During this week’s NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions built up assets to help construct the future of their franchise.
Leading up to the NFL draft, it was widely considered that the Detroit Lions would be grabbing several players that would plug and play as starters. They did not have as many holes as other teams, by any means, but there were still some needs that had to be filled. It’s well documented by now that the Lions went after the star tight end of the draft with their selection at eighth overall, but what else?
They went with a linebacker, safety, defensive end, cornerback, wide receiver, running back, another tight end, and finally defensive tackle after that.
It was well known that the Lions had holes at tight end, cornerback, rush linebacker, and guard, with depth needs at wide receiver, safety, and defensive end. As you can tell, they played it smart and filled all but one of those needs, leaving only one question mark at the guard position. It is common practice for NFL teams to make cuts and free agent signings leading up to the preseason kickoff, so expect them to make a move to fill that guard spot in the coming months to round out the roster. The lack of a guard being selected is nothing to be upset about, it just didn’t work out the way the team hoped.
Let’s talk about who the Lions did select:
Round 1, Pick #8
T.J. HOCKENSON, TIGHT END, IOWA
Everyone and their mother had an opinion about who the Lions would select with their first pick, and as it turned out, many were disappointed. I really don’t think the unhappiness with this pick is justified. The other options still on the board would have been Ed Oliver, who was not a 3-4 defensive tackle, and never played defensive end, or Devin Bush, who is basically a clone of Jarrad Davis. Guys like Montez Sweat and D.K. Metcalf fell well beyond Detroit’s pick as well.
Many were hoping to trade back, but clearly, the deal wasn’t there. The smart pick here was Hockenson, who will be an ideal addition to recently-hired offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s offense. Bevell is well known to use a lot of two tight end sets, with tight ends who can run block or break off a route in play action. This selection will make a fantastic pairing with new free agent signing Jesse James to make a great 1-2 tight end combo for the next four years.
Hockenson was widely regarded as the most complete tight end in the draft, mirroring what the Lions were hoping to get. He’s a great blocker (possibly the best in this draft) who finished his Iowa career with only two drops. His senior year, he amassed 49 receptions for 760 yards (15.5 yards per reception average) and six touchdowns. Many analysts and NFL scouts regarded Hockenson as the best tight end prospect since Vernon Davis, so even if you didn’t get the player you were hoping for, you should not be upset with this pick. It was at a need and the best prospect in over a decade. His comparisons to Rob Gronkowski appear to be justified. My only reason for the A- grade was due to my hope for trading back.
Round 2, Pick #43
JAHLANI TAVAI, LINEBACKER, HAWAII
Very few analysts had Tavai rated any higher than a 5th-round pick and the few that did look like geniuses. Just before the draft, there were rumblings that teams were high on him in the third round, and he could possibly even go top 50. It was a relatively terrible pick in the eyes of major media, but that should be taken with a grain of salt, considering how NFL front offices really felt about him. Tavai had a great showing during Senior Bowl practices before an injury derailed the majority of the rest of his pre-draft process.
During his college career, Tavai compiled 100-plus tackles in both ’16 and ’17 seasons and had 82 in eight games before an injury his senior year. He also had 16.5 sacks in his career. These numbers best fifth overall pick, Devin White.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn said about Tavai, “Linebackers that play in this defense that are really very, very good natural fits; there’s only a couple every year. So, you wait a year, you may not get him next year, you may not get him the year after. We like thick-built linebackers. Really thick guys that can kind of take on blocks so that when they play the edge they have enough playing strength and enough arm length to set the edge.”
To me, it sounds like Quinn knows he reached, but he had to in order to get the guy that fits his system. His description makes it sound like they were looking for every Patriots linebacker that you can name. I think Tavai has the tools to be a very good starter in the NFL, but there was a considerable amount of better talent on the board at the time.
Round 3, Pick #81
WILL HARRIS, SAFETY, BOSTON COLLEGE
The Lions surrendered a late sixth-round pick to move up and select Will Harris of Boston College, who played under defensive coordinator Paul Pasquiloni. At first, the initial reaction many had to the pick was that it was a waste, with plenty of great talent left on the board. After the initial emotions of the pick washed away, the logic behind the pick became noticeable. Harris is a very, very good athlete. He is a 6-foot-1, 210-pound rocket who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds. He is well known as a hard-hitting safety that is never afraid of contact, but lacks in downfield coverage skill.
Harris finished his college career with 225 tackles, six forced fumbles and recoveries, and seven interceptions. It was not expected for the Lions to select a safety with their third pick, and most thought there were better players out there, but taking Harris just plain makes sense after thinking about it. The Lions used three safeties on the field at the same time quite a bit in the last year, and after the loss of Glover Quin, it’s understandable that they would feel there is a need there. Its very likely Harris will be used down near the line of scrimmage, in the box, or covering the run. Using him this way will hide his flaws and showcase his strengths. It’s exciting to think of how this could unfold for Harris and the Lions.
Round 4, Pick #117
AUSTIN BRYANT, DEFENSIVE END, CLEMSON
After two picks the Lions fans finally got another guy they heard of. Detroit traded back, while acquiring a sixth-round pick to make up for the one they traded the previous round, and selected Austin Bryant. While he is not one of the “star” linemen of the Clemson defensive front, he was a very good player and well coached. Bryant started every game for the Tigers the last two seasons, registering 95 tackles (30.5 for loss) and 17 sacks in that time. He has strength, good technique, and a perfect body type for a defensive end in Matt Patricia’s hybrid defense.
The fourth round is about where he was expected to go, but there were several top 75 prospects still on the board at the selection. I would have liked to see more of a value pick here than just an average one, but overall it seems this is a good pick.
Round 5, Pick #146
AMANI ORUWARIYE, CORNERBACK, PENN STATE
Value, value, value is the theme of Bob Quinn’s fifth-round draft history. First was Pro Bowl return man Jamal Agnew, then came highly regarded and future starter Tyrell Crosby. In 2019, Detroit selected top-50-valued Amani Oruwariye. Leading up to draft day, there were mock drafts floating around with Oruwariye going at the end of the first round, with few letting him out of the second round.
He is a big cornerback (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) who excels in press coverage and is not afraid to tackle. During his senior year, he was considered a lockdown corner for the successful Nittany Lions defense, while garnering first-team All-Big Ten honors and collecting 50 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 pass breakups. He has allowed just a 66.6 passer rating against him in his career. Oruwariye still has some work to do on technique refinement, but he has all the tools to excel. He should be competing with Rashaan Melvin for the starting job immediately. This is by far the best value selection for the Lions, and possibly the entire draft.
Round 6, Pick #184
TRAVIS FULGHAM, WIDE RECEIVER, OLD DOMINION
Fulgham checks in as the second straight value pick for Quinn and company, as many didn’t expect him to make it out of the fourth round. Travis lacks elite athletic ability but makes up for it with refined route running and incredible contested catch ability.
At just over 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Fulgham looks and plays the part of an heir apparent and protege to Marvin Jones, should he depart when his contract ends after this season. Last season, he led Conference USA with 1,083 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 63 catches. This pick could very well prove to be of greater value a couple of years down the road.
Round 6, Pick #186
TY JOHNSON, RUNNING BACK, MARYLAND
Johnson has the upside to be good, but injuries have derailed what could have been a successful career. The summary of Johnson’s game is speed … blistering speed. He was not invited to the combine, but at his pro day, several scouts clocked him in the 4.26 40-yard dash range despite a nagging turf toe injury.
Throughout his college career, Johnson has proved to have home run ability, posting an impressive 7.6 yards per carry with a peak of 9.2 his sophomore year. Unfortunately for Johnson, his injury history, coupled with limited tackle-breaking ability, is why he fell to the sixth round. His path to the Lions’ 53-man roster appears to be as a kick returner, where the team lacks behind Jamal Agnew. Johnson is another pick that could improve his grade in two years, but as of now, his odds to make the final roster are slim.
Round 7, Pick #224
ISAAC NAUTA, TIGHT END, GEORGIA
Wait, another tight end? Why? Actually, you should be asking yourself, “why not?” At this point in the draft, who really cares? Nauta was a former five-star high school recruit who never really put it all together on campus. He started for three years for the Bulldogs in a system that doesn’t prioritize the tight end position, and received good reviews on his blocking and catching ability.
Unfortunately, the summary of Nauta’s college career will come down to his modest 68 catches and 905 yards with eight touchdowns and a rather eye-popping 4.91 40-yard-dash time. Regardless, many scouts gave him a fifth-round grade due to his upside and hunger to get better. This is a low risk, moderate reward pick at a position that still has uncertainty at the third tight end spot. If Detroit finds a player in the seventh round who is better than Roberts or Thomas, that’s great. I would have graded better had Caleb Wilson not still been on the board.
Round 7, Pick #229
P.J. JOHNSON, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, ARIZONA
Johnson is a big bodied guy who has impressive power. He does not get pushed out of his spots easily and is primarily a run stuffer. He is essentially a poor man’s Damon Harrison. Johnson dealt with freak injuries like a burst appendix and a leg tumor through his early college years, playing at small colleges before landing on Arizona’s squad for nine games of his senior year. In that time he had 31 tackles and three sacks. He has the potential and body type to become good, he just is not there yet. I would have preferred Tyree Jackson to be taken with this pick to fight for the backup job.
Detroit went after scheme fit, character and potential time and time again, and most of the picks make sense at least to some degree, even if they weren’t the best player available at the time. Just one year into a scheme and culture change from the arrival of head coach Matt Patricia, it is important to realize that all of these players have the work ethic and character to buy into the system right away.
Even if this new regime draws comparisons to “the Patriot way,” is that really a bad thing? This team model is coming from the best dynasty in NFL history, from a front office and coach that know it best. The fact that so many fans are genuinely confused by so many of the Lions’ picks seems to be a good thing. If the team was taking every big name pick that the fans clamored for then shouldn’t we all be a little more worried?
Take your time to learn about these players. I promise you that the more you know, the more you will like them.