Niyo: Here is what the Lions’ NFL Draft haul could look like

Detroit News

They took their lumps, and now they’re ready to take a leap. But what should give you even more hope if you’re a Lions fan heading into this week’s NFL Draft is just how limber Brad Holmes is feeling as general manager.

In two-plus years on the job in Detroit, Holmes has completely overhauled the Lions’ personnel, turning one of the oldest rosters in the league into one littered with promising young talent. His two top-10 picks (Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson) both have been big hits, while last year’s defense-heavy draft class made an immediate impact on the field. And last month’s moves in free agency — particularly the upgrades in the secondary — have Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell in an enviable position. With the third-most draft capital of any team in this draft — nine picks in all, including two first-rounders and five of the first 81 selections overall — they’ve got few, if any, glaring needs to fill in their lineup.

“I do think that it’s given us flexibility to really go any direction that we want,” Holmes said last month at the NFL owners’ meetings, “and it’s a good spot to be in.”

Everyone’s in the same spot right now, trying to figure out how the top of this draft will play out, with all but the No. 1 pick up in the air. (Alabama quarterback Bryce Young seems like a lock for Carolina.) But here’s our annual guess at what a full Lions draft might look like, using a mock draft simulator (Pro Football Focus), but eliminating the trade options for this exercise:

6. Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois

In this mock, three of the top four quarterbacks went in the top five: Young to Carolina, Stroud to Houston at No. 2, and Will Levis to Indianapolis at No. 4. Arizona picked Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson at No. 3 and Seattle grabbed Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. There’s rampant speculation that the Texans will go defense with their pick, while the Cardinals have been shopping their pick. But there’s a decent chance those would be the five players off the board when the Lions are on the clock Thursday night.

So the debate here was mostly about positional value — I’d throw Texas running back Bijan Robinson into the mix, too — and whether the Lions would opt for another edge rusher in Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, who certainly looks the part with his size, length and agility but carries some medical concerns and questions about his production against weaker competition in the Big 12. If not, and if they’re not ready to rock the boat by taking on a high-profile quarterback project in Florida’s Anthony Richardson, Witherspoon has long felt like a perfect match for Detroit.

Holmes just dumped the cornerback the previous regime drafted in the top 10 (Jeff Okudah), but Witherspoon has a different edge to him and checks all the boxes for the type of player Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn want to add to their defense. It goes beyond his aggressive play style as a press-man corner — he led the nation in pass breakups and didn’t give up a single touchdown — or his punishing tackling as a run defender. It’s also Witherspoon’s fiery competitiveness and alpha-dog mentality that set him apart from the other top cornerback prospect, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez. And considering the Lions’ long-term needs at the position — Cam Sutton’s the only starter signed beyond 2023 — the pick makes more sense than you might think.

18. Lukas Van Ness, edge, Iowa

Again, a caveat: No trades in this mock, but I’d almost expect one here for the Lions. I’m not sure there’s 20 players with first-round grades on Detroit’s draft board, so there’s a chance they’ll either package a Day 2 pick to move up like last year or, more likely, field an offer to move back and add more draft capital this year or next.

That said, there were plenty of intriguing options in this spot for the Lions, including the best of a deep group of tight ends in Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer. Florida guard O’Cyrus Torrence was tempting here, too. Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the only receiver gone, but I’d be surprised if the Lions strongly considered one, even with Jameson Williams’ recent suspension. Meanwhile, with Maryland’s Deonte Banks still on the board it’s a reminder that the Lions could get one here instead of at the top where I took Witherspoon.

Still, I’m comfortable flipping that script here and taking a raw defensive lineman in Van Ness, who never started at Iowa but has all the tools to be difference maker in the NFL. At 6-5 and 275 pounds, he ran a 4.58 40 at the combine, and between his long arms, massive hands and impressive motor, there’s some dynamic potential there to add to a front that Holmes has made a priority the last two years. He won’t be the immediate starter Hutchinson was a year ago, but he’d be a versatile understudy all across the line as a rookie with a very high ceiling.

48. Jonathan Mingo, WR, Mississippi

This is not a strong draft for receivers, particularly when it comes to big-bodied options. But in Mingo, the Lions could land one of the strongest of the bunch and a competitor who’d absolutely fit the Lions’ mold. Mingo’s a 6-1, 220-pound leaper who some have pegged as more of a big slot receiver, but he showed last fall he’s more than capable of playing the “X” role. He has excellent hands, routinely makes contested catches and might be the best blocker of the receivers who’ll go in the first three rounds this year. For a team that’s committed to the run the way the Lions are, that’s a necessity.

55. Tucker Kraft, TE, South Dakota State

Maybe this is a reach, but Kraft’s another prospect whose versatility stands out. And considering this is one of the picks the Lions got from Minnesota in the T.J. Hockenson trade last fall, it seems fitting to use it on another athletic tight end. (Georgia’s Darnell Washington came off the board at 41 in this mock.) I also considered another defensive lineman here in Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton, along with UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet and Syracuse offensive lineman Matthew Bergeron.

Kraft didn’t play the same high-level competition that other players in this class did, but the same was true of Dallas Goedert, who went 49th overall out of the same school in 2018 and has developed into one of the NFL’s best at the position. Kraft isn’t the same player, and he’s nowhere near a finished product, but he’s got the traits the Lions should be looking for to upgrade their tight end room.

81. Zacch Pickens, DT, South Carolina

Waiting this long to address one of the Lions’ bigger needs felt wrong, but this is about where Holmes found Alim McNeill in his first draft as GM. And this is about where I’d expect Pickens to land. He’s a former five-star recruit who was a three-year starter at South Carolina, where he was voted team MVP and a captain as a senior. He’s big, athletic and durable, with quick feet and hands, and he helped himself at the Senior Bowl, looking like a player who could fill multiple roles on the defensive interior.

152. Eric Gray, RB, Oklahoma

Another player who turned heads with his work in Mobile, Gray’s the sort of change-of-pace back that could push for a roster spot in Detroit. The one-time Michigan recruit didn’t run a fast 40 at the combine (4.62) but he runs hard, he’s elusive on the field and is one of the better pass-catchers in this running back class.

159. Asim Richards, OL, North Carolina

Richards was a three-year starter at left tackle for Mack Brown and the Tar Heels. But his future may lie as a guard in the NFL, and the 6-4, 310-pounder even took some center snaps at the Senior Bowl. He’ll need to get stronger if he’s moving inside, and he’ll be a developmental player wherever he lands, but there’s some upside here. There’s also some uncertainty at that position for the Lions beyond 2023.

183. Cam Jones, LB, Indiana

This Lions draft class is tilting a bit too heavily toward Big Ten talent with a third selection here. But Jones’ hard-hitting approach certainly fits Detroit’s defense, and with his intangibles (three-year captain) he’d be the type of player who just might force his way onto a 53-man roster like Malcolm Rodriguez did a year ago. He has been a special-teams standout going back to his high-school days.

194. Daniel Scott, S, California

Scott spent an eternity in college as a six-year player at Cal, so he’ll actually turn 25 this fall as an NFL rookie. But he has good size (6-2, 205), tested exceptionally well at the combine and showed he has some potential as a versatile safety who can be a core special-teams guy. The tape isn’t always kind, but there’s some ball production (six INTs in two seasons as a starter) and zero questions about him as a high-character leader and team captain.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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