Everyone loves to speculate on how their favorite team will utilize their draft picks come the end of April.
Will they stand pat and use their allotted picks as they currently sit? Maybe they’ll move up or down the draft to grab a targeted player?
Could they package picks together for a veteran player or perhaps send an undesirable to another franchise for additional picks?
The draft is great theatre for sure, but regardless of how the Lions use their “draft currency,” the predictability is ultimately elusive.
So when Roger Goodell takes the podium to kick off the annual Radio City spectacle, the prognostications we all have developed over the past few months will be as worthless as a prophylactic in Snooki’s nightstand drawer.
What we should really focus on is what the Lions brain trust is planning for the draft.
Granted, we’ll never truly get a transparent answer from the Lions front office, and frankly, that’s exactly how it should be. But what we can do is take a look at which potential draft choices are being granted a sitdown in Allen Park and try to connect the dots as best as possible.
I will continue to update this article with new pages for each individual prospect as he makes his pilgrimage to Motown, and I’ll offer my thoughts on how these visits might paint a better picture as to the strategy Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz are planning to implement.
Reading the Tea Leaves
April 2: With Brandon Brooks, Kelechi Osemele and Amini Silatolu making visits already, the Lions appear ready to upgrade the interior offensive line with a space eating guard. Both Olemele and Silatolu have experience at the tackle position and would allow the Lions some much needed flexibility.
All three are projected somewhere in Rounds 2 or 3, depending on how the draft shakes out.
April 9: The Lions have now brought in two pass rushing defensive ends with Mercilus and Broughton. Jim Schwartz loves his defensive line and appears ready to add to its depth at either end of the draft.
Not sure if this is a warning shot to Cliff Avril to become more flexible with his negotiation of his long-term deal or if it's strictly proactive for the eventual retirement of Vanden Bosch.
Either way, Detroit is investing time on evaluating sack specialists in the draft.
Latest Prospect Page Update: April 9
The one-year starter from Illinois left after a junior campaign that led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He is listed as a linebacker, but is really a rush, 4-3 defensive end and ideal for the Lions’ pass-rushing philosophy.
With the proverbial “great motor” and the ability to chase the play down the line, Mercilus will be a Thursday night selection, and given that Cliff Avril and the team are still far apart in negotiating a long-term deal along with Kyle Vanden Bosch getting closer to retirement, replenishing the defensive end position is absolutely plausible in the first round.
Projected Selection: Second or Third Round
With the Lions talking to Doug Martin of Boise State and bringing in LaMichael James of Oregon, the writing is on the wall—Detroit is looking for a new “Lightning.”
Mikel Leshoure is set to make his NFL debut in 2012, but the” ABC After School Special” happy ending for Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith is probably not going to happen, and the Lions are preparing for the worst.
Tom Lewand said as much when he told season ticket holders, “We can't necessarily put all our eggs in the basket of guys that are coming off injuries.”
Enter LaMichael James, or should I say, Best 2.0.
"We are definitely similar," James said of he and Best. "Turn on the film and we look similar and we're more alike than not. There's always little differences, but for the most part, we're pretty similar."
Similar as in freakin’ fast. James posted a 4.45 40 time at the combine and backed it up with a 4.42 and 4.41 at his pro day. Combine the speed with crazy quicks, top four in both the cone and shuttle in Indy, and it’s easy to see how easily James could slide into the change-of-pace role for the Lions.
Don’t think James is just a “workout wonder.” He won the Doak Walker award as the nation’s best running back as a sophomore with 1,732 yards rushing and 21 scores. He also snared 17 passes for 208 and three touchdowns.
He improved on that last year in his junior campaign, rushing for 1,805 yards and 18 trips to the endzone.
What’s more impressive is that he plays his best when the lights are the brightest.
James finished his collegiate career with five games of more than 140 rushing yards, including 159 on 25 carries in a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
He follows his blocks and isn’t jumpy to bounce it outside and shows a surprisingly strong ability to run between the tackles given his smaller stature.
A small running back who plays bigger than his measurables is what the Lions are looking for to compliment Leshoure. Whether it’s James or another scat back, be prepared for a crowded backfield when the Lions begin training camp this summer.
Update: Mikel Leshoure's love of the hippie lettuce, as reported today, should not send everybody running for the hills. If you think he's the first or the last player to burn leaves, Aunt Bee has a slice of reality pie waiting for you at home.
But given this franchise's history with Charles Rogers, there's cause for concern. Plus, Roger Goodell could wield his power and drop the hammer on Mikel because this is Leshoure's second illegal substance offense in two months. A four-game suspension is not unprecedented.
This latest run-in with the "po-po" could put more emphasis on the running back spot in the draft, and the Lions might be looking for some "Thunder" as well.
Projected Selection: First Round
How does a cornerback without an interception in his final year of college project as a first-round pick? Like every good lawyer tells their client: deny, deny, deny.
Kilpatrick is best in press man coverage, where he can use his long arms to deny a clean release by the receiver.
He has enough speed and back-pedal ability to deny the open window for the opposing quarterback, and with a vertical leap of 35” measured at the combine, the 6’2” All-American can get deny more passes thrown his way than any other defensive back in the draft.
Because few balls are sent his way, Dre Kirkpatrick has only had three interceptions in his entire collegiate career, all of them in 2010. You need to watch tape on this guy to see his dominance; the stats will never do him justice.
Beyond the pass coverage, Kirkpatrick is physical in the running game as well, showing a willingness to take on larger players, keeping outside leverage when possible and pursuing the play from the backside.
He has the attitude necessary to be a successful corner in the NFL, earning the nickname “Swag” because of his quiet self-assured confidence. This type of team-first moxy, without the "Prime-Time" narcissism, endears him to teammates, and his work ethic earned him most improved player for the National Champion Crimson Tide in 2011.
Although it’s unlikely Kirkpatrick slips to the No. 23 pick, he appears ecstatic about the possibility.
“I’d fit in great” as a Lion, Kirkpatrick said today. “I’d be hugging big (Ndamukong) Suh and Nick (Fairley) every day, because those are the guys that are going to put the pressure and make me look good as I am and make life easy. It’ll be easy to roll the dice.”(freep.com)
Some feel Gunther Cunningham would not start a rookie cornerback out on an island, but I think Kirkpatrick has the game and mental makeup to change that.
Remember, Martin Mayhew tried to move up last year and get Patrick Peterson at the top of the draft. Does anybody out there think Peterson would have been sipping Gatorade on the sidelines if Detroit could have pulled off that draft-day stunner? Neither do I; if Kirkpatrick falls into the Lions' laps, it will be a Dre day every day.
Projected Selection: Second or Third Round
All cards on the table, Amini Silatolu is the offensive guard I have circled for Detroit.
I mocked the former Mustang prior to the combine, and now, the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock is also onboard.
The talking head with, in my opinion, the most credibility in projecting NFL talent has Silatolu rated as his third-best guard on his draft board.
Needless to say, big talent can come from universities with high school size enrollment. Just look at Jhari Evans, the three-time Pro Bowl guard of the Saints, and Jared Veldheer, who played at Hillsdale College and was a starter as a rookie for the Raiders.
Having faced little resistance in college, the transition to superior competition will probably be his biggest hurdle because athletically, there’s probably not a better pure guard in the draft.
He has exceptional footwork and is quick off the ball, which translates to a successful pulling guard, and he has shown he is good in space while getting upfield and engaging his blocks.
In pass protection, he slides well and keeps his man in front, which will not be as critical when he makes the transition to guard, but could help if he was needed at right tackle.
The Lions may need to be patience with him, but by limiting his exposure with a move from tackle to guard, along with Stephen Peterman's vulnerability on the right side, Detroit may determine the Polynesian prospect with small-school experience has upside too big to pass on.
Projected Selection: Fifth to Seventh Round
When looking for a late-round flier with tremendous natural ability but needs to be “coached up,” look no further than Braylon Braughton.
The 6’5”, 255-pound defensive end did not live up to expectations for the Horned Frogs during his collegiate career.
He did start all 13 games last season, as he completed his senior year with only 25 tackles and a paltry two sacks.
If you’re scratching your head as to why the Lions brought him in for an official visit, it’s the 4.5 40-yard time he put up on his pro day that is making several coaching staffs take notice.
He has the ideal frame and speed for the pass-rushing defensive ends the Lions system covets, and Braughton acknowledges he has not come close to reaching his potential:
"I have the talent, I just have to put all the knowledge on the field at one time and that kind of held me back a little bit." (detroitlions.com)
Although it is a major step to acknowledge your ineffective collegiate career, it in no way means he will suddenly become a student of the game and put in the work necessary to be productive at the pro level.
He is a gamble, but that’s where a strong coaching staff separates themselves from the pack, by taking an underachieving talent and turning him into a dynamic game changer.
Braylon Braughton has the physical tools, and if Detroit rolls the bones with him, it will be up to Kris Kocurek to get him to become a pro, both on the field and off.
Projected Selection: First Round
Mike Adams appears to have made a full recovery in his draft stock after a troubled senior year at Ohio State.
Suspended for the first five games of the year for selling team merchandise, Adams appears to be a solid bet for a Thursday night selection when the draft commences.
At the combine, his 19 reps on the bench was a major disappointment, but he bumped that number up to 21 on his pro day, and with his quick feet, agility and athleticism that are uncommon in 6'7" linemen, somebody is going to take a chance on him.
But there are others, like Mike Mayock, who are apprehensive about Adams being ready to man the most important position on the offensive line.
“Mike Adams’ biggest challenges are going to be in the meeting rooms. He’s not a strong guy; 19 reps at 225, that translates on the field, both upper body and more importantly to me is his core strength. I don’t see the core strength. He’s long, he’s got good feet, he’s got a prototypical left tackle’s body. I’m not buying into the fact yet that he’s definitely going in the first round just because his strength and just some questions about immaturity.” (sfgate.com)
Even with an excellent week of practices at the Senior Bowl in January, I’m uncomfortable with a potential mental midget with below-average strength protecting the blindside of the Lions franchise quarterback.
Jeff Backus was never considered a mauler, but he did put up 25 reps at the combine in 2001. If you’re looking for somebody bigger and badder than Backus, Mike Adams is probably not your guy.
But he did get an invite from the Lions, and perhaps they feel they can add the strength given his natural athletic ability. We’ll all find out at the end of the month if Detroit looks past the blemishes and sees a long-term solution at left tackle.
Projected Selection: Third or Fourth Round
Josh Norman is a player I targeted prior to the combine and is proof that blood is thicker than water.
He was recruited by several big-name schools, but chose to follow his big brother Marrio to Coastal Carolina as a non-scholarship walk-on.
With his intimidating size for the position at 6’0” and 200 pounds, Norman was a starter as a freshman and every game afterwards, and utilized his 32” long arms for eight interceptions, second in the country, his sophomore year. Accordingly, the opposition did not throw the ball his way for the next two years, and his numbers suffered in a Nnamdi Asomugha manner.
He continued to show he can catch the ball at the East-West Shrine Game, picking off a half-dozen passes in three days of practice, but did little at the combine to improve his draft stock.
The Lions' NFC Wildcard Playoff loss to New Orleans showed how important it is to capitalize on the opposition’s mistakes and make the interception when the opportunity presents itself.
Josh Norman is not the fastest or the strongest, but he is fluid in the backpedal, has quick feet, can play the run and most importantly...he can catch the ball. A fourth-round pick on Norman would pay back immediate dividends.
Projected Selection: Second or Third Round
If there was any doubt that the coaching staff wants to get bigger and stronger up front, the visits of Brandon Brooks and Kelechi Osemele should put that to rest.
Kelechi’s surname means “ancient warrior” in Nigeria, and the big tackle from Iowa State lives up to his name as a human demolition ball in the running game.
At 6’6” and 333 pounds, Osemele imposes his will on the man across from him with sheer strength and a nastiness all teams crave and every opposition fears.
He possesses a tremendous leg drive, and his 32 reps on the bench were third-best at the combine. Together, they provide dominance that once he’s engaged, the battle is won; the problem with Osemele is, his attack angles are sometimes incorrect and he has difficulty slotting onto athletic players.
Osemele projects to the guard position, but played the right tackle in college. He could easily compete with Gosder Cherilus, which is an annual camp battle in Detroit.
If he does end up in Detroit, it would be must-see viewing to check out one-on-one drills between the “ancient warrior” Osemele and “House of Spears” Suh.
Projected Selection: Second or Third Round
Brandon Brooks kicked off the official visits, and it would not be a surprise if Detroit ends up with the disrespected Redhawk.
Brooks played in the East-West Shrine game and first talked with the Lions then. But because he was not invited to the NFL combine, his stock has remained quiet.
Until he had his pro day.
Brooks impressed with a 4.99 40 time and knocked out 36 reps on the bench. Both numbers would have been best at the guard position if he had been given the opportunity to compete in Indy.
At 6’5” and 346 pounds, Brooks has a build nearly identical to Cordy Glenn and uses his large frame to his advantage by overpowering his opponent and has a thick base that is difficult to move.
His advantage is also his weakness. He’s not to best in space and has some weight that is more soft taco supreme than skinless chicken breast in nature. Additionally, because of his dominance physically, he is prone to being passive at times and not finishing his block.
But he’s not without athletic ability; he was a basketball player in high school as well. This dancing bear with an inconsistent mean streak is a perfect developmental player that offensive line coach George Yarno would love to get his paws around.
He’s a project with huge upside that is built to win the line of scrimmage and push forward, exactly what this coaching staff has envisioned from the beginning.
If Detroit misses out on some bigger names earlier in the draft or chooses to bypass the guard position until later, Brandon Brooks could be the name called.