After months of mock drafts, pro days and anonymous sources contradicting each other, we’ve finally reached the week of the NFL Draft.
In the weeks leading up to the event, we’ve seen a pair of trades shake up the top of the first round, while the Detroit Lions have continued to hold tight at No. 7.
What we believe is Jacksonville will make quarterback Trevor Lawrence the first pick, while BYU signal-caller Zach Wilson is almost certainly headed to the New York Jets at No. 2. San Francisco, selecting third, is also expected to take a quarterback, which most observers have pegged to be Alabama’s Mac Jones.
From there, things are more open-ended, with our focus squarely on the Lions. Here are 10 ways the team could go with their first selection:
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
The great quarterback debate will come to a head if Fields is still on the board when the Lions are on the clock. Yes, the team recently acquired Jared Goff, and they’re essentially tied to him for a year, probably two, but there’s no guarantee the franchise will have an opportunity to add a QB as talented as Fields in the next two drafts.
Set aside the history of Ohio State quarterbacks in the NFL. It doesn’t matter. Billy Joe Tolliver was the most successful quarterback out of Texas Tech before Patrick Mahomes. Heath Shuler bombed as the No. 3 pick coming out of Tennessee four years ahead of Peyton Manning going No. 1 overall in 1998. And Kyle Boller was a first-round pick out of Cal, two years before Aaron Rodgers. Evaluate the player, not the jersey.
Fields has been picked apart ahead of this draft, but you’re talking about a guy who completed 68.4% of his passes with 63 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, a guy who put on a show against Clemson in the College Football Playoff, throwing for six touchdowns despite suffering a rib injury early in the game, and a guy who rubber-stamped his dual-threat ability with a 4.46-second, 40-yard dash.
Does he need some development with his blitz recognition and field vision? Sure, but it’s not unusual for top QB prospects to have areas that need refinement. The Lions could let him sit behind Goff for a year and be set at the most important position on the field when the franchise’s rebuild kicks into high gear starting next season.
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Now, if Fields is gone, whether to San Francisco at No. 3, Atlanta at No. 4 or to a team that trades up to snag the Ohio State standout, that leaves Lance as the next-best QB of the future.
If nothing else, the upside is tempting. The numbers Lance posted in his only full season would be difficult to replicate playing a video game. Seriously, who throws 28 touchdowns without an interception AND runs for 1,100 yards and another 14 scores? His 2019 line is nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, the level of competition comes into play. The jump from North Dakota State to the NFL, when it comes to both processing defenses and the overall speed of the game, will be significant. He’s also arguably the least accurate of the five quarterbacks at the top of this class.
Working in Lance’s favor is his age — he’ll be just 20 years old on draft day — his NFL-ready frame, his reputation as a film junkie, and the fact that he played in a pro-style scheme with an emphasis on play-action passes and calling his own protections.
Lance’s ceiling is among the highest in this class, while his floor might not be as low as some of the other QBs at the top of the class given his dual-threat ability.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
In a draft loaded with receiving talent, Chase is the cream of the crop. The Biletnikoff award winner in 2019, the 6-foot, 200-pounder opted out of the 2020 campaign. Not that he had anything left to prove after torching the SEC for 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Chase does damage in a variety of different ways, operating both out wide and from the slot. He can take the top off the defense on a deep route, out-muscle a cornerback for a contested catch, and is arguably at his most dangerous taking a short throw in space. According to data tracked by Pro Football Focus, he forced 22 missed tackles during the 2019 season.
And there are zero concerns about his athleticism. At his pro day, Chase ran a blistering 4.34-second 40. You can pair that with an explosive 41-inch vertical and 3.99-second short shuttle. Each of those marks would have ranked top-3 at his position at last year’s combine.
If Chase makes it to the Lions, and there’s not a compelling offer to trade down, it feels like a no-brainer.
Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Just behind Chase as the best receiver in this class are a pair of undersized options out of Alabama. How they rank is a matter of preference. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Waddle is as explosive as they come. In three seasons with the Crimson Tide, he averaged 18.9 yards per catch, scoring on 17 of his 106 receptions.
While he didn’t test at his pro day after suffering a dislocated ankle that limited him to six games a year ago, the thing that stands out on Waddle’s game film is his rapid acceleration and top speed, which allow him to do serious damage on both crossing patterns and deep routes.
Like Chase, Waddle is comfortable lining up both outside and in the slot, averaging better than 10 yards after the catch. Additionally, that skill set aids him as a return man, where he added another three touchdowns during his college career. He’s particularly lethal handling punts, averaging 19.3 yards on 38 attempts.
While it seems like every year analysts are eager to tab a receiver the next Tyreke Hill, Waddle’s skill set is as close as they come.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
A string bean, at 6-foot, 170-pounds, Smith proved his size wasn’t an issue during his Heisman-winning campaign in 2020.
With Waddle banged up, Smith stepped up in the biggest of ways for the eventual national champions, setting school and conference records for receptions (117) receiving yards (1,856) and receiving touchdowns (23).
An exceptional route runner, Smith is tough to cover for any defensive back unable to get a hand on him at the line of scrimmage. And even when he’s tightly covered, he comes down with the ball more often than not, thanks in part to his fiery competitiveness.
There will be inherent injury concerns due to his frame, but he missed just two games in three seasons, both in 2018 (hamstring). He’s also coming off a finger injury that required surgery following the national championship game.
Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
In the past 15 years, the Lions are the only team to select a tight end inside the top-10, taking Eric Ebron with the No. 10 pick in 2014 and T.J. Hockenson No. 8 overall in 2019. Pitts almost certainly will be the third, and, once again, Detroit is in play.
Why would the Lions consider Pitts when Hockenson has rapidly developed into a Pro Bowl player at the position? Well, that’s a valid question if you’re looking at Pitts through a narrow scope. His production, and how he came by it, suggests he’s so much more than a standard tight end.
At Florida, Pitts frequently lined up both in the slot and out wide, where opponents matched their top cornerbacks against him. That didn’t matter. He proved to be a difficult cover regardless of who was assigned to him, hauling in 43 balls for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games. Oh, and he didn’t drop a single pass.
If you treat Pitts like the hybrid he is at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, with 4.44 speed running the 40, you have the ability to add unprecedented versatility to your offense, providing a steady stream of mismatches in both the run and pass games.
Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon
At this stage of the offseason, it’s safe to call the offensive line the strength of Detroit’s roster. The team is set to return all five of its starters, a group that includes a Pro Bowl center in Frank Ragnow and an above-average left tackle in Taylor Decker.
But there’s room to upgrade the right side of the unit, particularly when looking beyond this season. Projected right tackle Tyrell Crosby is entering the final year of his contract, while Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the guard on that side, is a likely cap casualty if he can’t put his durability issues behind him in 2021.
If Sewell gets past the Bengals, who could opt for a pass-catcher for young quarterback Joe Burrow, you can make a compelling case for the Lions to add the 20-year-old behemoth.
A unanimous All-American in 2019, Sewell opted out of the 2020 season after the Pac-12 initially delayed the campaign until spring before reversing course. In 2019, the 6-foot-5, 331-pounder was dominant, allowing just seven quarterback pressures and zero sacks.
He’s been cross-training to play right tackle this offseason, just in case he’s ask to do it at the next level, which he would be in Detroit. There are some reported concerns about maturity, but here he’d land in a room surrounded by solid veteran leaders and a position coach with 10 years of playing experience capable of maximizing his potential.
Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern
Using the same logic of securing the long-term future of the offensive line, the Lions could grab Slater if Sewell is already off the board.
A three-year starter who began his college career at right tackle, Slater is about 30 pounds lighter than Sewell, but is equally athletic and has more refined fundamentals at this stage in his development.
Because of his shorter-than-average arms for the position, there’s a lot of speculation Slater is destined to play guard. But as Joe Thomas proved for years, athleticism and technique can negate concerns about reach. Slater opted out in 2020, but his impressive outing against Chase Young in 2019 makes the case for sticking at tackle.
Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Lions leadership has made it clear they don’t want to be a team reaching for need in the draft. In many ways, Parsons provides a litmus test for the philosophy. The team has a clear and pressing need for an impact linebacker, but it’s a bit of a reach to suggest he’s the seventh-best player in this draft, even if he’s the best defensive prospect.
Possessing a prototypical build at 6-foot-3, 246 pounds, Parsons showcased elite athleticism at this pro day. Clocking in at 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash will catch anyone’s attention, but his top-end vertical jump and 3-cone time reinforce his explosiveness and ability to quickly change direction, two traits critical to the position.
From a production standpoint, he tallied 109 tackles, including 14 behind the line in 2019, prior to opting out of the 2020 season. He’s still a work in progress in coverage, but Parsons has shown a knack for making a play on the ball with five pass breakups and four forced fumbles.
If the Lions draft him, he’d have to be a three-down linebacker to justify the early selection. One way to ensure that is utilizing him as a pass-rusher, both as an off-ball blitzer or lined up on the edge in clear passing situations.
There are some character concerns, dating to high school and carrying into college that will have been thoroughly vetted by the team ahead of draft day.
Obviously it adds a layer to the speculation, but the Lions are clearly in a position where the more assets they gather for the future, the better. If, for example, the team is truly committed to Goff for the next two seasons, it’s worth seeing what the market will bear to add a quarterback such as Fields or Lance.
But at No. 7, the Lions are also in a spot where it’s not cost-prohibitive for teams to explore moving up for positions other than quarterback. Pitts, Chase, Sewell and Slater are all the type of talent that could generate phone calls from interested teams.
Obviously, there’s a rate of diminishing returns for the Lions. At some point, the caliber of prospects drops off. They must carefully weigh the quality and quantity of draft equity being offered in return. For example, a move back to No. 19 in a trade with Washington might be too much to stomach.
Regardless, the possibilities add additional intrigue to general manager Brad Holmes’ first draft in Detroit.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com