On the first day of draftmas, Ash Thompson gives to thee,
One breakdown of the Lions draft needs.
Well, it’s that time of year again, where I take seven days and blast all the draft content I have been meaning to publish onto the internet in a semi-organized manner around the theme of a Christmas Carol. Day one is going to be a fairly simple one. Today I am going position by position to discuss what the Detroit Lions need in the draft. The team was awful last year, but this is not the same team. Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell have started a complete revamping of the roster. They have not really kept any of the elements that were particularly problematic last season.
There is roster turnover every year, but the Lions have gone the route of completely fundamentally changing the roster in an incredibly quick period. Gone are the contested catch specialist receiver group and the linebackers who couldn’t run with some offensive linemen. The defensive backfield looks completely different, returning only two starters from week one last year for five spots. The defensive line, probably the most negatively viewed group under Patricia, will be asked to perform completely different tasks than they were previously. It is hoped that easier simpler duties will result in better performance from some of the Lions’ less beloved contracts. But if you’ve dug deeply enough into Lions twitter to find me, you very likely already know that. And I’m sorry about the picture below, but I am using the Lions best player at each position for the photo.
The Lions’ quarterback room is actually pretty full. I will just get out of the way that it would shock me if the Lions went quarterback at pick seven. I would be floored. Time and time again the Holmes regime Lions have said things and then done exactly what they said. Jared Goff has said that the Lions immediately made him feel wanted, and I do not think that’s a smokescreen. Whether they’re right or not, Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell see Goff as a viable starting quarterback in the NFL. I actually agree with them on this point, so there may be some confirmation bias on my end, I will admit that upfront. When I watch the 2018 Rams offense, I see an aggressive downfield attack supplemented with a barrage of short throws and a devastating running attack. When I look at the 2020 Rams offense all I see is the barrage of short throws.
Somehow Rams head coach and offensive play-caller Sean McVay was convinced by a single Superbowl loss against Bill Belichick that his entire offense needed to change. Those changes have increasingly asked Jared Goff to do less and less of what made him the first overall pick in the draft. College Goff was all about quick throws out of the shotgun. Rams Goff has been asked to run slow-developing play-action rollouts where he doesn’t get a look at the defense until a full second after the snap. Perhaps that is what Sean McVay needs to do to be successful, but it is certainly not what Jared Goff needs to do to be successful. When you add in the fact that the Rams offensive line did a terrible job of blocking on those slow-developing plays, you get a recipe for failure.
I believe that the Lions are dedicated to giving Jared Goff two years to show them whether or not he is their guy. In a year where the Lions only have six draft picks total, they signed a pre-season superstar backup in Tim Boyle, and their third-string QB has starting experience, I would be surprised if the Lions took a quarterback at all. If they trade back at some point and get some extra picks, perhaps this becomes a more realistic move. Someone like Jimmy Cunningham on day three who has a lot of the tools you want, but is as likely to need to make a Logan Thomas type transition to another position could make sense. The Lions went to every pro day for every top-tier quarterback, but with no combine where else would you expect them to be discussing trade opportunities? If the Jared Goff Experiment fails the Lions have the ammo to target any pick in the draft to move up in either of the next two seasons. I would draft Fields if he was there. I don’t think the Lions will.
Running Backs: Day Three or even UDFA
There is no reason for the Lions to even look at a running back before day three. Their top three backs have all had some level of success in the league. Jamal Williams is the Lions’ only long-term free agent signing, and he has a very complementary skill set with the top back in the room, 2020 second-round pick DeAndre Swift. Third back Kerryon Johnson may lack the burst he had just a couple of short years ago after multiple knee injuries, but he pancakes other players in pass protection, and that’s going to be important with Goff at the helm of the offense. On day three the Lions could go this route, because frankly if Johnson does not rebound after a season of light usage and a full offseason to heal up without surgery, he’s probably not a part of the team’s long-term future. What the Lions choose to do on day three will tell us whether they’re looking for a running back room full of specialists, or a room full of generalists who can each perform all of the required duties. They don’t have a speed freak on the team right now or a true short-yardage back. Lions fans will find out if Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn actually wants either of those elements on the roster.
Tight End: Not Really a Need
I get that Kyle Pitts is the best tight-end prospect that any of us have ever seen. What I don’t get is why anyone would want to take that all-universe tight end prospect and make him play a different position that does not give him nearly the opportunity to succeed. Pitts is a beast athletically, but he is not Calvin Johnson. He is fast… for his size. Not legitimately fast like D.K. Metcalf or Johnson were at their workouts. Those guys had the kind of speed you expect from players 60lbs lighter. History has also shown that being 245 lbs is not a good thing for a wide receiver. The law of diminishing returns definitely applies here. David Boston, Kelvin Benjamin, and Devin Funchess have taught us this. If that level of physicality was useful on the outside Laquon Treadwell would have a better career and the Patriots wouldn’t be trying to trade K’Neal Harry. The NFL does not allow players to be as physical at the top of their routes as the NCAA does, that extra weight is irrelevant outside the red zone for the most part.
Pitts playing tight end lets bad ideology-driven defensive coordinators do stupid things. It lets them put their coverage linebacker on Pitts because that’s what their scheme says to do. It lets them put their little nickel corner on Pitts because that’s what their scheme says to do. Lining Pitts up outside the hash marks puts him up against a team’s biggest and most athletic defensive backs, in an area where he’s just a good jumper and box-out guy with similar speed and agility as the player he’s up against. The Lions have a pretty good player who doesn’t have the same athletic profile as Pitts but made the pro bowl despite playing on a five-win team doing that job. TJ Hockenson spent less than half of his snaps as an inline tight end, and he nailed the opportunity to be the move tight end. The Lions already have a pro bowl big skill guy. Yes, the Patriots with Tom Brady at the helm made 12 personnel work exceptionally well, but trying to emulate what the Patriots did with Tom Brady, without Tom Brady, has a zero percent success rate in the NFL, and Goff certainly is not Tom Brady.
The Lions do need a TE2 long-term, but in the short term, they have Josh Hill. He’s the in-line tight end for the Lions in 2021, Hockenson will continue to be a great move tight end, and it would be a surprise to me if the Lions went to the well at that position at all in this draft. This is not a great crop of tight ends. This is a day three need if it is even that.
Wide Receiver: All Day Every Day
The Lions need three starting receivers for the 2022 season. They have signed two big speed freaks on the outside, and this year’s slot receiver class is stacked. The Lions could address the slot as early as round one. Either of the Alabama receivers fit that mold in the NFL. Jamar Chase could ease his way into the league with easier assignments on the inside, he was able to work effectively from the slot at LSU. In rounds 3-5, the Lions are quite likely going to be able to find a player in each round that can take the slot receiver role over by the end of the season.
But outside receivers are a need too. Neither of the Lions’ signings on the outside, Tyrell Williams and Breshaud Perriman, are signed beyond 2021. The outside is less of an immediate need, but it is definitely still a need. The Lions could justify spending multiple picks in this draft on wide receivers if no other factors were in place, like the horrifying lack of skill or depth on the defense at multiple positions, but unfortunately, there are plenty of other needs that will likely prevent the team from addressing all of their wide receiver needs this year. I’ll be covering a lot of wide receivers tomorrow on day two of draftmas 2021.
The Offensive Line: 2022 Starters Needed on Day Two or Later
The O-line needs a long-term right tackle in all likelihood. If I were Terrell Crosby it would take a pretty big payday to get me to stay in Detroit. Despite the regime change, this is still the organization that signed a lesser player than Crosby to a huge contract in order to keep Crosby off the field. They likely would not have done that if the offensive line coach thought Crosby was a long-term solution. That offensive line coach, Hank Fraley, is still with the team, and this regime is obsessed with getting their coaches the guys they want. Halapoulivaati Vaitai looks like he was a mistake. He has trouble anchoring against power rushers and doesn’t have the agility to match speed rushers. It’s hard to find a spot for a lineman who doesn’t match up well against speed or power. Dan Campbell has said he’s excited about Big V at guard but I don’t see that working at all. The Lions need a right tackle for the future. If the other top-tier players are all taken and the Lions can’t trade back, it’s possible that they take Penei Sewell as early as pick seven. He is a prospect worthy of that pick.
That’s a move that makes more sense for 2022 than 2021, but teams that draft based on the current year’s problems never move beyond needing to do that. Filling next year’s holes with experienced pegs is always a better methodology than starting rookies from day one. It is certainly not a move they have to make, but it is a move that has enough logic behind it that nobody should be angry if it happens. there are round-two options to fill a 2022 role at RT though, Sewell is far from the ideal outcome for the Lions with pick seven. Ideally, the Lions scoop up a 2022 starter at right tackle in round two or later.
Guard, on the other hand, could use some immediate help. The Lions have one starting guard, and they’ll be able to pick up someone “good enough” to get through 2021 after the draft if they need it. What Lions fans should want to see is a round 3-4 guy who can move into the role by the end of the year. We shouldn’t be going into the draft in 2022 with a desperate need at guard.
The Defensive Line: Any Round with Value
The Lions have bolstered their line over the last two off-seasons, and they are likely going to spend 2021 sticking with what they have. Romeo Okwara signed a good three-year deal and the Lions still have Trey Flowers on the roster for at least 2021. That is likely to be their two highest snap edge players in 2021. Julian Okwara is a smaller player likely to be the team’s first option off the bench for obvious passing situations. Austin Bryant will compete for that role, but he’s as likely to start the year on IR as he is to play a snap in the first half of the year. The Lions definitely need to add pass rushers, but it is difficult to see a path to the field for a rookie from this season’s class. There are zero day-one starters in this draft class on the edge. The Lions could go after a player they like in the second, or even if they do manage to trade back in the first, but there just is not a player at the position worthy of a top ten pick.
This is also the worst interior defensive line class I have ever seen. There is not a single first-round talent in the group. If nobody jumps the gun and reaches for a need in the first, the Lions could justify going after several different players in round two. This is one of the biggest needs the Lions have despite the trade for Michael Brockers. That’s one starter in a spot that needs 2-3 more players. John Penisini was good as a rookie, but not the kind of good that affects a team’s draft strategy. Nick Williams will be better in his role this year than he was in his role last year, but how much better is a matter of debate. The rest of this group is straight trash. They’re going to be asking him to play some of the Aaron Donald role in their front, and he’s certainly not that. What they’re not likely to be taking at any point is a 360lb two-gap only defensive lineman. The Lions defense will now actually be trying to get upfield to disrupt the offense’s plan, and it makes sense in any round for them to grab a player at any position across their front if that player is worth the pick. There is nobody worth pick seven, I don’t really think there’s anyone worth any first-round pick at any DL spot this year. But after that, there are specialists across the line, and the Lions need depth.
Linebackers: All Rounds but One
I will be specifically referring to the Lions’ off-ball linebackers here. The team restructured Jamie Collins’ deal, which likely means he’s on the team for 2021 and 2022. Alex Anzalone is their other starter and he is only under contract for 2021. Jalen Reeves-Maybin may recover his career with a less ridiculous defense in place, but the team would be foolish to rely on it. Linebacker is a huge need, but what the Lions need is a true MLB who can cover. This draft class is loaded with weakside options, or overhang linebackers, but a plug-and-play MLB is harder to come by. None of the first-round players is that guy. Micah Parsons is about as far from that guy as you can get. He’s a freak athlete, but his coverage instincts show that he transitioned from the edge to a linebacker role at Penn State. He’s more likely to be TJ Watt than Bobby Wagner. Right now, however, he’s a raw hunk of clay as opposed to an immediate impact player. A linebacker at seven is incredibly unlikely.
Every round after that has players who can fill that role, however. The Lions also don’t have any long-term options across their LB Corp. The top of the draft doesn’t have the right kind of linebacker for the Lions’ needs, but after round one, the draft is full of them. It would make sense for the Lions to stock the cupboard late in the draft, but their lack of sixth and seventh-round picks makes that difficult.
Defensive Backs: Any Round of the Draft but Safety First
The Lions don’t have a lot of long-term depth at outside corner. They’ve insulated themselves against injury a bit with the signing of Quinton Dunbar, and they’re also not forced to start Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye due to a lack of other options, but in 2022 that’s all they have. Aaron Glenn needs to have some developmental talent at corner as soon as possible. If the board fell in a particularly disadvantageous way, or the Lions traded back into the teens, the first round could be an option, but it is difficult to see a corner as the best option for the Lions in round one, two, or three.
Safety is a completely different story. The Lions have one starter in Tracy Walker, and he’s coming off a terrible season. It would be surprising for the Lions to take a safety at seven unless you’re one of those folks who think Patrick Surtain II would be best served by a move to safety. The Lions will likely be playing a lot of cover two, so they need to add someone who can cover far more than they need to add a box safety. They need a playmaker on the back end. This draft class has a lot of extremely versatile safeties throughout the class, and this is another position that double-dipping would make sense if the Lions just had more picks.
I am not writing about kickers and long snappers. The Lions don’t really need any of them. Come on back for day two, follow me on Twitter @mrtweetson, check out my Vlog entries on the DLP YouTube channel, and buy the MCDC Shirt I designed. The Lions have a ton of needs and tomorrow I’ll be going over two offensive players in each round that the Lions should strongly consider drafting. The Lions were a bad team last year and as a result, they need players at almost every position. Thank you for reading my TED talk. It’s beginning to look a lot like draftmas.