Draft needs and prospect fits for the Detroit Lions
The Lions had glaring holes on their offensive line heading into free agency, which they promptly filled by signing right tackle Ricky Wagner and right guard T.J. Lang to long-term deals. These moves were smart for many reasons, including the fact it took the need to select from a collectively-weak offensive line group off the table in the early rounds of the draft. While they also made a number of signings at every level of the defense, none of those new players should be viewed as starters, making that side of the ball the critical focus of the draft.
The Lions plan to move second-year safety Miles Killebrew to linebacker at least in subpackages this season, and also appear poised to give fellow 2016 classmate OLB Antwione Williams a much bigger role next season. Even if these two immediately pan out and play starter-quality snaps, this still leaves Detroit short in the middle. Paul Worrilow missed 39 total tackles as a full-time starter for the Falcons in 2014 and 2015, and Tahir Whitehead was the lowest-graded linebacker in coverage last season for Detroit.
Early-round target: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Zach Cunningham can play inside linebacker in any generation, as he has the physicality and block-shedding ability of linebackers-past, and the athleticism in coverage required of the modern-day defender. Cunningham finished fourth in the country in run-stop percentage last season, and put together a lot of excellent film working against tight ends in man coverage.
Mid- or late-round target: Jayon Brown, UCLA
Jayon Brown was a highly-productive player at UCLA in all phases, but will still be on the board in the middle of Day 3 because he lacks ideal size and top-end athletic measurables. At that stage of the draft, whether or not he can translate against the run is irrelevant (he’ll likely need to play WILL on run downs), as his outstanding coverage play will be of increased value. Opposing QBs had a rating of just 50.4 when throwing into his coverage last season, as he picked off three throws and broke up six without giving up a score.
Need: Defensive end
Kerry Hyder has developed into a very solid pass-rush specialist, and Anthony Zettel, Cornelius Washington and Armonty Bryant should also vie for playing time. However, none of those four are every-down players with equal ability in run and pass defense, and it’s critical for Detroit to find someone with this ability in the draft. Ziggy Ansah, the only sure-fire, starting-caliber player in Detroit’s front-seven right now needs help in both phases, but luckily this year’s draft class has a number of solid options for the Lions.
Early-round target: Taco Charlton, Michigan
If he’s still on the board in Round 1, Taco Charlton is a natural fit, and has the skill-set to make an immediate impact for a team looking to make a playoff run. He has good size and length, and knows how to use his hands to set and defeat blockers at the line of scrimmage. In just 510 total snaps at Michigan last season, Charlton racked up 50 total QB pressures and 28 defensive stops.
Mid- or late-round target: Deatrich Wise, Arkansas
At 6-foot-5, 274 pounds, Deatrich Wise has the size the Lions covet at defensive end. While his athletic numbers likely put him in the third-to-fourth-round range, he proved in 2016 that he can be just as productive against the run as he can the pass. He posted 50 total defensive stops in 915 snaps between 2015 and 2016, while missing only five tackles, and was one of the standout performers of the all-star circuit. In the East-West Shrine Game, he dominated his competition as he posted two sacks, eight total QB pressures, and five total stops.
The Lions do not have a viable No. 2 CB opposite Darius Slay, as Nevin Lawson has given up eight touchdowns to just seven pass breakups (no interceptions) over the past two seasons, and had a QB rating against of 113.5 in 2016. Slot-specialist Quandre Diggs also had a rough 2016, as opposing QBs completed 91.3 percent of passes into his area while maintaining a lofty passer rating of 124.4. This year’s CB class is of course loaded, and the Lions would do well to come out of the draft with multiple players at the position.
Early-round target: Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado
When the Lions drafted Darius Slay in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, they banked on his size and athleticism leading to more consistent production at the next level. While Ahkello Witherspoon could still be on the board in Round 2, he is actually a step ahead of Slay in that he has the college production to match his 6-foot-3 frame and 4.45 40-yard-dash speed. He successfully defended 14 passes last season while giving up receptions on just 31.8 percent of throws into his coverage for the Buffaloes.
Mid- or late-round target: Shaquill Griffin, Central Florida
Shaquill Griffin blazed a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the combine, but likely even more so than Witherspoon, is expected to be a victim of the depth at cornerback in this draft class and could be early Day 3 gold. His performance against Michigan in 2016 is concerning, but he was essentially lights-out the rest of the season. For the year, he allowed just 29 completions on 75 targets and picked off four passes while breaking up another 13. He’d also bring much-needed size to Detroit, as he measured 6-foot-0 and 194 pounds at the combine.