Detroit Lions fans are in a massive rut one week out from the draft. Since the team has a massive need at cornerback, most people are only giving serious draft consideration to cornerbacks who represent value with the first-round pick.
While Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick and Janoris Jenkins would all be great footballers for the Lions, it may be better to grab a later-round corner in the third round and use that first-rounder on an offensive lineman or trade back to get more Day 2 selections.
This is made better still by the quality of cornerback available in the third round. Jamell Fleming and Casey Hayward will probably both be available when the Lions are picking late on Day 2, and all of them are not that far behind the second tier of cornerback in this draft that the Lions would be targeting with the 23rd overall selection.
Jamell Fleming was one of the best performing cornerbacks at the Senior Bowl, and while his stock has cooled off since then, he remains a high-quality player who has the tools and technique to have a limited starting role in his rookie season, even with Gunther Cunningham calling the shots.
Fleming is at his best in zone coverage, where his average deep speed can be hidden and his elite burst and change-of-direction ability is best shown. He ran some of the fastest agility test times at the combine, and this bodes well for his future in a zone-heavy team. Fleming is also a pretty good press man and has the long arms and length to get better still as a pro. He also has very good instincts and ball skills, and this would be welcome in a Lions secondary that lacks real playmakers outside Louis Delmas.
Fleming is also a decent run defender. His tackling technique is very solid and it has prompted some to suggest a move to safety for him at the next level. However, if this were to happen, then he would need to get better at defeating blockers. Too often he is taken out of the play by wide receivers, and this needs to be improved upon.
Casey Hayward is the second cornerback who the Lions could target in the third round who also has first-year starting potential. Unlike Fleming, who is built like a safety at 5'11" and 205 lbs, Hayward looks like a cornerback in his 5'11", 185-lb. body.
Also, unlike Fleming, Hayward is not a physical press-zone cornerback with the skill set to convert to free safety. He is a pure zone or off-man corner who compares well with Asante Samuel.
However, unlike Samuel, Hayward is committed to defending the run. He is a sure tackler who does not miss many and racked up about 50 a season for Vanderbilt. He also does a good job getting off blocks of smaller wide receivers, which shows off his good technique in that area.
However, against more powerful players like Alshon Jeffery or Julio Jones, he has struggled. Nevertheless, he brings it in run D.
Hayward's real strength is in coverage, though, where he has excelled despite poor speed. He ran a 4.57 at the scouting combine. However, his agility drill times of 3.9 seconds and 6.76 seconds are both very good and attest to his burst and fluidity.
It is this, and his great technique, that has made him successful as an off-man and zone cornerback in the tough SEC conference. He reads the quarterback well, has great instincts and despite not possessing great ball skills, he is in position to make plays often enough that he was an interception leader in college.
Hayward will be limited as a pro, though. He is not a good press corner at the moment and needs a lot of technique work to be able to be successful as one in the NFL. He could also be targeted by big receivers like Andre Johnson or Brandon Marshall, as Hayward has shown issues against that type of player in the past, as he gets boxed out too easily.
Nevertheless, Hayward's skill in zone coverage, his run support and playmaking history suggests that for a third-rounder, he could really make an impact in this league.
Who should the Lions take in the third round?
The difference in quality between the likes of Dre Kirkpatrick and Stephon Gilmore, late first-rounders, and the two cornerbacks outlined in this article is actually remarkably small. While both first-rounders have the athletic ability to develop into All-Pro defenders, unless they develop perfectly, they will be little more than good starting cornerbacks.
While this would still be very valuable for the Lions, the fact is that Fleming and Hayward will probably also be that good.
Hayward and Fleming have also been hurt by the traditional meteoric rises of athletes in the pre-draft workouts. As the college football season and real football games disappear into the rear-view mirror, draft prospects who are just solid footballers, but lack the athletic ability to wow in shorts, fall down draft boards in favor of athletes like Josh Robinson and Stephen Hill.
The same problem has damaged the stock of hard-nosed footballers like Courtney Upshaw and Riley Reiff, yet once games start again they will probably show themselves to be superior players. Fleming and Hayward should do the same once prospects put on pads again for preseason training.
In conclusion, I firmly believe that the Detroit Lions should be thinking about drafting Jamell Fleming or Casey Hayward if they fall to them in the third round. This is not to say that they should not take a cornerback in the first round if they fall to them, rather that it is not as vital as many fans think take one with our first pick at all costs.
There are plenty of players available on Day 2 of the draft, and the Lions need to make the most of them.