The Detroit Lions need to upgrade their offensive line, that much cannot be denied. Many expected Detroit to make a big play to improve their tackle position during free agency, but after failing to land Russell Okung, the acquisition of Geoff Schwartz just felt like a footnote in the offseason. Since then, just about every offensive tackle prospect has been mocked to the Lions in the first round of the draft.
But what if the Lions went in a different direction to improve the offensive line in the first round? NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah has an out-of-the-box idea, giving Detroit center Ryan Kelly out of Alabama with the 16th overall pick in his latest mock draft. Center has been a position of much discussion this offseason. Many have been displeased with Travis Swanson's progression in the NFL, but very few have discussed improving the position with the Lions' first selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. Is this a realistic option? Let's break it down.
Is a center worth picking with the 16th overall pick?
With such a high pick in the draft, teams are expected to get a high-impact player at a highly-sought after position. Center isn't exactly the kind of pick you'd typically expect to fill that need. In fact, over the past ten years, the first center in the draft has been taken, on average, around pick 35 (34.9, to be exact). Mike Pouncey was highest taken center in the draft over the past ten year (15th overall in 2011), so it wouldn't be unheard of for the Lions to pick a center this early. But in 2007 and 2008, the first center off the board had to wait all the way until pick 59 to be selected.
However, in the past decade, six centers have been taken in the first round. And of those six first-rounders, five have already made the Pro Bowl, with the one outlier being Cameron Erving, who was a rookie last year.
So, yes, a center is worth a first round pick. In fact, if you're looking to improve the center position, it is better not to wait until later rounds, as early picks have had a ridiculous success rate lately.
Is Kelly truly a first-round prospect?
Simply grabbing Kelly in the first round because first-round centers have been successful makes no sense if Kelly's talent doesn't warrant an first-day selection. But by most expert's accounts, Kelly has it all.
Ryan Kelly committed no penalties all season. He had 20 knockdowns. He's a freaking man.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 16, 2016
Kelly just moved from 58 to 22 on my board. https://t.co/nZa91qX92d— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 16, 2016
I think Ryan Kelly is an All-Pro center. Move your current center to guard if you must. https://t.co/5jXJe0sg3G— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 16, 2016
Kelly is a mauler that went up against top competition in the SEC. A two-year starter, Kelly has some nastiness to his game that NFL coaches love. He showed scheme versatility at Alabama and produced at a high level. He’ll be in the conversation for the top center come April.
Tenacious leader and three-year starter for highly successful Alabama program that puts a heavy emphasis on physical and mental toughness. Kelly might not be a combine warrior, but when the pads are strapped, he plays with enough strength and athleticism to thrive in both gap and zone running schemes. While he could use more mass on his frame, Kelly has the necessary skill set and football intelligence to step in and challenge for a starting position right away.
Kelly is a prospect who mostly stuck around the bottom of the first round in most early mock drafts, but has slowly been rising among some experts, culminating in Jeremiah's aforementioned mock.
Regardless of where experts see him landing, he is generally accepted as the class' best center available. He did not allow a sack in 2015 and only ceded four hurries. Kelly clearly has the talent, and a pick at 16 overall does not appear to be much of a stretch. But...
Are the Lions prepared to give up on Travis Swanson?
This is the biggest hurdle to the Kelly-to-Lions argument. Swanson is just 25 years old and is coming off his first full season as the team's starting center. He has just 19 starts under his belt, and while last season was a big disappointment in his career, he did seem to pick it up toward the end of the year.
But on the other hand, Swanson did suffer a shoulder injury at the end of the season, causing him to undergo surgery earlier this year. Do you excuse Swanson's poor play due to this lingering injury or are you concerned this injury will continue to set back his career? This is a question the Lions must face.
Considering the Lions' need for depth in many positions in this draft, center seems like a risky prospect this offseason. But if Detroit is convinced they need to upgrade the center position as soon as possible, Kelly would be a more-than-worthy pick at 16 overall.