Every week during the 2021 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field for a different NFL team and begin projecting NFL draft prospects at positions of concerning need.
Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Rounds 5-7) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.
This week’s NFL draft makeover is for the Detroit Lions.
It has actually been the best week of the Lions' 2021 season. Following the 0-10-1 start, Detroit's first victory of the season — and first under head coach Dan Campbell — was one to remember. It was hard not to have visceral reaction to Jared Goff hitting Amon-Ra St. Brown for the game-winning score, and you can be sure the Lions' marketing team will be milking that puppy for a while.
But, of course, the afterglow subsides eventually, and the Lions know they have a lot of work to do to win on a more regular basis. That work starts in earnest this offseason as the roster churn continues.
The Lions have few major free agents to concern themselves with keeping, plus a decent amount of salary-cap space to play with — something on the order of $40 million before cuts — on the open market. And they certainly will spend some.
However, their greatest offseason assets will be the additional first-round picks they received from the Rams in the Jared Goff deal, one in each of the next two drafts. The Lions are a bit shy of picks beyond that after a flurry of minor deals, but they could receive up to three compensatory selections in 2022, including a potential third-rounder for Kenny Golladay.
Their first pick next year could be at No. 1 overall. They're in the running for the top spot, currently edging out the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans for that honor. And yet as important as that pick should be, the Lions can't expect that spot to land them their quarterback of the future.
Let's look at the Lions' biggest needs heading into the offseason as GM Brad Holmes tries to bolster the talent level following a pretty respectable maiden draft class in 2020.
Early round prospect
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder
For the purposes of this exercise, we're going to forgo the potential debate that could ensue at No. 1 — Kayvon Thibodeaux or Aidan Hutchinson? — which we wrote about elsewhere this week.
The Lions know they still need to find a young QB around whom they can build. Goff's late flurry against the Vikings aside, he's had a mostly tough first season in Detroit. And even though Goff's contract likely binds him to the Lions for another year, he can't be counted on as the starter for very long, it would appear.
So the sweet spot to landing a QB might happen with either the Lions' second first-round pick (the Rams selection currently sits at No. 24 overall) or their second-round choice, currently at No. 33 overall.
We think this might be the ultimate landing range for a player such as Ridder. Coming into the season, and even following Cincinnati's big win early in the year over Notre Dame, we've viewed Ridder as a high-floor, lower-ceiling prospect as an NFL starter. But he undeniably has raised his game of late and played his best football down the stretch, heading into the Bearcats' historic playoff appearance against Alabama.
It would not shock us at all to see Holmes at that game as the Lions start drilling down on the 2022 class' QB prospects. Pitt's Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss' Matt Corral and North Carolina's Sam Howell are three prospects who could factor into the Round 1 picture as well. But assuming all three are off the board — which isn't actually a crazy notion — Ridder could be a realistic option.
Ridder and Howell likely make the most sense for Detroit, from our vantage point. Perhaps Howell's toughness this season, taking several shots behind a leaky offensive line and while being deployed more as a runner this season, could endear him to the blue-blooded Campbell. But Ridder could be a similar-caliber prospect (albeit a different style of quarterback) who is more readily available to the Lions without the need of a notable trade up.
Ridder's poise has stood out this season, and though he still needs to work on his middle-field accuracy, he could profile as a ready-made performer with nearly 50 college starts on his resumé.
Clemson WR Justyn Ross
There are big needs at receiver and cornerback, and either spot easily could be addressed with one of the Lions' higher selections. Based on this projection, we think there might be a better value at wideout in this range.
Determining Ross' ultimate landing spot is very tricky right now. If he was fully healthy, he'd be a top-10 or 15 selection. But following a neck injury that cost him the entire 2020 season and appeared to hinder him this season as he worked his way back, there's just not much we can say about where he'll be taken until teams are able to perform full medical workups. The first round just feels like a stretch now.
At 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, Ross possesses elite length with a similar frame to what Golladay provided the Lions before he left in free agency. Ross is a short-strider and could run in the high-4.5 range, which doesn't exactly make him a deep threat. However, he wins 50-50 battles in the air and can be a red-zone weapon who boosts a team that currently ranks near the bottom of the league in efficiency in that category.
A WR core of Josh Reynolds, St. Brown, Ross and Kalif Raymond still would require additions of more speed and quickness. But it could provide ample length and size, along with TE T.J. Hockenson, to keep a station-to-station passing game humming efficiently.
If the Lions are going to take the safe route with a QB such as Ridder, making a more risky selection with a prospect such as Ross could be a worthy complement.
Houston CB-RS-WR Marcus Jones
In a perfect world, the Lions would land some CB help prior to this. But it wouldn't at all shock us to see them double dip at the position, with both early- and later-round selections there.
Jones is a fascinating prospect who has some similarities to Jamal Agnew, whom the Lions' previous regime drafted in Round 5 back in 2017. Agnew was an elite returner at the college level whose NFL position was unclear; he began as a cornerback for the Lions but now has made his mark as a wide receiver, now with the Jaguars.
Jones has similar qualifications, as an athlete who can take it to the house as a returner (two TD returns each on punts and kickoffs this season). Is he an offensive prospect? He's taken snaps at running back and receiver, and his size (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) suggests that he might be a nickel only at the next level.
He's also played more outside corner than inside this season for the Cougars, so a lot of Jones' future projection could come at the Senior Bowl. It's also entirely possible that the Lions' staff will be coaching in Mobile, so that's why the Jones-to-Detroit pairing is one we should watch.
In short, Jones is just a useful football player. Year 1 in the NFL likely will be spent working primarily on special teams in games while developing at an offensive/defensive position to be named later behind the scenes. It's the type of match we could see in Detroit, which needs all the hidden-yardage benefits it can find.