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2017 NFL Draft review: Lions got their linebacker, but what could have been?

Jarrad Davis was the first round pick for the Lions in the 2017 NFL Draft, and while there was a serious need at linebacker, Detroit had plenty of prospects to choose from when it was time to turn in their card. Let’s take a look at how some of those other players Detroit passed on have fared so far in their respective rookie campaigns.

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit selected Jarrad Davis with the 21st pick in the 2017 NFL Draft when the Lions desperately needed help at linebacker, and an overwhelming majority of fans were happy with the selection—over 90 percent of people polled after the pick was made graded the pick as a ‘B’ or better.

Through the first 12 games of his professional career, Davis’ play can be considered inconsistent at best, but it was a tall task to ask a 21-year-old rookie to become the team’s signal caller on defense and improve one of the worst linebacker corps in the NFL to a level of respectability. What might be most frustrating about Davis’ play so far this season is that there have been downs where we’ve seen the player likened to Ray Lewis during the pre-draft hullabaloo, but then we’ve seen the snaps where Davis looks totally caught in the headlights when in zone coverage.

To Detroit and Teryl Austin’s credit, the Lions have tinkered with the way they’ve used Davis as the season has progressed. By having him on the field defending the run, they’re playing to his immediate strengths, and making it a point of emphasis to limit his playing time on passing downs.

So while Davis’ transition to the NFL game has seen both ups and downs, and thus not gone the way many expect from a first-round selection, it isn’t by any means a cause to hit the button or slap a certain label on him.

As we’re ought to do, it’s totally fair to take a look back at the 2017 NFL Draft and check in on the players fans were clamoring for and analysts were projecting the Lions to choose at 21. Here are four players drafted after Davis that I’ve pieced together from various pre-draft polls on Pride of Detroit as being the “most-wanted” prospects heading into the draft.

Reuben Foster

While the seconds were ticking off the clock at pick No. 21, the Lions were faced with a tough decision. Even with a host of off-the-field concerns, Reuben Foster—the football player—being available this late in the first round was a total surprise. By all accounts, Foster was a top-ten talent in the draft, regardless of position, and the best linebacker prospect in the draft. But an incident at the NFL Combine and concerns over concussions and a shoulder surgery led to him falling in the first round.

Considering the Lions ended up choosing Davis means they were clearly in the market for a linebacker, and Foster did have a pre-draft visit in Detroit, so it’s impossible to divorce the idea the Lions chose Davis over Foster with their first-round pick.

For this season, it looks like Detroit may have made a gaffe that Thursday night in Philadelphia.

Foster, according to Pro Football Focus, is the fifth-ranked linebacker in the NFL and playing at an incredibly high level, posting a grade of 89.7. However, Foster’s injuries have played a part in in his rookie season, limiting him to just eight games, but he’s been uber-productive for the San Francisco 49ers in those appearances, notching 51 tackles and playing stellar run defense.

In Pro Football Focus’ weekly rookie rankings article, Foster ranks fourth through Week 14, and aside from injuries, there are only great things to say about Foster:

Foster continues his ascension up this list – moving up two spots, into the top-five – after another strong game this past week (84.3 overall grade against Houston). The 31st overall pick currently ranks fifth among linebackers in terms of overall grade for the season and he’s been near-elite in run defense (89.9) while also grading well in coverage (80.7). Since returning in Week 9, Foster has finished 4-of-5 games with a grade of at least 80.0 and his 22 total stops over that stretch are tied for the third-most by a linebacker. The rookie out of Alabama has earned a positive grade on 21.7 percent of his run defense snaps this season, that’s the best rate among all linebackers and he’s the only linebacker to be over double the league average of 10.5 percent.

Taco Charlton

Charlton was an easy choice for many Lions fans to get on board with during the lead up to the draft. Playing for the University of Michigan, many were familiar with his play on Saturday’s, and with the Lions’ need for help on the edge of their defensive line—that was only exacerbated with the loss of Kerry Hyder months later—it seemed like a great choice. Charlton was passed up by Detroit and instead selected by the Dallas Cowboys seven spots later with the No. 28 overall pick in the draft.

In his rookie season with the Cowboys, Charlton, much like Davis, has gone through his own share of struggles on the field. According to Pro Football Focus, Charlton is the 94th-ranked edge defender in the NFL this season with an overall grade of 53.8. In 14 games this season, Charlton has 12 tackles, 2.0 sacks, and a forced fumble, hardly the type of production that would have made much of an impact for this Lions team—nor warrant choosing him over Davis.

T.J. Watt

A bit of a dark horse and late bloomer in the pre-draft process for the Lions, Watt’s name began to ever-so-slowly creep into the first round of mock drafts. With that stamp of approval, the Watt-to-Detroit train gained steam with fans, and then it nearly ran off the rails with an NFC Scout telling Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman the Lions “want” Watt.

While Watt’s value in terms of where he should be drafted was of much debate before the draft, the Steelers ended up selecting the Wisconsin product with their first round pick, 30th overall, nine picks after the Lions took Davis.

Watt has stepped in and contributed for a Steelers defense that ranks as the 11th best defense according to Football Outsiders. In terms of individual statistical totals, Watt has been one of the most productive rookies, tallying 33 tackles, 6.0 sacks, six passes defended, a forced fumble, and an interception. But among qualifying edge defenders, Watt ranks just 48th with a grade of 77.7 according to Pro Football Focus.

Gareon Conley

Cornerback was the deepest position in the 2017 NFL Draft with six taken in the first 33 picks. Conley was one of the top corners in the class, and in the months leading up to the draft, was expected to be a first-round selection. Our own Alex Reno even selected him in the Pride of Detroit mock draft.

However, Conley’s draft stock took a hit when he became the subject of a rape investigationa investigation that would eventually end and Conley not being charged.

The Oakland Raiders ended up taking him with the 24th overall pick, but his rookie season was cut short due to a shin injury that required surgery and landed him on injured reserve. In the two games he played in this season, Conley had 5 tackles and a pass defended.

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