The #Lions hosted former Buffalo LB Khalil Mack for a pre-draft visit in Allen Park today.— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) April 22, 2014
The Lions have close to a zero percent chance of landing Mack—one of the two or three best players in this draft—if they stay put at No. 10. At the very least, the team would need to move into the top six for an opportunity at the dynamic pass-rusher.
Of course, bringing Mack to Detroit before the draft could be nothing more than general manager Martin Mayhew doing his due diligence on all the top prospects in this class. The Lions should now be fully prepared for any situation in which Mack somehow falls into their range.
Who should the Lions trade up for in the 2014 draft?
But the visit does point to an increasing level of interest in the Lions making a move up the board to grab a top player. Detroit has now hosted Mack, Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins for official visits. All three are expected to land in the top five picks in May, and the Lions now have an idea if any are worth the costly move up to get them.
Mayhew said in March that he doesn't believe there are 10 elite prospects in this draft, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
“I think the depth of the draft is, obviously, a factor in terms of—you start thinking about trading up, ‘What are you missing out on?’” Mayhew said. “But sometimes the guys are elite players who are difference makers, if you’re picking 10 and there’s five elite players and you can get one of those guys, we think there’s value in (doing that).”
The Lions' interest in the draft's true difference-makers might just be smoke, but there's growing reason to believe Mayhew is preparing for a move up. Below, we power ranked Detroit's trade-up candidates, factoring in fit, impact and cost.
4. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Fit: The Lions aren't necessarily in need of a big, tall receiver. Calvin Johnson plays big and 6'7" tight end Joseph Fauria showed obvious red-zone potential as a rookie in 2013. But is there a defense in football that could account for Evans and Johnson on the outside, with new receiver Golden Tate in the slot? Physically dominant wouldn't do that trio justice.
Impact: Evans could explode as a rookie in Detroit's offense. He'd immediately be a 10-touchdown candidate, given the attention Johnson sees on every snap and the other weapons (Tate, Brandon Pettigrew, Fauria, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell) opposing defenses need to account for. At 6'5" with basketball skills and sure hands, Evans' impact would be immediate.
Cost: It's possible Evans could get to the Lions at No. 10. But with teams such as Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay all possessing the potential to take a receiver, the safest bet to acquire Evans is a trade up. And luckily for the Lions, moving up to get Evans wouldn't have the same cost as others on this list. Getting to the No. 6 pick would likely do the trick.
3. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Fit: Clowney appears to have positional versatility, but he's a defensive end in a 4-3 defense first and foremost. And wouldn't you know it, the Lions have a potential need at the position after losing 2013 starter Willie Young in free agency. If Detroit landed Clowney, the Lions could start a front four of 2013 first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah (eight sacks as a rookie), Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Clowney. Overnight, the Lions would have the game's best 4-3 front. Look out, NFC North quarterbacks.
Impact: Limitless. Young was a disruptive player for the Lions last season, but Clowney and his rare athletic skills could take the Detroit front four to a whole new level. At the combine, the South Carolina product ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at 6'5" and almost 270 pounds. Also, forget any perceived issues with his motor or effort. Playing with such a talented front in the Motor City would give him a chance at 10 or more sacks and a Pro Bowl invite as a rookie. And the Lions defense would benefit greatly from the potential every-down dominance of an Ansah/Suh/Fairley/Clowney line.
Cost: Herein lies the biggest problem to the Lions landing Clowney. Is mortgaging the future for one player worth it? There's a growing possibility that Clowney will go No. 1 overall. And there seems almost no situation in which he falls out of the top three. Making the move from No. 10 to 1 or 2 or 3 will cost several high draft picks, both in May's draft and in future years. Clowney is a unique talent and an ideal fit in Detroit, but the cost is probably too prohibitive for serious consideration.
2. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Fit: A potential No. 1 receiver with game-breaking skills, Watkins offers the best option for further solidifying one of Detroit's new strengths. Johnson, Watkins and Tate would immediately represent the most dominant set of receivers in the NFL, giving Matthew Stafford and the Lions passing offense real potential to bounce back in a big way next season. There's not a secondary in football with three cornerbacks capable of containing this trio for 60 minutes.
Impact: The Lions could boast the best supporting cast in football with Watkins on board. Three difference-making receivers, two highly productive running backs in Bell and Bush, an improving offensive line and two capable tight ends would make Detroit scary to match up with week to week. Watkins would have 1,000-yard potential as a rookie and long-term potential to take over for Johnson as the team's eventual go-to receiver.
Cost: Watkins' stock is somewhere in the top five picks. He could go No. 2 to St. Louis or No. 5 to Oakland. It seems unlikely he'd escape the first five, meaning another costly move up for the Lions to get in his range. The question is, do the Lions really want to give up a bunch of picks for Watkins in a receiver-talented draft? And does an offense-rich team really need a move up to get a receiver in the first place?
1. DE/LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Fit: Mack is scheme versatile, with the ability to stand up as a linebacker or rush the quarterback from a three-point stance at defensive end. Think Von Miller 2.0. Surely the Lions can find a place for him, preferably at one outside linebacker spot in a Miller-like role. Mack is an ideal fit for a linebacking corps that could use more talent and attacking spirit.
Impact: Miller had 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles during his rookie year in Denver. Mack could produce similar results next season, especially for a Detroit defense that is more talented up front than the one Miller was adopted into with the Broncos. Through 40 career games, Miller has 35 sacks. That's impact Mack can match. He's really a stone that could hit two birds; drafting him would solve Detroit's needs at outside linebacker and in the pass rush.
Cost: Mack is a top-five player, with his most likely landing spot coming within the first three picks. Again, the cost will be substantial and prohibitive. But if the Lions are hellbent on moving up for a player, why not Mack? He's a natural fit who solves two big needs on a defense that is missing only one or two pieces. He could be an All-Pro player in Detroit. Those are the kind of assets you move up to get in the draft.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.