Now that the postseason all-star games are in the books, NFL teams are going full speed ahead at formulating their draft boards.
It's still early with the combine coming in late February and pro days forthcoming. Yet by this point, most teams already have a pretty firm foundation to players they wish to target in the first couple of rounds.
Given the fluidity of the situation, I'm going to put on my general manager hat and list what players the Detroit Lions can and should realistically target with each pick.
These presume the Lions do not make any trades and that all unrestricted free agents are not brought back. It also presumes that Louis Delmas, Nate Burleson and Ashlee Palmer are salary-cap casualties. Hey, I'm wearing the GM hat, I'm going to shape this team the way I want...
Before getting to the Lions' pick at No. 10 overall, here is a list of players that will almost certainly be off the board before Detroit picks.
- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
- Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
- Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
- Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
- Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
- Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
- Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida
That leaves the following players in contention, in order:
- Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
- Jace Amaro, TE, Texas A&M
- Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
- Marqise Lee, WR, USC
- Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Watkins tops the list, but he's also the most likely to be taken before Detroit gets the chance. His play-making ability and outstanding athleticism for the position will almost certainly make him the first wideout taken.
What makes Detroit covet him so much is that he is a legit No. 1 receiver for just about every NFL team, but in Detroit, Watkins would begin as the clear-cut No. 2 to Calvin Johnson. Try and cover that, opposing defenses!
Amaro and Ebron are both excellent receiving threats at tight end. Ebron is a little better at blocking, but teams do not take tight ends in the top 10 for their blocking prowess. Amaro compares to a young Tony Gonzalez stylistically, a big-framed, seam-stretching target with excellent body control.
Either would provide a viable No. 2 receiving option to Johnson and provide lethal targets in the red zone.
Lee would fit that bill as well. His instant acceleration and proven ability to generate quick separation from both the slot and outside would make an excellent fit. The big concern here, and the only reason why Watkins ranks higher, is that Lee was hindered by a knee injury for much of 2013.
Van Noy is intriguing for his potential to invigorate the defense. New coordinator Teryl Austin has promised to blitz more, and that means adding a linebacker that can handle it. Van Noy has proven that, but he's also shown he is quite capable of playing in space and in coverage.
Tenth overall is probably a little early for both Van Noy and Amaro, so if a team comes calling and looking to move up, this gives Detroit options to fall back a handful of picks and still get someone at the top of its board.
This is way too high to address the needs at safety, defensive tackle and center.
Detroit picks 45th overall, the 13th pick of the second round. Why not 10th in each round? That's the result of tiebreakers and providing equitable draft value for each team that tied with the same 7-9 record. The Lions, Giants, Rams and Titans all finished with seven wins.
By this point, the goal is to find a player who can immediately contribute and fits well into the new schemes.
This is a good range to tap into the safety market. Three players figure to all be drafted in the general realm where the Lions pick:
- Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
- Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
- Deone Bucannon, Washington State
Bucannon would be the most similar to what Delmas offers. He's a freight train of a hitter with an opportunistic nose for the ball, however, sometimes his angles and reactions can be late and wild.
Ward is the most complete of the trio but also has the greatest bust potential. He's not played well against top-caliber competition, though he did fare well during Senior Bowl week.
Dixon is the least agile of the three, but he also has the best natural instincts for coverage. He looked comfortable playing over the slot during Senior Bowl practices in Mobile.
There also figures to be some intriguing wide receiver talent on the board. Among the potential candidates, I rate them like this:
- Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
- Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
- Allen Robinson, Penn State
- Davante Adams, Fresno State
Cooks would be an ideal replacement for oft-injured Ryan Broyles in the slot, a definite need as well as an outside field-stretcher.
Two other players that need to be considered are Arkansas center Travis Swanson and Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas. It's likely too early to tab Swanson, however.
The latter is a surprise early entrant who plays like a slightly lither Brandon Pettigrew. His catch radius is outstanding.
Detroit holds the 76th overall pick in the third round. That puts the Lions in position to grab a player with the potential to start quickly, or at least make a contribution right off the bat.
This is the prime turf for the top tier of centers. It's also a decent area to target help along the defensive line.
Should there be interest in adding a cornerback or outside linebacker in this round, there are some attractive candidates as well.
In addition, the thirst for wide receiver can be sated here. This appears to be a grey area for tight end and safety, the other real pressing needs for the team.
Here is how I rank the top 10 candidates likely available at this spot:
- Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
- Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
- Christian Jones, OLB, Florida State
- Justin Ellis, DT, Louisiana Tech
- Bryan Stork, C, Florida State
- Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
- E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
- DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State
- Keith McGill, CB, Utah
- Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCLA
Richburg would be a ready-made replacement for veteran Dominic Raiola in the pivot.
Fuller offers intrigue, as he is the brother of 2013 sixth-round pick Corey Fuller. Had Kyle not gotten hurt during the season, he almost certainly would be no worse than a second-round pick in this draft.
Herron was uncoverable during Senior Bowl week, able to get instant separation off the line in the slot. His lack of size and small hands mitigate his value.
McGill is a giant corner at 6'3", though he's already 25 and has a very long stride which impacts his agility. He might transition to a hybrid safety/corner role, much like Glover Quin did in Houston before coming to Detroit as a pure safety.
The Lions hold the 11th pick in the fourth round. Right now that pick is No. 107 overall, but that will get bumped down when the compensatory picks are added at the combine.
Those picks, which are awarded to teams based on prior free-agent signings and departures, start at the end of the third round. The Lions could be in line for a later-round compensatory pick but not likely in the third round.
Last year, the Lions struck gold here in selecting Devin Taylor. He was a limited player but capably fit a role the Lions needed, a reserve defensive end who could rush the passer and play on special teams.
Taylor showed enough as a rookie that he likely pushed veteran starter Willie Young off the team. Young is now a free agent, and the need to pay him a bigger salary went away with Taylor's strong emergence.
That's what the shopping list looks like here. The goal is to find a player who can contribute as a rookie, with potential to emerge as a starter down the road. Untapped athleticism and potential will trump steady and reliable players with limited upside, so long as the potential has borne some fruit already.
Should any player from the third-round list drop, they would get preference over any of the following players:
- Caraun Reid, DT/DE, Princeton
- T.J. Jones, WR, Notre Dame
- Kelcy Quarles, DT, South Carolina
- Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
- Terrance Brooks, S, Florida State
- Nevin Lawson, CB, Utah State
- Tyler Larsen, C, Utah State
- Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
- Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State
- Jordan Tripp, OLB, Montana
Reid is a similar player to Jason Jones, a bulky base end with the ability to slide inside and provide an interior pass rush.
Jones and Huff are similar wideouts. Both are quicker than fast yet have speed. Jones is a little better down the field, while Huff is a superlative blocker.
Gillmore shined during both Shrine Game and Senior Bowl weeks. He's a target nearly as big as Joseph Fauria but comes from a blocking-first background.
Tripp is a similar prospect to Bears' 2012 first-rounder Shea McClellin, a hybrid end/linebacker at his best attacking up the field. He's better than McClellin in space already, though lacks strength overall.
The Lions traded away their fifth-round pick back in 2012 to acquire wide receiver Mike Thomas from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Here is what they got from Thomas in nine games in 2012. He did not make the Lions, or any other team for that matter, in 2013.
|Catches||Yards||TDs||Yards Per Catch|
Here are a few names the Lions could have pounced on with this pick:
- Craig Loston, S, LSU
- Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt
- Ryan Carrethers, DT, Arkansas State
- Chris Watt, G, Notre Dame
- Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Pay attention to what the Jaguars do with this pick, and hope they don't get anything more out of it than the Lions did with Mike Thomas.
This is the point in the draft where teams go in one of two directions. Either they go after a limited role player from a major program, or they roll the dice on a small-school athlete that will either burn bright or quickly flame out.
I'm a firm believer in going after the home run instead of trying to hit singles here. This board reflects that philosophy; most of the names here are non-BCS players with lots of potential but also carry considerable risk of never playing a down in the NFL.
The exceptions are the two kickers. Detroit scored on punter Sam Martin a year ago, and the Lions desperately need a new franchise kicker. While I'm normally against drafting a specialist, this is a worthy deviation from the norm.
Once again, any player listed from the prior round takes precedence here because of sheer draft value. Kenny Ladler would make an excellent fit, should he unexpectedly fall to the 13th pick in this round.
- Jemea Thomas, S, Georgia Tech
- Ryan Grant, WR, Tulane
- Preston Brown, OLB, Louisville
- Gator Hoskins, TE, Marshall
- Derrell Johnson, OLB, East Carolina
- Phillip Gaines, CB, Rice
- Danny Kistler, OT, Montana
- Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas
- Chris Boswell, K, Rice
- Zach Kerr, DT, Delaware
With the exception of Grant and Boswell, who were Senior Bowlers, all the other candidates were evaluated firsthand during Shrine Game week. Thomas earned his promotion to the Senior Bowl as well, showing the ability to line up all over the secondary.
The Lions hold the 12th pick in the final round. These picks are often used as trade leverage for earlier rounds, or dealt to teams seeking specific players.
In this scenario, the Lions keep the pick. They should add at least one compensatory pick at the end of the round as well.
Some names to consider, using the same logic as the prior round of targeting lesser-known players with boom-or-bust potential over athletically limited prospects from more notable programs:
- Joe Don Duncan, TE, Dixie State
- Travis Carrie, CB, Ohio University
- Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana
- Marcus Williams, CB, North Dakota State
- Matt Hazel, WR, Coastal Carolina
- Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State
- Ken Bishop, DT, Northern Illinois
- Cairo Santos, K, Tulane
- Colton Underwood, DE, Illinois State
- Isaiah Newsome, S, Louisiana-Monroe