Today is like Chanukah for NFL franchises. Or Christmas I guess. The day has finally come to open up presents.
NFL teams have been circling another talented pool of draft prospects, waiting to gobble up tomorrow’s stars, while looking to reload and add depth to its rosters. Let’s put aside the silly metaphors and jump into the Detroit Lions 2015 draft strategy for the next three wild days.
General Manager Martin Mayhew will be running his seventh draft and like all GMs has had some home runs and horrible strikeouts. He’s excelled at acquiring cheap talent in free agency, but I would venture he’s been merely average in the draft.
An avid supporter of “drafting the best player available,” Mayhew is a wild card come draft day. He’s been an active trade participant, swinging 11 draft day trades in six seasons, including five deals to swing up the board, and five trades to slide down. In this draft where there is little consensus after the top 10 prospects or so, a trade-down might make sense. As SI’s Peter King wrote one month ago:
“NFL draft wise guy: ‘This year, the 20th pick is the same as the 50th pick to me.’ Here’s what a few football people who were at the league meetings are thinking about the breakdown of this draft: Nine prime picks, then eight or 10 really good prospects, then maybe 30 or so of the same-level player. One team might have a player ranked 15th, while another team may have him ranked 50th.”
As Mayhew said in the Free Press article linked above, if the Lions have 10 players graded on the same tier in areas of need, and a team with a late first round pick or even early second round pick comes calling, the Lions could slide down as many as 10 spots, pick up an extra Day Two pick, and still guarantee themselves one of their top targets in that tier.
Here are the Lions 2015 draft picks entering tonight’s draft:
Round 1, No. 23, (23 overall)
Round 2, No. 22, (54)
Round 3, No. 24, (88)
Round 5, No. 32, (168, from New England via Tampa Bay)
Round 6, No. 24, (200)
Round 7, No. 23, (240)
*In March, the Lions traded their 4th and 5th round picks to Baltimore for DT Haloti Ngata and a 7th rounder. In a separate deal two weeks ago, they shipped DE George Johnson and the 7th from Baltimore to Tampa Bay for a 5th.
It’s nice to draft outside the top 10 again, isn’t it?
Here is the Lions current depth chart, per CBS Sports. Detroit’s core needs are clear and haven’t changed since the end of the season, when I took a comprehensive look at their positional priorities in January (pre free agency).
The Lions have immediate holes at: OL (T and G), DT and RB. They could also infuse the depth chart at CB, WR and S. Let’s delve into the specifics.
Day One, 1st Round, 8 pm ET
Mayhew has drafted big boys in the trenches on either side of the ball in four of the last five drafts. This year, there are a clump of five offensive tackles all closely graded with little separation.
Andrus Peat (Standford), Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M), D.J. Humphries (Florida), La’el Collins (LSU) and Ereck Flowers (Miami, FL) are the headliners. *Update* Collins may now be off the board entirely.
Said NFL media’s Daniel Jeremiah, “I like D.J. Humphries as my top offensive tackle, other people might have him as the fourth or fifth guy. So there’s just a lot of variance with the way people feel about these players this year, so it’s made it a very interesting process kind of combing through all the evaluations.”
One of those players should be available for the Lions at No. 23. Matthew Stafford was sacked an astounding 45 times last season (he was sacked just 23 times the previous year) and the run game ranked 29th. With the line in need of reinforcements (no left guard, questions at right tackle), my guess is Mayhew looks to rebuild and pounces immediately. The Lions hosted a bunch of Day 1 OL picks (see all of the Lions pre-draft visits).
If Mayhew decides against OL at No. 23, he could have other options at positions of need. Mammoth defensive tackle Danny Shelton (Washington) may be the top realistic player on Mayhew’s board but he would likely have to jump up to the mid-teens if he wants Shelton. Another DT, Texas’s Malcom Brown has been mocked to the Lions as much as any prospect, however, there is a boat load of talent at DT in round two, which I’ll touch on in a minute (30 seconds if you’re a fast reader). The reason I think the Lions steer away from him is that I don’t think the value of Brown in round one is better than one of those DTs in round two.
What happens if Georgia’s star running back Todd Gurley III is still on the board when the Lions are on the clock? I’ve been studying, evaluating and writing about the top RB prospects since the beginning of March. Outside of Gurley, I don’t see a RB in round one who is clearly better than the next three or four guys. I believe the chasm in talent between Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) is slim.
If Gurley falls to No. 23, the Lions may take the bait. However, in an ideal draft, a RB needy team craves Gurley, Gordon or another prospect like WR Breshad Perriman (Central Florida) and the Lions are able to drop back a handful of spots, draft the last tier one OT and pick up an extra 3rd round pick in the process. It would be a risky move for Mayhew if say there are only two OTs left and they trade with Baltimore (No. 26 or Dallas (No. 27), but I could see this scenario playing out.
The wild card is cornerback. If the top OTs are off the board, and Gurley and Shelton are long gone as predicted, there are a handful of intriguing big, athletic CBs that fit the Lions DB profile. Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson and Connecticut’s Byron Jones come to mind.
More likely though, the Lions stick at No. 23 and draft one of the top OTs, immediately strengthening a thin OL.
Day Two, 2nd and 3rd Rounds, 7 pm ET
The top OT prospects will be long gone by the early second round and certainly before the Lions pick rolls around in round 2. However, there could be a few notable second tier OL who interest the Lions, specifically guards Laken Tomlinson (Duke) and Ali Marpet (Hobart, Division III) and tackle Donovan Smith (Penn State).
On Day 2, there could be a handful of talented defensive tackle prospects on the board in the mid-to-late second round. Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips, Iowa’s Carl Davis, Washington State’s Xavier Cooper, Ohio State’s Michael Bennett and Clemson’s Grady Jarrett are all intriguing players, among others, who are expected to be Day 2 picks.
If Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi are serious about their desire to run the ball more often and more effectively, then they should look to add to their depleted running back corps in round three.
In the third round, the RBs will likely start to fly off the board. According to NFL Media analyst Lance Zierlein, a dozen NFL teams count RB among their top five positional needs: Detroit, Miami, Indianapolis, New York Jets, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Oakland, San Diego, Dallas, Atlanta, Carolina and Arizona.
With the depth in talent at RB in this draft, some will be pushed down the board and teams will find great value in these backs in the mid-to-late rounds.
If the Lions have already selected OL and DL in rounds one and two, I would not be surprised to see them trade up five to ten spots from pick 88 to select their RB of choice. Detroit brought in Tevin Coleman for a visit but his intriguing speed and big play ability may shoot him into the second round. I would love to see them grab Abdullah, Yeldon or Duke Johnson (Miami, FL) in round three if one is available, though Boise State’s bell-cow runner Jay Ajayi is an interesting name to keep an eye on. He has medical questions stemming from an ACL tear in 2011, which has reportedly scared off some teams.
NFL Media’s Mike Mayock dropped him down to the third round and ESPN’s Scouts Inc. recently dropped Ajayi from a mid-second round grade to the late third because of concerns with his knee.
Can the knee hold up for the duration of Ajayi’s four-year rookie deal? If the Lions doctors determine it can, Ajayi could be a steal if he drops to No. 88.
Cornerback is the other realistic option on day 2 depending on how the Lions board falls. If they still own the 54th overall pick in round 2 and feel they can wait to grab a DT later, they could target a CB.
Detroit is set with the improving Darius Slay on one side, however, Reshean Mathis will be 35 at the start of the season and the depth chart is riddled with question marks after those two. The Lions could choose to draft and develop someone who can be a quality starter in the future opposite Slay. The Lions hosted six likely Day Two DB prospects during pre-draft visits, including CBs Eric Rowe (Utah), P.J. Williams (Florida State), Alex Carter (Stanford) and Steven Nelson (Oregon State).
Wide receiver is also a sneaky need for the Lions and could be in play in round three. Here’s what I wrote about the position in January:
“The Lions are set with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. But after that, they have too many question marks. Corey Fuller is young, has speed and showed some promise, but he was not open enough. Fan-favorite Ryan Broyles couldn’t beat out Jeremy Ross, which is concerning, and sixth-round pick T.J. Jones had offseason surgery and did not see the field.”
Johnson will be 30 in September and carries cap hits of over $20 million in 2016 and 2017. He has battled injuries and with no consistent production outside of he and Tate, the Lions could use depth and a return man even after bringing back Jeremy Ross on a one-year deal. Detroit hosted a few receiver/return specialists so the interest is there to upgrade the depth. Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and William and Mary’s Tre McBride are two names to watch.
Day Three, 4th-7th round, 12 noon ET
On Day 3, the Lions have a pick at the end of the 5th round, along with their own 6th and 7th round selections. I think Mayhew will look to move up with one of these picks if he sees someone he really likes. Depending on what’s happened during the previous two days, they may take a shot at a developmental OL, RB, DB or WR. Georgia Tech’s DeAndre Smelter is a name to watch. He tore his ACL in late November but he’s big (6-foot-2, 226 pounds with huge hands) and wins when the ball is the air. Keep an eye out for Smelter.
One last note. The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn has a fantastic draft series where he examines each specific position. He has detailed player capsules littered with quotes from multiple scouts. I highly recommend his series as an insightful, concise introduction to the top prospects at each position.