NFL Draft 2011: 10 Prospects the Detroit Lions Must Target
It's an interesting draft year for Detroit Lions fans.
This marks the first year in a while when the best draft strategy isn't, "blow the whole thing up and just try to find somebody in the draft who sticks."
The Lions have a clear core of talented players to build from, and there may finally be some light at the end of what has been a very long, very dark tunnel.
But the Lions haven't accomplished anything yet, other than clawing out of the NFL's basement. If the Lions are going to have success in the long term, they need to prove they can hit in the draft without always having one of the first two picks.
This year, the Lions pick 13th, and if their 2011 campaign is anywhere near as successful as it could be, their 2012 pick will be even lower.
So now would be a really good time to start hitting on mid-round picks.
1. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska
Eric Francis/Getty Images
Prince Amukamara goes first on the list because he's the least surprising name on the list.
Everybody knows he's a perfect fit in Detroit, and everybody knows the Lions would set a new NFL Draft record for least amount of time on the clock if he were still available at 13.
Amukamara has already been to Detroit for a visit, so it isn't as though there's any doubt that Detroit is interested. They need corner help, and Amukamara is the best corner they'll have a shot at.
He's also a former Nebraska teammate of 2010 Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh. It is well known the Suh has been lobbying for the Lions to take a look at some of his former Nebraska teammates, and it stands to reason that Amukamara would top that list.
Of course, the chances that he makes it out of the top 10 are slim, and teams 11 and 12 (Houston and Minnesota, respectively) wouldn't turn their noses up at a top-tier cornerback, either.
2. Bruce Carter, LB, North Carolina
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Had Carter not suffered an ACL injury in December, the Lions might be looking at taking him in the first round, not the second or third.
However, that very fact could work to the Lions' favor if he slips. Carter is one of only a few players in the draft characterized as an "athletic freak," and the only real sticking point for him is concern about his return from ACL repair surgery.
Provided he recovers from that, the Lions are looking at the very real possibility that they could pull a high first-round talent out of the middle of the second round.
Sure, drafting talent trumps drafting for need, but if the Lions pick up Carter in the second round (or, however unlikely, the third), there is a very real possibility they get both, as Carter would immediately step in and beef up a woefully thin linebacking corps.
Carter visited the Lions in mid-March and came away with a very favorable impression, so it's fair to say that interest is high on both sides of the equation.
3. Aldon Smith, DE, Mizzou
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Aldon Smith is a guy that would be a great pick if the Lions were able to trade down into the 15-20 range in the first round.
Smith left Mizzou after his redshirt sophomore season, and predictably, that makes him incredibly raw. He hasn't developed, either physically or mentally, into the top-flight prospect he could have been.
However, he's young, and he could very easily get there with time. But it's not often teams spend first round picks on projects, which should give you an indication of just exactly how much raw talent there is there.
Now, I've advocated staying away from the offensive tackle position, because I feel it's a position that could be better filled next year. Yet, here I'm advocating taking a defensive end project in the first round?
Because Smith actually needs that time to develop. The offensive tackles being discussed in the middle of the first round aren't projects, that's just where they are. They would be drafted and paid a lot of money, then they would either sit on the bench for a year, or Jeff Backus would spend his contract year on the bench (not likely).
The difference is, Tyron Smith or Anthony Costanzo would come in for the 2012 season and maybe be marginally better than when they were drafted.
Aldon Smith in a year's time could have become a complete defensive end worthy of the top overall pick. He is athletic, plays the run and pass equally well, and still hasn't grown into his frame.
He'll be good (and he'll play) in 2011, but his potential is among the biggest of any player on the board. He needs to put on some more weight and get a bit stronger (and who better to make that happen than Kyle "5 AM lift, be there" Vanden Bosch?), and he could be a perennial Pro Bowler.
4. Tyron Smith, OT, USC
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
I hope you all know what a huge concession I'm making by putting Tyron Smith on this list.
Though I'm still strongly against addressing the offensive line in the first round (though I'm more comfortable with it in the second or third), I can't deny that the Lions are taking a close look at Tyron Smith out of USC.
And I'm coming around to the idea that while it's far from the best pick available, it wouldn't be a truly atrocious idea, either.
The idea of a guy who played right tackle in college translating to left tackle in the NFL is unusual and a bit frightening, but it's hard to argue that he has the athleticism to pull it off.
Smith could be a strong pick regardless of which side he plays on, though. With Jeff Backus entering a contract year and Gosder Cherilus recovering from microfracture surgery, Smith could be a valuable bench addition for 2011 and step in on the left side in 2012.
Even if he did cost a pick that should have been used on defense.
5. Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
And thus, the trifecta of draft prospects named Smith is complete.
Jimmy Smith is widely considered the next-best thing for any team looking for a cornerback not named Peterson or Amukamara. The Lions would fit the bill if those two are already off the board.
But 13th overall? Probably a bit high. If the Lions end up drafting closer to pick 20, he's valuable. If he falls to the second round, he's an outright steal.
Smith (the Colorado variety) is another player who might be the perfect blend of filling a need and drafting talent.
That said, I'm not sure he has the personality or mentality to fit in Detroit. That's upsetting because his skills and physical abilities are a perfect match.
Smith is a big, physical press corner who has the size and speed to neutralize big playmaking receivers on the edge. He is a man coverage specialist, and the Lions are a team that really likes man coverage.
But Smith is not the same type of person the Lions have been in the habit of drafting the last two years. The Lions have done well to bring in character guys who stay humble and work hard every day, and that has very much helped the Lions to start changing the culture of the organization.
Smith is the kind of guy who talks about why he's better than Nnamdi Asomugha, or who fires his agent after a month "because he didn't do what needed to be done."
Great organizations can rein in a kid like this and tone him down, maximizing his physical gifts and minimizing the distractions.
Are the Lions at that point yet?
6. Mason Foster, LB, Washington
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
The more I see of Mason Foster, the more I become a fan of his.
A four-year standout at the University of Washington, Foster finished the 2010 season leading the Pac-10 in tackles with 163. His teammate, safety Nate Williams, was second in the Pac-10 with 105.
Though not incredibly physical, Foster is smart enough and athletic enough to play any linebacker position, which is convenient considering how nobody is sure how well DeAndre Levy projects long-term in the middle.
Foster is a slippery defender who uses a high football IQ to quickly diagnose plays and put himself in the right position to make a play. Though he lacks the strength and physicality to win the battle against blockers straight-on, he shows good agility and hand use to slip off of them.
Foster is a very productive and instinctive run-stopper who displays some of the surest tackling of any player in the draft (it's widely considered his strongest asset).
Though he lacks the sheer athleticism of Bruce Carter, Foster is likely to be available about a round later, is arguably just as productive because of his instincts, and doesn't have any major injury concerns to speak of.
7. Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland
Wait, wait, I forgot there was one more Smith.
Those of you who have followed my draft content know that I'm a big fan of Torrey Smith.
More appropriately, I'm a big fan of the Lions having three legitimate wide receivers who can catch passes. And I'm a big fan of not taking one in the first round.
I'm also a big fan of getting first-round talent in the second round, and Torrey Smith could be just that. Most speculation has him off the board in the bottom of the first round. Should he slip to the top of the second, though, he could last a while.
Two of the teams needing a WR upgrade in the top 10 are likely to have addressed them in the first round with Julio Jones and A.J. Green. Many of the rest don't need a WR upgrade or won't take one this high (Dallas, for instance), which suggests that Smith could slide to 13th, in which case he would be a value pick who fills a need.
Smith is a burner with good size and suspect hands. He's very raw, but very gifted, which makes him a great big-play threat, but average to sub-par on underneath or timing routes.
That said, opposing defenses need to fear a receiver other than Calvin Johnson, and Smith could be that guy. The route-running and "complete" receiver skills will come in time with hard work and good coaching, but Smith's raw speed, size and athleticism are things that simply can't be taught.
8. Anthony Costanzo, OT, Boston College
I'm still against drafting an offensive tackle in the first round.
But I really like Anthony Costanzo.
Costanzo may well be the first offensive tackle off the board in this year's draft, which has to be considered a major accomplishment for someone who drew little interest from college scouts after playing his high school days as a 6' 7", 220-pound "string bean" tight end.
Costanzo went to work building muscle mass at Fork Union Military Academy, and a year later appeared in the starting lineup at Boston College at right tackle. He played his last three years as the starting left tackle and tied the school record for starts with 53.
Costanzo, who weighed in at 311 pounds at the combine, has worked himself into his current draft position through sheer force of will. That's the kind of player who would fit right in to Detroit's locker room.
An academic All-American who scored the second-highest Wonderlic score at the combine, Costanzo emphasizes the mental aspect of the game, and seems to be a true student of the game (though he sees himself pursuing a career in medical research after his playing days).
Like most smart guys, Costanzo faces questions about his strength, and is only an adequate run-blocker, which might hurt his stock with a Lions team looking to get more of a push from their offensive line.
9. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
I will readily admit that Ryan Kerrigan is not likely to be taken with the 13th pick in the first round, and not likely to be available at the 13th pick in the second round.
That makes it a problem taking him. Kerrigan is probably a reach anywhere higher than 15th, and the Lions are unlikely to be able to get him if they trade down, because it seems he's all but a lock to Jacksonville.
However, if the high-energy, limited athleticism Kerrigan happens to slip past Jacksonville at 16th (where it seems every mock in the world has him going), there's no telling where he ends up.
So ultimately, Kerrigan is not a player who is likely to be in a position where the Lions can draft him. But should the Lions trade down and the Jaguars pass on him, he could be a high-value pick who could step in and be a good running-down complement to Cliff Avril.
That said, Kerrigan is a hard worker who excels at both the run and pass, and could be a quality depth player/long-term replacement for Kyle Vanden Bosch.
10. Stefan Wisniewski, G/C, Penn State
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Put Mike Pouncey out of your head right now. It's not happening.
He's a reach in the top of the first, and there are too many teams that won't pass on him in the bottom of the first. The Lions would have to trade down twice to be in a reasonable range to get him passing up a lot of other talented players in the process.
Or they could wait and take the second-best interior lineman in the draft in the second round.
Stefan Wisniewski was a four-year starter at Penn State, following in the footsteps of both his father and his uncle. He played at both guard positions and center, but most likely projects to center at the next level.
Now, I like Dominic Raiola. He's a great leader, and displays great technique to help compensate for his small size. But that small size is going to become more of an issue and harder to compensate for as Raiola moves further from age 30.
This might be a good time to find his replacement, even if he doesn't get replaced right away. Wisniewski outweighs Raiola by almost 30 pounds, and he delivers considerably more power while maintaining approximately the same level of technique and quickness.
If it's not yet time to put Raiola out to pasture, that's fine. The Lions could also use an upgrade for Stephen Peterman, and Wisniewski could fill that role immediately and slide in to center when the time comes.