I continue to believe that could be in the best interests of the franchise (depending on who is there). And in my latest mock, I had Texas Tech pass rusher Tyree Wilson gone as well.
Among the non-Carter options, Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski, my pick for the Lions in my latest mock draft, offers the right blend of current and future positional value, high-level tape and team and scheme fit.
Skoronski is the best and most versatile lineman in the draft. The grandson of former Green Bay Packers lineman Bob Skoronski, Peter was a three-year starter at left tackle for the Wildcats, though some NFL evaluators believe he’s best suited to play guard as a pro because of his size (6 feet 4) and arm length (32 ¼ inches).
“With Quenton Nelson and Zack Martin, look at the guards and what they’ve been able to do and how they’ve impacted offensive lines. And I think he can play all five spots. I don’t think there’s any question he can play all five spots,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “So the arm length with the height is a concern. You don’t usually have that in the NFL over the years, so you have to look at history and how that bodes for a player. But Skoronski’s versatility, how he played, which was great. I mean his film evaluation grades were off the charts.”
In Detroit, Skoronski could play right guard as a rookie — though the team signed Graham Glasgow in free agency and is keeping Halapoulivaati Vaitai on a restructured contract — and move to tackle or center down the road.
He fits in the mold of how Holmes and Campbell want to build the Lions, through the trenches and without sacrificing on talent. And if the team can’t get comfortable with Carter, he makes as much sense as anyone at six.
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.