Armed with potential young stars at premium positions and a better-than-you-realize offensive line, the Detroit Lions are closer to contention than their record indicates. But all progress will be stunted until the team finds a quarterback.
Round 1: QB Bryce Young, Alabama (No. 2 in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board)
Depending where Detroit drafts, this pick will likely come down to Young or Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Neither is a perfect prospect.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Stroud is a redshirt sophomore, so he technically still has several years’ worth of eligibility remaining, but it’s hard to imagine him staying in school after guiding Ohio State to a perfect record and No. 3 ranking through early November. Although he’s behind last year’s pace, Stroud remains in the Heisman conversation with 2,377 yards passing, 29 touchdown passes and only 4 interceptions. Last season, Stroud had a line of 4,435-44-6.
He’s nonetheless a tough evaluation. Stroud is literally surrounded by NFL talent on all levels of the offense, including a pair of potential first-round tackles (Paris Johnson, No. 9, and Dawand Jones, No. 27), the highest-ranked center (Luke Wypler, No. 59) and a potential Day 2 guard (Matthew Jones, No. 132). And don’t forget about receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who has recently dipped in the rankings (now No. 37) due to a lingering hamstring injury. Otherwise, he might be the top receiver in the 2023 draft – even though he’s probably not the best WR on his own team. That would be Marvin Jones II, a likely top pick in 2024.
Same goes for the Ohio State ground game. Redshirt sophomore running back Miyan Williams (No. 142) is an ascending prospect who averages close to 7 yards per carry. He’s likely start for most teams, but at Ohio State, he’s the backup to TreVeyon Henderson, a true sophomore and likely top-20 pick in 2024.
Because of all that talent, there’s little tape of how Stroud fares under pressure. Will he be able to read defenses and make appropriate pre-snap adjustments at the next level? Will he be able to go through his progressions once the pass rush is in his face?
That may be nitpicking for a prospect expected to fall no further than No. 3 overall, but it’s something other draft analysts have pointed out. From a recent tweet by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler: “The last two weeks have really highlighted some of my concerns w/ Stroud. Force him to play out of structure and things fall apart quickly.”
However, there’s plenty of tape of 2021 Heisman winner Young under duress, as the Alabama offensive line and receiver talent hasn’t been as (ridiculously) strong as it has been in recent seasons. Like Stroud, the true junior is still putting up amazing numbers, with 1,906 yards, 18 TDs and 3 INTs thus far.
However, Young shares something else with Stroud: He’s behind last year’s pace when Young had 4,872 yards passing with 47 TDs and 7 INTs.
Still, Young has managed to put Alabama in the title conversation yet again and is generally seen as a better passer than Stroud.
Instead, Young’s biggest issues are his measurables. He’s generously listed by his school at 6-feet, 194-pounds. That didn’t stop Arizona from making former Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 despite his size at 5-foot-10, 207-pounds.
Young, though, isn’t as stout as Murray – and like another former undersized Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, he’s also not much of a runner, nor is he near as fast as Murray. The 6-foot, 210-pound Tagovailoa has missed time in both college and the pros now due to injury.
That’s why it’s important Young goes to a team that already has a solid line in place – and Detroit conceivably fits the bill. Tackle Taylor Decker, a 2016 first-rounder out of Ohio State, is the lowest-graded regular starter along the Lions’ line with a still-respectable 63.1, while Sewell and Johnson look like future Pro Bowlers.
You also can’t ignore the Young-to-Jameson Williams connection. Detroit made him the No. 12 overall pick this past spring after Williams caught 79 passes for 1,572 yards and 15 TDs in his lone season in Tuscaloosa.
Round 1: RB Bijan Robinson (No. 6 overall prospect)
Forget the fact the Lions already have running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
Recent history says taking a RB with a top-15 pick is a bad move.
Between 2012 to 2021, a span covering 10 drafts, 10 running backs have been drafted in the first round. Of those 10, seven were taken with a top-15 pick – but none of those seven enjoyed sustained success.
Saquon Barkley (No. 2 in 2018), Leonard Fournette (No. 4 in 2017), Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4 in 2016), and Trent Richardson (No. 3 in 2012) were all top-5 picks. Christian McCaffrey (No. 8 in 2017), Todd Gurley (No. 10 in 2015) and Melvin Gordon (No. 15 in 2015) were top-15 picks.
First, the good: Of the 10 RBs drafted in the first round during that stretch, seven have made at least one Pro Bowl team. So, if Detroit drafts a RB in the first round – still pretty rare these days – then the Lions stand a reasonable chance of getting a Pro Bowl player in return.
However, those RBs’ proverbial flames burned out quickly. Consider the following:
Two of them are already out of the league (Gurley and Richardson).
Of the seven drafted in the top 15, six have or are dealing with serious injuries.
Of the seven drafted in the top 15, five wound up playing for at least one other team. Barkley may join that list because of his extensive injury history, even though he’s second in the league in rushing yards with 779 yards. Barkley will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Elliott, meanwhile, will enter the offseason as a potential salary cap casualty due to his high salary and diminishing returns on the field.
So all of this screams, “Don’t draft a running back in the first round, especially in the top 10!”
Consider taking a RB high in the draft like leasing out a nice car. With a slight cost increase, you get a brand-new “car” every few years. And the new car is less likely to need repairs, at least until you lease another one.
When you look at it like that, then it makes sense for Detroit to take a RB with its second first-round pick, as there’s no guarantee that either Robinson or Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs (No. 26) will still be available early in the second round. And, again, recent history says teams stand about a 70 percent chance at drafting a future Pro Bowler if it takes a RB in the first round, so either player would provide an immediate jolt to the offense – presumably at a level higher than some of the second-tier RBs like Texas A&M’s Devon Achane (No. 46).
And that’s what the Dan Campbell-led coaching staff is likely looking for: A “safe” prospect at a position that still contributes heavily to the team’s success. That’s why Robinson gets the nod over one of the top cornerbacks, like Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. (No. 8), South Carolina’s Cam Smith (No. 11) or Georgia’s Kelee Ringo (No. 12), even though the Lions will likely address the secondary high in the draft.
And it’s why Robinson is a safer pick over one of the top remaining defensive linemen, like Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter (No. 4) or Clemson pass rusher Myles Murphy (No. 7).
All would be incredibly tempting with Detroit’s second pick on Day 1.
However, as the saying goes, a young QB’s best friend is a solid running attack.
Finally, a good-to-great ground game helps the defense, too, as it eats time off the clock – something a young defense like Detroit probably covets.
Round 2: S Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (No. 28 overall prospect)
The best part of drafting high in the second round is that you have the chance to draft a player who was considered a first-round prospect but fell for whatever reason. In other words, think of it like drafting a second first-rounder (or, in Detroit’s case, a third first-rounder).
Johnson and Alabama’s Brian Branch (No. 31) are widely regarded as the top safeties in the 2023 draft, and either one could go in the first round. Johnson (6-foot-3, 195-pounds) is seen as more of a Jayron Kearse, in-the-box strong safety/hybrid linebacker type in Dallas, while Branch (6-foot, 193-pounds) has been compared to do-everything All-Pro safety Budda Baker of Arizona. Either way, both players are used all over the field.
And safety could be relatively high on the Lions’ offseason wish list, with both Deshon Elliott and Will Harris set to become UFAs at the end of the season. Meanwhile, rookie Kerby Joseph, a third-round safety out of Illinois, has more than held his own since starter Tracy Walker tore his Achilles in September. Joseph has a 74.4 PFF grade in limited action, so he appears a part of the team’s long-term future. Walker, meanwhile, could miss the start of the season, although reports say he’s aiming to return by OTAs.
Either way, the Lions could use a playmaker at safety to pair with either Joseph or Walker, and Johnson and Branch are relatively “safe” picks who fit the bill as players who many ranked as first-round prospects.
Round 2: CB Mekhi Garner, LSU
How bad is Detroit’s cornerback situation?
Former Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 pick of the 2020 draft, is finally enjoying a “breakout” season – to the tune of a PFF grade of 66.1. It’s a respectable score and would present by far his career-best score if he can maintain this level of play, but it’s certainly not what the Lions hoped it would get out of a top-5 pick. Plus, his best position might be at safety, according to The Athletic’s Colton Pouncy.
Then you have Amani Oruwariye and Mike Hughes, who are among the lowest-scoring CBs in the league, per PFF. The aforementioned Harris has even seen time at cornerback.
So to say the position is among Detroit’s most-pressing needs would be an understatement.
Fortunately, with as many as six top-100 picks in the 2023 draft, the Lions can wait a bit to address the position and still come away with a Day 1 starter.
The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Garner has what teams are looking for out of the position: tall with long arms and long speed with fluid helps and the ability to track the ball effectively.
Sounds like a unicorn, right?
But Garner also gets dinged for recovery speed and elite speed overall, with NFLDraftBuzz adding that Garner is currently only capable of playing in a trail position, “and even then, he’d likely … draw a lot of flags.” The scouting report goes on to say Garner isn’t overly physical as a tackler, despite his size.
Still, he’s the last of the Tier 2-type players at his position, so if Detroit hasn’t drafted a cornerback by now, it almost certainly will no later than its first pick of the third round.
Round 3: TE Darnell Washington, Georgia (No. 42 overall)
Washington, at 6-foot-7, 272-pounds, looks like a chiseled Super Hero on the field. Georgia’s No. 2 TE behind 2024 hopeful Brock Bowers, Washington is surprisingly athletic for his size and is just as fierce of a blocker as he looks.
Round 3: LB Tommy Eichenberg, Ohio State (No. 99)
The 6-foot-2, 239-pound Eichenberg would combine with this year’s sixth-round rookie Malcolm Rodriguez and 2021 fourth-rounder Derrick Barnes to give Detroit a solid, young linebacker core to build around.
Round 5: DL Colby Wooden, Auburn: (No. 129)
At 6-foot-5, 284-pounds, the junior is listed as a defensive lineman in the Rigdon big board, but Wooden is capable of playing in an even- or odd-defensive front.
And that’s what would make him an attractive prospect for Detroit. The Lions already have an intriguing trio of young pass rushers, led by star rookie Aidan Hutchinson, rookie Josh Paschal and 2020 third rounder Julian Okwara. But none are as effective at stopping the run as Wooden, who could kick inside next to 2021 third-round nose tackle Alim McNeill on passing downs.
His size, athleticism and versatility, though, is what makes it so surprising to see Wooden still on the board at the top of the fifth round – hence the selection of a prospect who plays a position that isn’t necessarily a huge need for the Lions.
Round 6: DL Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin (No. 181 overall prospect)
Another player too good to pass up at a position that isn’t necessarily a need.
To be fair, McNeill is having a solid season thus far with a PFF grade of 60.6. And, as is usually the case with nose tackles, McNeill doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher 48 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks over his first 24 games. Instead, his main job is to occupy at least two offensive linemen and make it harder for opposing teams to run the ball.
McNeill has a modest 60.6 PFF grade.
However, Benton is generally seen as a higher-ranked prospect by other analysts, so you almost have to take him if still available this late in the draft. Between Benton, McNeill and Wooden, Detroit should expect significant improvement in its run defense, which currently ranks near the bottom of the league.
Round 6: G Micah Mazzccua, Baylor (No. 191 overall prospect)
Could the massive, 6-foot-5, 331-pound redshirt sophomore be this year’s Tyler Smith? Remember, was a 6-foot-5, 324-pound redshirt sophomore who caused draft analysts to scramble when he declared for the draft. Generally seen by the draft community as a Day 2 talent, scouts – or, at least the scouts in Dallas – didin’t see it that way and took the Tulsa product with the No. 24 overall pick.
Of course, if Mazzccua enjoys a similar rise, then her certainly won’t be available in the sixth round. With a PFF grade of 86.5, Mazzccua is the sixth-highest rated guard in the nation. He also has a 87.1 run block grade from PFF.
As it stands, left guard remains the weak spot along Detroit’s offensive line. New starter Logan Stenberg, a 2020 fourth-rounder out of Wisconsin, has a PFF score of 34.6 after playing 5 snaps on offense last season and none as a rookie.
So expect the team to address the position at some point in the offseason, either through the draft or free agency. Mazzccua would be a coup if still available this late in the draft, but a player like Utah’s Braeden Daniels (No. 200) or North Carolina State’s Chandler Zavala (No. 242) might be a more realistic pick this late in the draft.