Detroit Lions targets in Round 1 of NFL draft 2023: 6 names to watch at No. 6 pick

Detroit Free Press

By this time last year, the Detroit Lions had a pretty good handle on who they would take with the No. 2 pick in the draft. If Aidan Hutchinson went first overall, the Lions were eyeballing Travon Walker. If Walker was gone, the Lions would run to the podium with a card bearing Hutchinson’s name.

Just days before this year’s draft, Lions general manager Brad Holmes said he still is trying to figure out the group of players that will be available at No. 6.

“We’re still allowing that to crystalize a little bit,” Holmes said at his annual pre-draft news conference Thursday. “I will say we’re closer now than we were (earlier this spring), but there’s still work to be done. Every draft is different.”

The uncertainty of the quarterback market is a contributing factor to the mystery surrounding the Lions’ pick, but here are six players the team could consider with its first of two first-round picks. It’s possible a quarterback like C.J. Stroud slides to six, or maybe the Lions have an offensive lineman as their backup plan. But this list heavily skews to the defensive side of the ball.

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Tyree Wilson

Position: Edge

College: Texas Tech

Vitals: 6 feet 6, 271 pounds

Scouting report: Wilson looked like a small jet plane when he stretched his arms wide at the NFL combine, and his measurables almost surely will make him a top-10 pick. He played sparingly his first two college seasons at Texas A&M before emerging as a part-time starter after transferring to Texas Tech in 2020. Wilson missed the end of last season with a foot injury that kept him out of the combine, but he had 61 tackles and seven sacks in the Red Raiders’ first 10 games. He projects as a plus run defender because of his size and length, is gifted enough to be an impact pass rusher once he polishes his game and would give the Lions another big bookend to pair with Hutchinson.

He said it: “The dude looks like he has a costume on when you see him in person. He’s every bit of 6 foot 6, 275 pounds, but the thing about him is that he’s just a big guy on the playground right now that’s bigger than everybody. He doesn’t have a lot of counter moves, wins a lot off of his natural ability, but you’re banking on his upside with him. So if you have proper coaching and you have some patience with him, I think you’re getting a big-time player. But he’s not one that’s going to come in and maybe make an instant type of impact off of polish, he’s more so winning off his natural ability.” — ESPN analyst Jordan Reid

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Will Anderson Jr.

Position: Edge

College: Alabama

Vitals: 6-4, 253 pounds

Scouting report: Anderson has been considered the top edge rusher in college football for two years running, and the Lions might need some luck to land him Thursday. If four quarterbacks go in the top five, it could happen. Or if Wilson is the first edge rusher off the board, Anderson could fall out of the top five. Anderson is quick off the line and plays with surprising power at 253 pounds. He had 17.5 sacks and a nation’s best 34.5 tackles for loss in 2021, followed that up with 10 sacks last season and earns high marks from scouts for his character, leadership and work ethic. Pairing him with Hutchinson and James Houston would give the Lions a deadly young pass rush.

He said it: “In terms of character, you love the kid. I mean, he’s all business. He wants to be great. He’s a team guy. He’s humble. You love him. You want him on your team. Is he — it’s not a knock, saying he’s not Myles Garrett or Von Miller is not a knock. There’s very few that are Myles Garrett or Von Miller that have that incredible bend off the edge, that incredible first-step quickness and incredible explosiveness out of the blocks. That’s not a knock. That’s just the reality is there’s only very few that are Myles Garrett and Von Miller. So for me he’s a shade below that. That’s why I get into the, is he an eight- to 12-sack-a-year guy, is he an 18- to 20-sack-a year guy? If you want the 18 to 20, probably not. If you want the eight to 10 to 12, I think that’s what he will be.” — ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

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Jalen Carter

Position: DT

College: Georgia

Vitals: 6-3, 314 pounds

Scouting report: Carter is borderline unblockable when he wants to be. The question NFL teams have been trying to answer this spring is why he doesn’t want to be more. At Georgia, Carter was the most disruptive defensive player two years running for a team that won back-to-back national championships. He finished his three-year college career with 83 tackles, though his six sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss were underwhelming for his talent. Still, Carter has rare quickness and athleticism for a big man. He has the potential to be a dominant interior pass rusher and menacing run defender in the NFL, and he would fill the Lions’ biggest defensive need at tackle. Carter was arrested in March on charges of reckless driving and racing in conjunction with a crash that killed one of his Georgia teammates and a football staff. He appears to have resolved all legal issues stemming from that incident, but NFL teams still spent time this spring vetting his role in the crash.

He said it: “The football character stuff is concerning cause the practice habits aren’t there and there’s stories after stories and all sorts of things that have come out with the background checks. But his game tape is exceptional. He’s the best pure football player, the most dominant defensive player in this draft. And so from a scheme perspective, I don’t care what you play, you figure out how to utilize him. I mean, he has a unique combination of strength and athleticism. He dominates every one-on-one that he’s in.” — ESPN analyst Todd McShay

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Devon Witherspoon

Position: CB

College: Illinois

Vitals: 5-11 ½, 181 pounds

Scouting report: Witherspoon quit football as a youth to focus on basketball but gave the sport another go as a junior in high school and emerged as a star. He finished 2022 as the top-graded cover cornerback in college football, according to Pro Football Focus, and had 14 pass breakups and three interceptions for Illinois’ nation’s best defense. Witherspoon isn’t as toolsy as Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, the other player in contention to be the first cornerback drafted. But he ran sub-4.5-second times in the 40-yard dash at his personal pro day and stands out as the best run-defending cornerback in this year’s class. All in all, he seems like a Dan Campbell type player.

He said it: “Sometimes you can see guys that have the athletic ability, and sometimes you see guys that really have studied film and they know how to play, and it’s not common when you see guys that have all that wrapped up together. He does. He is a complete package that way. I mean, I wish he was 200 pounds. He’s not going to be. He is going to be a little bit lighter, but he just pulls the trigger. He does not play with any hesitation. He plays with ultimate aggressiveness and confidence and urgency. And then you see that and say, ‘OK, well, let’s see what happens when they hit him with double moves,’ because sometimes you can take advantage of guys that are making plays on the ball. He doesn’t fall for it. He’s really, really instinctive that way.” — NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah

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Christian Gonzalez

Position: CB

College: Oregon

Vitals: 6-1, 197 pounds

Scouting report: Witherspoon and Gonzalez have set themselves apart as the top two cornerbacks in this year’s draft, and evaluators are split on who will be first off the board. Gonzalez, the younger brother of Olympic hurdler Melissa Gonzalez (the wife of ex-Lions quarterback David Blough), is an athletic marvel with long arms, lower-body explosion and elite movement skills. He was a two-year starter at Colorado who followed his cornerbacks coach to Oregon last season and blossomed as a playmaker with the first four interceptions of his career. Gonzalez offers less as a run defender than Witherspoon, but has more upside because of his traits.

He said it: “He is not a great tackler, he’s not great in run support, he’s got to get better in those areas. But he’s 6-1, almost 200 pounds and he is a physical freak. He ran a 4.38, one of the best 40-yard dashes, had a 41.5-inch vertical jump, 11-1 broad jump. When you just watch in terms of the blend of athletic traits that you’re looking for in terms of quick feet, fluid hips, blazing top-end speed and the ability to close on receivers, and when he gets out of phase he’s just so fast that he’s able to get quickly back into phase and recover. So I just think he’s got the best pure cover corner skill set in this year’s class.” — McShay

Bijan Robinson

Position: RB

College: Texas

Vitals: 5-11, 215 pounds

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Scouting report: A running back at six? It would be unconventional, but Holmes was college scouting director of the St. Louis Rams when they took Todd Gurley with the 10th pick of the first round in 2015 and he left the door open for a running back at six in his pre-draft news conference Thursday. Robinson is universally regarded as one of the top prospects in this year’s draft, and one of the safest bets despite his position. He has elite vision, he led the NCAA with 91 broken tackles last season, according to ESPN, and he’s a three-down weapon who has drawn comparisons to Christian McCaffrey as a receiver. Robinson could tumble into the teens because of positional value. But if the top pass rushers go early, the Lions are out on Carter and the quarterbacks, and intend to simply take the best player on their board, Robinson could be the surprise choice.

He said it: “This kid, he’s like an alien, man. He doesn’t say anything. He’ll run you over and won’t say nothing. He’s a freak, man. He’s unhuman like. He’s my size at running back, maybe a little shorter. He’s fast, he’s strong. He’s nice. … He’s going to do some crazy things in the NFL.” — Kansas linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill Jr.

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

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