Detroit Lions 50 Most Impactful Draft Prospects: Pre-Combine

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Every year there are a thousand lists of players from one to 300 in some sort of random “goodness” scale. I believe that such a list is worthless. What would be the best player in the draft for a team running a west coast/zone blocking offense and 3-4 zone blitz defense, could be a third-round pick for a team running an Air Coryell/power blocking offense and a wide nine 4-3 man coverage defense. Robbed of context these lists cause nothing but confusion. Maurice Hurst, for example, is a very good player. In the defense that Matt Patricia was running in New England, however, he wouldn’t fit at all.

Of course, the staff have said that the schemes will be tailored to the players but prior to any free agent signings or draft picks, all we have to base speculation on is Patricia’s past. The Lions certainly don’t have any three-technique defensive tackles on the team but it’s questionable whether they want one. The Patriots certainly never did under Patricia. The people giving the Lions a player like that in the first round are looking at last year’s team and seeing an obvious hole in that defense.

I can not say exactly what the Lions defense will look like in 2018 but I can guarantee it will not look anything like the 2017 defense. The Lions are far more likely in my opinion to gather big strong bodies to clog up the middle than to go after the dancing bear three-technique types. They’re cheaper. They’re easier to find. There are numerous available targets in the draft and free agency.

Unless Patricia wants to completely alter the style of defense he spent 14 years coaching to get him here, however, a gap shooting three-technique wouldn’t even see the field in Detroit except in obvious passing situations. This is a list of the top 50 draft prospects in terms of how they would impact the Lions roster in 2018. There are no offensive tackles on this list. There is only one wide receiver on this list. A lot of guards, centers, defensive backs, defensive linemen, running backs and linebackers are on this list. Those are the holes in the roster as it exists right now, therefore those are the spots where a rookie can make his mark as of today.

Bob Quinn doesn’t draft the best player available in the draft. He drafts the best player available at a hole in the Lions roster. At least that is what he has done twice out of two cracks at the draft. Like I said about Patricia, all I can do is base speculation about the future on Quinn’s past. So here are the top 50 most impactful draft prospects for the Detroit Lions in 2018. For each player, I have included a three-sentence description of the player’s game. I just want to give you a one-stop spot for getting a feel for a player’s game.

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The Top 5 Most Impactful Draft Prospects

      1. Bradley Chubb, NC State edge rusher. He is the best three-down defensive end in the draft. Chubb typically uses his athleticism to win but his second effort power is very good. He has difficulty when a blocker can match his athleticism but that is very rare.
      2. Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame guard. Nelson is a day one pro bowl caliber interior offensive lineman. His power, technique, and field awareness are elite from day one. He has had issues with extremely bursty three techniques when they sell out 100% to shoot a gap.
      3. Saquon Barkley, Penn State running back. The most spectacular running back of the 2018 class. Barkley wins with his combination of elite vision, burst, size, speed, and feet that churn constantly. He loses when he can’t utilize any of that and just has to drop his shoulder and move the pile.
      4. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama safety. Fitzpatrick is the best day one safety in the draft or an immediate nickel corner. He can make an immediate impact at multiple defensive positions and combines his elite athleticism with top-tier field awareness. He does have an impatient streak however, and can over-commit in man coverage which leaves him open to double moves by great route runners.
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        Roquan Smith, Georgia linebacker. Immediate impact starter at linebacker. He relies on his athleticism and rapid play diagnosis to avoid traffic and get to the ball carrier or receiver. When he is forced to engage blockers he works around them rather than through them, so he is not great at holding a spot on the field.

      6. Vita Vea, Washington defensive tackle. Vea is this drafts most freakish athlete for his size. He has a generational mix of power and athleticism that is simply overwhelming for most interior linemen. His downfall is the occasional lapse in technique, particularly in his footwork against double teams where he tends to deal with one blocker at a time.
      7. Derwin James, Florida State safety. Long-term he may be the best safety prospect in the draft but lacks experience. He attacks the ball to create turnovers in the air, in the receiver’s catch radius, and as the second man in on a tackle. He does tend to get tunnel vision on his immediate responsibility and lose track of the rest of the play.
      8. Derrius Guice, LSU running back. He is a violent between the tackles runner with speed. When he gets up a head of steam and can use his lateral movement to react to defenders at speed he is great. When he has to slow down he takes time to get rolling again he is best when hitting a specific hole.
      9. Josh Jackson, Iowa cornerback. This is a big ball-hawking defender. He is always the best athlete on the field, and contests even good throws because of it. His desire to play the ball leaves him susceptible to double moves, however.
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        Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech linebacker. He is this year’s combine superstar but he can actually play. In any situation where being a generational athlete with the ability to play the game wins, he does. Where he runs into trouble is when his belief that he can do anything puts him in a bad position to make a play.

      11. Isaiah Oliver, Colorado cornerback. He is the best press corner in the draft. His length, strength at the line, make up speed, and ability to contest catches are pro ready immediately. He is not a great tackler and in off-man coverage he is a little slower to react on slants or comebacks.
      12. Ronald Jones Jr. USC running back. Jones is a three-down stud running back in the NFL. He has a prototypical combination of speed, first step acceleration and a knack for slipping around traffic in the backfield for positive yards. His hyper-aggressive running style occasionally leaves yardage on the table as he runs away from daylight.
      13. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama defensive lineman. This is the draft’s best two-gap defensive lineman. He will be successful in any situation where a combination of power and almost supernatural field awareness can get the job done. He will only be able to push the pocket toward a quarterback, as he lacks the burst off the ball to be a significant pass rusher.
      14. Isaiah Wynn, Georgia offensive lineman. If he were 6’5″ he would be the best left tackle in this draft but he’s 6’2.” He is a technician with the athleticism to greatly affect the second level of the defense. He is occasionally over-aggressive and steps out of his responsibilities within a blocking concept.
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        Denzel Ward, Ohio State cornerback. This is the draft’s best slot corner. He is an uncommonly gifted athlete even for top-tier NFL corners and buzzes around his receiver like a gnat. More physical receivers are able to overpower him off the line and he struggles to tackle bigger running backs.

      16. Harrison Phillips, Stanford defensive tackle. This is a player who is likely to go too low because he lacks “traits.” He is a football player that defeats his man with second effort and cleans up slower developing runs or pass plays. When he has to cover ground, such as outside zone stretch plays, he has some difficulty.
      17. Rashaan Evans, Alabama linebacker. The least tapped out ‘Bama linebacker I have ever seen, Evans lacks experience as a starter. He wins when he is kept free of traffic and can match running backs feints before committing to a hole. He does get eaten up by athletic linemen and needs to work on not getting caught in traffic.
      18. Jaire Alexander, Louisville cornerback. He is tough as nails. He has elite field awareness that allows him to simultaneously match his receiver and keep an eye on the quarterback. Alexander can be beaten in the red zone because his instinct is to play it safe rather than contesting the ball.
      19. Maurice Hurst, Michigan defensive tackle. He is a one trick gap shooting three-technique. Hurst uses his athleticism to go around defenders and would be a factor in obvious passing situations. He does not excel in holding a spot on the field against the run but would still likely start at closed end in Patricia’s scheme.
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        Tim Settle NC State defensive tackle. This is the draft’s low key Vita Vea and he has the highest upside of any likely round two pick. There will be incredible buzz on this player after the combine because of his freakish combination of size, speed, and strength. He has a lot of technique work to do, however, athletic offensive linemen with technique can bottle him up.

      21. Calvin Ridley, Alabama wide receiver. This is the only wide receiver in the draft that would steal significant snaps from the Lions receiver corp as a rookie. He already has NFL caliber route running, speed, acceleration, and hands. His Achilles heel is heavy-handed press coverage; he would save the Lions money compared to re-signing Golden Tate next season.
      22. James Daniels, Iowa center. Elite athlete on the interior offensive line. Athletically and mentally he is an elite prospect who does everything right. He needs to add muscle to deal with bigger NFL defensive tackles.
      23. Malik Jefferson, Texas linebacker. This is another raw but impressive talent. When he is allowed to flow to the ball without thinking it is a thing of beauty. He is occasionally caught guessing rather than reacting though and gets caught in the wrong hole surrounded by traffic as a result.
      24. Marcus Davenport, UTSA edge rusher. He will blow up the combine and may be gone before the Lions first pick, but Davenport will be a third-down specialist as a pro. When he can run around traffic he is a force. When he cannot he is a victim.
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        Billy Price, Ohio State center. He is a powerful and intelligent lineman. He is most effective when operating in tight quarters without allowing his man to move laterally. His technique often disappears when in open space hunting for defenders to block.

      26. Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson linebacker. This is a player that can do anything at the college level but lacks refinement at anything. When kept clean he is a tackling machine and he excels in pass coverage when measured on a linebacker scale. He lacks the size to deal with blockers that can get him squared up and may never be able to play in short yardage.
      27. DeShon Elliot, Texas safety. This is a versatile and physical defender that chews up open space. When he has time to see the entire field from the back end he is excellent. On quick screens and slants, he is a step slower to react than ideal.
      28. Arden Key, LSU edge rusher. Key is a raw but gifted edge rusher with some questionable of the field behavior. He has an odd movement pattern due to his shorter than expected steps off the line and it confuses blockers. When bigger tackles don’t fall for that but just punch him and latch on he is in trouble.
      29. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma edge rusher. He is an undersized but talented pass rusher. His technique is impeccable, which led to a productive college career. When his athleticism is matched by a powerful lineman he gets enveloped.
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        Taven Bryan, Florida defensive tackle. Incredibly disruptive, but also unproductive. When the play comes right at him he is a very dangerous player. When the play goes away from him he tends to take himself completely out of the play because he doesn’t look past the man in front of him off the ball.

      31. Will Hernandez, Texas-El Paso guard. He is a massive but surprisingly athletic offensive lineman. Against powerful defensive linemen, Hernandez goes shot for shot and wins. When he gets to the second level linebackers are able to get around him.
      32. Rashard Penny San Diego State running back. Penny is a three-down toolbox running back. When he can use his burst and athleticism to operate at high speed and avoid direct contact Penny is among the best you’ll find. He uses his size/athleticism mix to break tackles rather than legitimate power so he is not a pile pusher.
      33. Ronnie Harrison, Alabama safety. He is a size/speed combo freak that has insane range on the back end of the defense. Harrison’s anticipation and length get him to the ball at times where it seems impossible. He can be baited out of position by good double moves and play-action, however.
      34. Nick Chubb, Georgia running back. Chubb is the stereotype one-cut downhill runner. When he has the luxury of letting blocks develop in front of him before hitting a crease, his first step burst is elite. When he is disrupted in the backfield and forced to take a less than ideal path he gets back to the line.
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        Frank Ragnow, Arkansas center. Ragnow is a powerful interior lineman that moves other players. He does not waste movement, take extra steps, or get distracted on the way to his assignments. His feet can go dead at impact or while he waits for stunts and blitzes to develop though, he is at a disadvantage when the play comes back to him.

      36. Sony Michel, Georgia running back. He brings more of what the Lions already have at running back but with more size. Michel is great in space where he can utilize his speed agility and ability to avoid solid contact. If asked to get small in traffic he typically has problems, though there are examples on tape of success.
      37. Chad Thomas, Miami defensive lineman. He is an ideally sized and versatile player for his position. He wins with spectacular burst to running backs and quarterbacks mid-play. When he plays inside and doesn’t avoid squared up blocks he is in trouble.
      38. Justin Lawler, Southern Methodist edge defender. He is the stereotype “flamethrower off the edge” that the Lions have lacked while Ziggy Ansah has been nursing injuries. He has a very quick first step and closes the distance to ball carriers rapidly. When he is asked to operate in space he fails and athletic tackles can handle him effectively at times.
      39. Braden Smith, Auburn guard. Another powerful interior lineman. He is at his best when there is someone right in front of him to push or hit. He is not spectacular moving laterally, particularly if he has to get around a defender to achieve his goal.
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        Holton Hill, Texas cornerback. Hill is an ultra-athletic corner. When he can use his incredible agility to mirror receivers in off-man coverage he is incredible. He isn’t the fastest man on the field and has issues keeping up with true burners from press coverage.

      41. Royce Freeman, Oregon running back. A bigger running back who is quicker than fast. He has excellent vision and uses that to set up second level blocks while avoiding direct hits from tacklers. He is at his best with a head of steam and doesn’t get to speed as quickly as you’d prefer.
      42. Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State linebacker. He is an effective three-down linebacker. Vander Esch has a natural affinity for pass coverage and he hugs the line of scrimmage as closely as he can without getting caught up in traffic. He thinks he is a better athlete than he is and it occasionally gets him into trouble.
      43. Justin Reid, Stanford S. He is a big, physical safety with man coverage ability. His specialty is physical play in the run game and in pass coverage. He struggles when asked to flip his hips and run with a man coverage assignment.
      44. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State running back. This is a solid between the tackles runner. He is a power back that has enough athleticism to make front seven players miss and enough power to truck the secondary. He gets upright when he hesitates and he needs to have an assigned hole to hit with few options to improvise.
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        Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma fullback. The best fullback in the draft. He can contribute offensively beyond blocking, he is one of the best pass blocking backs in the draft, and he is smooth running routes and catching the ball. He is not a premier athlete but works well within his limitations.

      46. Nick Bawden, San Diego State fullback. He is a versatile athlete that can play the role without wasting a roster spot. Bawden is an effective runner, pass catcher, and blocker who can play a role beyond a thunderous short-yardage blocker. He is a converted quarterback that understands his role within the running and passing game better than most players.
      47. B. J. Hill, N.C. State defensive tackle. Smooth athletic defensive tackle. He anticipates blocking as the play develops and disrupts the offense. He does not anchor a spot on the field extremely well and is dead in the water if he can’t push through a double team.
      48. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama running back. Scarborough is a powerful interior runner. He delivers a blow more forcefully than any other back in the draft. Because of his physical running style, he has sustained some injuries and will likely continue to have some issues in that regard long term.
      49. Sam Hubbard, Ohio State defensive end. He is a high effort technician, not a twitchy athlete. Hubbard is a player that already has pro level field awareness which will maximize his initial impact. He is an average athlete and is also not incredibly powerful, his ceiling may be the same as his basement as a good but not great player.
      50. Harold Landry, Boston College edge rusher. Elite athlete on the edge. His first step is among the best in the draft and that will be the source of any rookie production that comes. He is a technical mess though and will likely take some time to develop into a three-down player if he ever does.
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I will be doing three of these. There will be one after the NFL Scouting Combine and another right before the draft.  Every season there are some players that disappoint at the combine. There are also always a few that show out when they have not merited consideration as draftable to this point. For me, the combine is more about hitting certain minimums than being impressed by flashy numbers. It can be revealing but high end combine performers that were not already well regarded rarely work out well and never provide an immediate impact. The team will also re-sign some of their free agents. If Nevin Lawson or Tahir Whitehead signs this week, their position almost entirely drops off this list and those players need to be replaced.

I truly believe that only about 20 players in this draft can make an impact as a rookie on any given team and this list goes well beyond that. By the time we get to number 50, we are looking at a 5 sack situational pass rusher. The Lions have a lot of work to do before the draft in 2018.

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Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He is also known as /u/a5hcrack on reddit, and can be found on twitter @a5hcrack