Scouting Combine Prospects Who Fit Lions' Biggest NFL Draft Needs
The problem with team-based mock drafts is that they never get to cover everybody.
The Detroit Lions have a bunch of needs, and there are a solid dozen or so prospects that could make sense for them in the first round alone. Some of them will get talked about more than others, but there's a case to be made for all of them regardless.
So, as a break from a near-constant stream of mock drafts, here is a different approach to draft prospects. This is simply a collection of players the Lions could use and why. Whether the Lions can, should, or will draft them is inconsequential. This isn't about rounds, trades, reaches, values or "best player available."
There are two criteria here. One is whether the player will be at the NFL combine, and two is whether the Lions would, under any circumstances, consider drafting them.
Of course, that criteria provides a list that is roughly 300 players long, so here are the 10 best.
Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
It's unlikely the Lions get a shot at the top-rated offensive lineman on the board with the blocking-challenged Philadelphia Eagles one spot ahead of them.
Then again, it's not like the Eagles are known for good decision-making.
Regardless, if the Lions truly are thinking "best player available," Joeckel would be impossible to pass up. Sure, Riley Reiff looks capable at left tackle, but his skills and build could make him elite at right tackle. Joeckel's could make him elite at left tackle.
Combine the two, and the Lions have two-fifths of an elite offensive line.
If the Lions don't spring for another tackle, and they're sold on Reiff on the blind side after Jeff Backus retires, they're still going to have to figure out what they're doing at right tackle. Gosder Cherilus is unlikely to return, given his inconsistent play (and a potentially large price tag), so unless the Lions are looking to fill the void internally in the long run, they need a new tackle.
And if that's the case, why not take the best one on the board? The one who played really well with the Big 12 Aggies, and continued to play really well with the SEC Aggies?
DeMarcus (Dee) Milliner, CB, Alabama
I have argued with the prospect that the Lions go with a cornerback in this draft, given the amount of young potential they hauled in last year.
But this isn't so much about that, remember? The fact is, the Lions do need help at cornerback. They hope that they will get that help from improvement from last year's rookies, but there's no guarantee they actually will.
To be fair, if the Lions draft Milliner, they'll have a prospect who is more of a "complete package" and more likely an "elite" level cornerback than any of Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood or Jonte Green. That is, based on draft projections for cornerbacks, which are notoriously unreliable.
Still, the Lions need to upgrade their secondary, and they will take a look at Milliner, as the top corner on the board. If they deem him enough of a potential difference-maker, they'll spring. If not, they won't.
Keep an eye on Milliner at the combine this year. That might be the difference between Milliner as a top five or top 15 pick.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Lions need a new receiver. They also need a new return specialist.
Past efforts to satisfy these needs have been...less than adequate. I'm not only talking about Titus Young and Stefan Logan, either. Remember Derrick Williams? Exactly.
The Lions need to make a strong pick this year in one of these two areas of need. Preferably both.
Tavon Austin may be both.
Austin may not be the kind of receiver the Lions need to go down the field with Calvin Johnson. At 5' 9" and 175 pounds, his game is a lot more like Randall Cobb than Johnson. In fact, Austin was the winner of the 2012 Paul Hornung Award for most versatile player, the same award Cobb was a runner-up for in 2010.
His frame and skills are not what a team is looking for when they have two receivers with slot-type skills already on the roster. So that's a point against Austin.
The counterpoint: When does a team ever not have a use for a player like Randall Cobb? When there's a player with that much ability, fitting him into a scheme is not a concern. Teams start scheming new ways to use him.
Austin isn't just an average WR/KR prospect. He also takes snaps in the backfield. He had 652 rushing yards for the Mountaineers in 2012 (because they schemed new ways to use him, of course). He posted 572 all-purpose yards in a single game against Oklahoma, second-most in FBS history.
Basically, he's potentially a version of Stefan Logan who excels at each of his roles, rather than being incompetent at them.
Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
Realistically, Alabama's Chance Warmack likely provides the Lions with the greatest combination of big talent at a big need position.
The Lions recently cut guard Steven Peterman due to shrinking performance and a growing salary cap number. His successor is up for debate, but Warmack would end that debate in a hurry.
It's no secret that interior offensive linemen are generally among the least impactful players on the football field, but it seems like that's only when they're playing reasonably well. Peterman had lots of impact on the Lions last year, it just wasn't the right kind. The "impact" was more on Matthew Stafford's ribcage.
The Lions have turned their noses up at the prospect of investing any considerable resources in the interior line in years past. That trend may continue if they decide former Dallas Cowboy Bill Nagy can fill the void left by Peterman.
But considering the trouble the Lions have had stopping interior pressure and getting any running back to fit between the tackles, it might be time to make that investment. Warmack is an all-world talent with effectively no weakness who would start immediately and keep doing so for at least a decade.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
If the Lions are to pick a defensive lineman early in the draft, Bjoern Werner seems to make the most sense.
For starters, Werner may be the only end in the top 15 of the draft who seems scheme-appropriate for the Lions. There are a lot of DE/OLB hybrids in the draft that seem to project more appropriately to a rush linebacker position.
Werner is not one of them. At 6' 4" and roughly 260 pounds, Werner is just about prototypical as a 4-3 defensive end. He is a natural replacement for Kyle Vanden Bosch, being characterized by high-motor play and European roots (Werner was born in Berlin, Germany; Vanden Bosch's family has Dutch origins).
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Werner is that he was an elite player at Florida State despite being relatively new to the game. Including high school, Werner has played all of five years of American football.
He's still learning, and yet he shows shocking instincts and game feel. Werner is a fierce competitor and as smart as he is powerful. He improved every year he played at Florida State, and it's possible his ceiling is higher than anyone else's in the draft at any position.
That's not a bad kind of player to put in place of a departing veteran starter.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
The Lions need a safety. Any safety.
Last season they settled for anybody with two healthy knees and a helmet. They will hope that Louis Delmas re-signs with the team and comes back healthy, but it's far from a sure thing.
Beyond Delmas, the long view is even bleaker.
Amari Spievey is recovering from concussions, and hasn't been anywhere near consistent when he has played.
Ricardo Silva is a former UDFA who shows flashes but blows too many assignments and seems to have a low ceiling.
John Wendling, despite efforts to the contrary, is and will continue to be a great special teamer. And nothing more.
So even if Delmas comes back and plays great, there's still a void next to him in the defensive backfield. I'm not a fan of giving up on developing young players, but there is clearly a need at safety. The Lions might be better served actually addressing the position rather than just hoping everything falls into place.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
I'm not generally a fan of Alabama football, and I recognize that doesn't show up in this list, which now contains three former Crimson Tide players.
But talent is talent. If Alabama didn't have it, they wouldn't win so much (regardless of whether or not they'll be vacating them at some point).
So that said, Barrett Jones is an incredibly intriguing prospect. Having played literally every offensive line position at Alabama, and paving the way for guys like Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram, Jones is the type of guy the Lions could draft and then just plug in wherever he was needed.
Replacement for Dominic Raiola? Done. Take over for Stephen Peterman at guard? No problem. Play tackle in an emergency injury situation? Why not?
Realistically, Jones' build and skill set is more appropriate as an interior lineman (he's big on power, not on footwork), but the fact that he has the versatility to do it all is encouraging. The Lions have a lot of questions on the offensive line, and it's comforting to have a guy like Jones, who can answer whichever question proves more pressing.
David Amerson, CB/S, N.C. State
The Lions like versatile players, and David Amerson is particularly interesting, as (like Barrett Jones) he is versatile enough to play two positions the Lions sorely need.
In my most recent mock draft, I slotted Amerson to the Lions in the third round, which could be the steal of the draft. With Amerson, we're talking about a player who could have been in the discussion with Dee Milliner for top cornerback on the board.
This is the guy who, as a sophomore at N.C. State, came one shy of the single-season record for interceptions with 13.
The problem with Amerson is that he plays with a little too much instinct. He gets aggressive in his desire to play the ball, and that makes him susceptible to fakes and double-moves. Teams took advantage of that in his junior season, and that's why he's looking at a low second-round grade instead of the top 10.
Amerson played safety in high school and cornerback in college. In the NFL, he could reasonably play either. But wherever he ends up, his ball-hawking ability should remain intact.
That's a good thing, as the Lions need someone in the secondary with ball skills, regardless of where. Cornerback Chris Houston has improved his ball skills in Detroit, but safety Louis Delmas is more known for hitting and run stopping (and injuries). Amerson might have better ball skills as a rookie than either of the secondary's veterans.
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
The Lions have some talent at running back. Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell are good players.
But most NFL teams today employ a "change of pace" back. And going to Bell as a change of pace from Leshoure is like going to Burger King as a change of pace from McDonalds. Sure, it's technically different, but you're going to get roughly the same experience either way.
What I'm saying here is that neither Leshoure nor Bell are especially fleet-footed. The Lions have basically no speed at running back, which means nobody has reason to fear the running game, which means defenses key on the pass.
Preventing this is what is meant by a "balanced offense." It's not about a 50/50 playcall split; it's about keeping defenses off balance.
So considering that the Lions are happy with, and would like to continue using, Leshoure and Bell, Andre Ellington makes sense. Ellington can run up the middle, but he is especially dangerous in space, which is something the Lions need to get back with the loss of Jahvid Best hanging over the organization.
Ellington doesn't have the explosive acceleration or top-end speed that Best did, but nobody really does. Best was special. Ellington won't be the every-down home run threat that Best was, but he can break it (his 40-yard dash time at the combine should show it).
Ellington may not be a true replacement for Best, but he at least gives the Lions the dimension of a potentially dangerous running back.
Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State
Tank Carradine was a first-round lock like teammate Bjoern Werner, but then he took a tear in the knee.
Carradine, who trailed only Werner for the ACC lead in sacks, tore his ACL in late November, and his stock has tumbled a couple of rounds since.
The Lions showed last year with Ryan Broyles that they're not afraid to roll the dice on a first-round talent with injury issues, and the Lions will likely get a shot at Carradine in the third round. Of course the Lions also showed with Jahvid Best that ignoring injury history is not always a great idea.
This might be cheating, as Carradine's injury will prevent him from working out at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he could still attend and take part in interviews and the other non-physical parts of the event. So for the purposes of this list, he's a "Combine Prospect."
Carradine qualifies as a risky but potentially valuable pick up for the Lions. They are likely to need fresh legs at defensive end, but the DE position is more deep than it is top-heavy in this draft. A player like Carradine may not have the immediate impact that a Werner would have, but assuming he rehabs properly, he could be just as valuable.