ALLEN PARK — The Detroit Lions built an eight-man draft class over the weekend that is drawing a lot of rave reviews from around the league. I like it, too. I’m not going to slap a grade on it because, well, what does that even mean? How do you give one team an “A” and another an “A-minus” and another a “C” over players who haven’t even strapped on shoulder pads in the NFL yet, much less taken a single rep at practice? There is nothing sillier or more disingenuous than draft grades.
That said, Detroit did do a lot of good work plugging holes with guys who fit what they’re trying to build, and leveraged the board to go after not one, but two guys who just might be the best players at their positions.
First, a look at the class:
Round 1 (second overall): Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan
Round 1 (12th overall): Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama
Round 2 (46th overall): Josh Paschal, DE, Kentucky
Round 3 (97th overall): Kerby Joseph, S, Illinois
Round 5 (177th overall): James Mitchell, TE, Virginia Tech
Round 6 (188th overall): Malcolm Rodriguez, LB, Oklahoma State
Round 6 (217th overall): James Houston, DE, Jackson State
Round 7 (237th overall): Chase Lucas, CB, Arizona State
With that, let’s get to some analysis:
Best pick: Aidan Hutchinson was the best prospect in the draft. He also plays a premium position — a position the Lions happened to neglect for years. They hadn’t invested a first-round pick in an edge rusher since Ezekiel Ansah nearly a decade ago, which in today’s NFL — which is all about the pass, baby — is insane. No wonder their rush has scraped its ass on the bottom of the league for years.
Charles Harris and Romeo Okwara are solid pieces, but every good rush needs game-breaking talent or offenses will figure out how to scheme you up. And while Aidan Hutchinson might not be a Bosa brother, he’s already a really good player who could become that kind of game-breaker. I think most teams not named the Jacksonville Jaguars would have taken him first overall. And you should have heard Aaron Glenn after Hutchinson fell to No. 2. The coordinator wandered into the press room all smiles, and just kept muttering “true fit” over and over like the record was scratched.
“Man, it’s a true fit,” Glenn said. “It’s a really true fit — and this is probably my fifth time saying this. We’re excited to have this player.”
Biggest risk: Trades up the board are inherently risky because the price you (almost always) pay takes a bullet out of your chamber. To that end, trading Nos. 32, 34 and 66 to Minnesota for 12 and 46 on Thursday night was probably the riskiest move of the entire Brad Holmes era. Detroit effectively gave up a second-round pick to make that deal, and gave it to a division rival at that.
But in this particular case, I was a big fan of the aggressiveness. The Lions essentially forfeited a second-round pick (34th overall) to move up not only in the first round (from 32 to 12) but also the second (66 to 46). As far as moves into the top 15 are concerned, that’s a tremendous value. Just ask the trade charts, almost all of which said Detroit got the better of Minnesota.
That’s good. Even better: The trade brought a second premium prospect to Detroit. And that is what this team has lacked more than just about anything — premium talent. The middle class of the roster has been pretty good at times, and there’s a lot to like about it right now. But every good team needs playmakers, and the Lions have fewer playmakers than just about any team in the league. Guys that teams have to game plan around — and can break you anyway. And that’s why I loved the aggressiveness to go get Jameson Williams, because that guy will break games. Pop in the tape from last year, and you’ll see it. Doesn’t even matter which game, because he blew up almost all of them eventually.
Watch that guy run, and you’ll see why too. He just pulls away from anyone. This guy is just so much faster than everything else on the field. He topped 23 mph twice last year, once in a game and another time in practice. You know how many guys were clocked at 23 mph in the NFL last season? I’ll give you a hint: It rhymes with hero. Not even Tyreek runs like this.
Of course, the Lions gave up the opportunity to select quality prospects like Lewis Cine, Breece Hall and Jalen Pitre to go get Williams. That’s the cost of doing that business, and we won’t know if the juice was worth the squeeze for another year or two. Guys like that could have helped, too. But the Lions have a lot of solid guys these days. What this roster needs is premium talent, especially at premium positions, and that’s what Jameson Williams is.
“I think you have to look at the magnitude and the grade and the upside and the effectiveness and the potential that we think that player can bring,” Holmes said. “If you have a player that’s at an elite skill set and you’re not sure if you’re going to get that kind of skill set where you’re at, then that’s when you start making plans. I’ve always told you guys, if we have the conviction and we have the buy-in, we know that we’ll be aggressive and go get that player. That’s what we did. I already said there’s not a lot of them, but fortunately, Jameson was one.”
Best value: I really like the upside of the James Mitchell selection in the fifth round. He fell that far because of an ACL injury that limited him to two games in his final season at Virginia Tech, and his career line (52 catches for 938 yards) reads more like a season’s worth of work than anything else. But this guy also averaged 22.0 yards on his 21 catches in his first season as a starter (2019), and 18.0 yards per catch for his career. It’s not like Detroit needs him to be a volume shooter either, with T.J. Hockenson under club control for two more seasons. As long as Mitchell is healthy, I love his upside as a TE2 who can throw a haymaker downfield. Mitchell is already almost healthy, too.
“So I’m seven months out (from tearing my ACL), seven months and some weeks,” Mitchell said. “I’m pretty much back. I’m doing everything from running, cutting, running routes. I’m expected to be fully cleared by June at the latest. I’ll be ready to go by training camp. I’m excited.”
Biggest surprise: Brad Holmes has been so conservative in Detroit that I’m not sure how you could say anything was more out of character than a trade up to No. 12, especially when the trade was targeting a receiver in a deep receiver class. This guy has been patient and by the book since the day he walked into Allen Park. He’s offered exactly one multi-year contract to an external player in free agency (Jamaal Williams) while prioritizing linemen in general and defensive linemen in particular on the first two days of his drafts.
Then there was this trade, where he lit an early second-round pick on fire to go get a wide receiver coming off an ACL injury. I obviously liked the move, but it was a surprise as well. It was interesting to hear Holmes explain his thinking after the trade went down.
“It was a very unpredictable first half (of the first round),” Holmes explained. “But this was a talented group of receivers in this draft. It was a great group. The more we looked at it, the more it was like, ‘Well, there’s so many teams with multiple first-round picks. There are so many teams that might be in that first-round wide receiver market.’ You just never know. There are 31 other boards that you have no idea, and you’re just trying to gather as much information as you can.
“But actually, I was thinking that if we made the jump and got Jameson, looking back on it now, I thought that if we weren’t able to work out a trade to get Jameson, we could work with some other teams to maybe do a trade and get some of the other guys. Well, those guys flew off. They flew off the board too.”
Biggest sleeper: Kerby Joseph was a receiver before moving to safety full time last year, whereupon he instantly picked off five passes — which led the whole country — and forced a turnover in seven of his 12 games overall. He was also the top-graded defensive back in the whole country, according to ProFootballFocus. Not bad for a guy who spent half his college career trying to be a wide receiver. He should have a legitimate chance to win the starting safety job opposite Tracy Walker this season, a competition that also includes former third-round pick Will Harris and free-agent pickup DeShon Elliott.
“I’ve talked a lot about conviction and buy-in and having total, total building conviction, total building buy-in, like every single person in the building is like, ‘I’m totally bought in on this dude,’ and that’s what both of these players were today (in Kerby Joseph and Josh Paschal),” Holmes said. “Just the love for both of them, all the coaching staffs and everybody. Kerby was another guy that’s got a lot of high upside. Still developmental, only been playing the position for about a year, but has been a high-level special teams player. Good rise and elite ball skills and can turn the football over. We’re very excited.”
Biggest remaining need: The Lions did a nice job picking off so many of their biggest needs, especially in the pass rush and at wide receiver. They even got a safety in the third round that might have a shot to start on Day 1. But no team can hit all its needs in a single draft, and that’s especially true for a team mid-rebuild.
For Detroit, its biggest unmet need was at linebacker. Alex Anazalone was a good leader last year, and helped port that Aaron Glenn defense from New Orleans to Detroit. But he’s not exactly a great player either, and at times wasn’t even that good. Maybe the improvements up front will help unlock his game, or Derrick Barnes too. But Detroit didn’t get it at the second level, where guys like Anzalone, Jarrad Davis and Chris Board were signed in free agency. It didn’t happen in the draft either, where no linebacker was taken until Malcolm Rodriguez at 188th overall.
Veteran on the hot seat: In the short term, Austin Bryant might want to consider stuffing some oven mitts into the backside of his football pants or something. Because the temperature on his hindparts has been turned up to a boil with the addition of not one, not two, but three pass rushers. Josh Paschal, the second-round pick, is more of an interior-type who probably won’t compete directly with Bryant. But Aidan Hutchinson is a true edge rusher, while sixth-round pick James Houston could work the edge at either the first or second level. With Charles Harris and Romeo Okwara also back, plus Julian Okwara too, man, Bryant might want to consider freshening up his resume.
In the long term, though … hot seat isn’t the right word for Jared Goff, but he certainly was put on the clock this offseason. I think Detroit would have gone after a quarterback had one been available with the No. 2 pick. Obviously that was never going to happen in a year where only Kenny Pickett was taken in the first 70-plus picks. What a remarkable indictment of this quarterbacks class.
Instead, the Lions gave Goff a reprieve while continuing to build around him. But that won’t happen again next year. Not if he struggles with a supporting cast like this. Detroit’s offense was perking up down the stretch last season anyway. Now they’ve added outside threats like DJ Chark, who has 4.34 speed, and Jameson Williams, who just might be the fastest player in the entire NFL now, to a receiver group that already returned Amon-Ra St. Brown, the most productive receiver in the whole league in the final month of last season, and Josh Reynolds, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch for Detroit last season. Then there’s T.J. Hockenson. And D’Andre Swift. Oh, right, and one of the best offensive lines in the league.
There’s no reason this offense shouldn’t be good next season, and for Goff to be good in it. If he’s not — if they’re not — then Detroit is going to use those two first-round picks to go hunting for someone better in 2023.