7 things I’ll be watching for the Lions at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine
It’s NFL Scouting Combine week! The annual NFL draft mecca in Indianapolis will feature over 300 prospects going through an extensive job interview in front of hundreds of NFL coaches, GMs, doctors, scouts and an equal amount of media.
The combine kicked off on Tuesday morning with interviews with various NFL GMs and head coaches, though the Lions contingent of Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes doesn’t get podium time until Wednesday afternoon. Player interviews begin thereafter, as do on-field workouts and measurements. Those run through Sunday.
I’ll be in Indy for my 15th combine since 2004. Here are some of the key points I’ll be focusing on with an eye for the Lions in the draft, free agency and otherwise.
Sorting out the top of the CB class
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There is little doubt the Lions are looking at the top of the cornerback class, a position that is considered one of the best and deepest in the draft. There are generally three CBs projected to the Lions in the first round:
Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
The measurements of the trio are important. We know Witherspoon is smaller, but how much smaller? How does Porter fare in the agility and explosion drills? Does Gonzalez post the elite athletic numbers he’s expected to produce? Can anyone else (Maryland’s Deonte Banks or Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes) crash the top 18 overall?
Agility numbers on the offensive linemen
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The Lions are potentially in the market for a new starting right guard; Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s status after missing 2022 with back surgery remains unknown, as is the case with presumptive top reserve Tommy Kraemer. Last year’s starter, Evan Brown, is a free agent.
Detroit is also in the market for a third tackle, a position they often utilize as a de facto blocking tight end. Matt Nelson is a restricted free agent, while Dan Skipper is free and clear.
These Lions value agility as much as strength in their offensive linemen. Short shuttle and 3-cone times are more important to Detroit than bench press numbers or 40-yard dash times. Guys with impressive arm length who can also test above-average in agility figure to be Detroit targets more than those who don’t met those criteria.
Bryce Young's measurements
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The Heisman Trophy winner isn’t going to throw or work out at the combine, as was generally expected. But Young will get officially weighed and measured, and that’s where all eyes will be.
Everyone knows Young is small, even for smaller QBs. The question is, how unusually small? Alabama listed Young at 6 feet tall and 194 pounds, figures that are quite obviously inflated.
Early speculation around draft circles is that Young is somewhere around 5-foot-10 and played in the 185-pound range. Those dimensions are very small historically. Kyler Murray was 5-foot-10 but plays in the 215-220 range.
If Young is indeed that small, it could impact his appeal in the first five picks–the ones above the Lions. The overriding rumor is that Young has focused on getting to 200 pounds to assuage fears about his slight build. We’ll see how that plays out.
Where's the beef?
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It’s no secret the Lions need interior defensive line help. Alim McNeill is a building block, but the only others under contract are Benito Jones, Demetrius Taylor and injured Levi Onwuzurike. For a team that likes to rotate guys to keep them fresh, that’s a huge hole.
Georgia’s Jalen Carter won’t work out here in Indy, but several other DTs will be on full display for Holmes, new DL coach John Scott Jr. and the Lions. Among those who figure to hold some appeal for Detroit:
Mazi Smith, Michigan
Bryan Bresee, Clemson
Siaki Ika, Baylor
Tuli Tuipulotu, USC
Gervon Dexter, Florida
Adetomiba Adebawore, Northwestern
Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin
Keondre Coburn, Texas
Workouts and interviews for these big men are very important for the Lions contingency in Indy.
Tyree Wilson' week
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Wilson, the Texas Tech defensive end, has surged upwards in recent mock drafts. In several recent ones, including my own, the freakishly long and powerful Wilson was a top-five overall pick.
There are contemporary projections that send Wilson to Detroit with the No. 6 pick too. Guys built like J.J. Watt don’t come along very often, but Wilson is a very similar body type and style of player coming into the NFL.
His draft stock is one of the most variable across the top 15 or so prospects. If Wilson has a great week in Indy, there’s a decent chance he crashes the top five overall–which pushes a player not typically expected to be on the board for Detroit at No. 6 into Lions’ availability.
Backup QB buzz
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One of the biggest Lions mysteries is where the team is looking to go with the QB position behind Jared Goff. There are many possible pathways to explore in backing up Goff, the only QB under contract in 2023.
One of those pathways is to take a developmental QB after the first couple of rounds and count on good coaching and a strong offensive system to help create a good backup, perhaps even an eventual starter. After a decent Senior Bowl week, Fresno State’s Jake Haener is one of the best candidates to be that type of prospect for the Lions in 2023.
Haener isn’t the only one, however. The interviews, medicals and on-field workouts figure to help the Lions sort through the likes of BYU’s Jaren Hall, Tanner McKee from Stanford, Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, Clayton Tune from Houston and others.
It could also convince the Lions that they need to draft a quarterback earlier to make sure they land someone they can trust, like Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Anthony Richardson from Florida… or eschew drafting one completely and investing more in free agency to get a capable backup for Goff–something the team hasn’t had yet in the Holmess era.
LB movement drills
In general, the position-specific drills the players go through aren’t terribly critical in the evaluation process. There are notable exceptions, and the linebacker drills on the turf inside Lucas Oil Stadium qualify.
The Lions (potentially) have to replace free agent starter Alex Anzalone. Speedy reserves Josh Woods and Chris Board are also slated for free agency. That’s a lot of athleticism walking out the door (again–potentially).
Holmes’ history with linebackers is to skimp on premium talents and instead opt for athletically gifted role players. Senior assistant John Dorsey did largely the same when he was GM of both the Chiefs and Browns.
Players like Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes–the two remaining Lions LBs, both drafted by Holmes–stood out for having above-average athleticism but also functional usage of that athleticism. That gets shown in the drills. Watching players complete the game drill in succession gives a nice glimpse of relative athletic ability and how the players translate that into actual football skills.
The linebacker workouts are Thursday afternoon. Pay attention; the Lions will be…