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2017 NFL Draft: Detroit Lions final team needs

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Three tiers of draft needs for the Detroit Lions.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the draft is just a day away, it’s time to take one last look at the Detroit Lions roster and see where the team needs to improve the most. Though general manager Bob Quinn stresses picking the best player available, he acknowledges the importance of blending that strategy with team need.

“I’m big into the best player available,” Quinn said last week. “I mentioned it last year, best player available meshing with kind of what your needs are on your team, so I think you kind of have to look at both avenues when you’re making decisions in the draft.”

While finding the best player available seems to be a crap shoot in the NFL Draft, identifying the team’s needs is decidedly not. It’s very easy to identify this team’s faults, especially with the team’s late-season failures still fairly fresh in our minds.

Let’s take a look at where the Lions could use the most help in this week’s draft.

Tier 1 needs

Linebacker

Without a doubt, the Lions’ biggest need is at linebacker. Though Detroit only plays with three linebackers on the field about 20-25 percent of the time, the Lions don’t currently have the talent to sport even two healthy linebackers. Some may expect Antwione Williams to make a big leap in responsibilities in 2017, but that would be a huge risk on the Lions’ part.

Outside of Williams, the Lions will be bringing back Tahir Whitehead, who had a disappointing 2016 season resulting in the second-worst Pro Football Focus grade among linebackers. Paul Worrilow was added in free agency, but most agree he is best served as depth.

The Lions desperately need a linebacker, and could really use two. Expect Detroit to select a linebacker with one of their first three picks. No other need on the team compares to their need at linebacker.

Tier 2 needs

Defensive linemen

Notice here how I didn’t put defensive end or defensive tackle. The truth is the Lions need both equally.

I’m not a huge fan of the free agency additions at this position. Akeem Spence doesn’t really excel as a pass rusher and doesn’t wow as a run-stuffer either. Cornelius Washington could improve now that he’s back in a 4-3 system, but he remains more potential than reality. Jordan Hill is a guy that could excite, but his injury history is daunting.

As for everyone else, the only Lions player certainly in the long-term plans is A’Shawn Robinson. Haloti Ngata is in the twilight of his career, Ezekiel Ansah is on the last year of his contract and the rest of the crew is filled with replaceable parts. Kerry Hyder is the one wild card of the group, coming off of a career year, but even he is on a single-year deal.

The Lions need pass rushers and people movers. In 2016, they weren’t getting to the quarterback, they weren’t stuffing the run and that all starts up front. Detroit just flat out needs defensive line talent.

Wide receiver

The Detroit Lions don’t have a No. 3 receiver on their roster, even if some are expecting a breakout season from TJ Jones or Jace Billingsley. Even the wildest hopes for either of these players would fail to come close to the production that Anquan Boldin gave the Lions in 2016. Granted, Boldin could very well return to the team this year, but he likely won’t make a decision until June or July.

Even if Boldin does comes back, the Lions need to think about adding a young, talented receiver. Obviously Boldin is at the tail-end of his career, but even Marvin Jones (27) and Golden Tate (28) are nearing the age where physical traits are on the decline. Detroit needs to add an skillful youngster to the mix before it’s too late.

Tier 3 needs

Running back

I think Ameer Abdullah is in for a big 2017 season. I really do. But here’s the thing: I don’t see any other Lions back being a reliable runner next season. Theo Riddick isn’t made to carry the rock. Zach Zenner is really a guy that should only be coming off the bench. And I’m sorry to say that Dwayne Washington will likely be on the roster bubble for most of his career.

If the Lions are serious about improving the run game next season, they need a seriously capable runner, whether Abdullah remains healthy for the entire season or not.

Cornerback

I happen to like Nevin Lawson more than most, and Detroit’s addition of DJ Hayden makes them a little more versatile in the defensive backfield. But this unit could still use a face lift. I would categorize the Lions’ current set of cornerbacks as adequate. The problem is, if Darius Slay goes down, suddenly that gets downgraded to a terrible unit.

I’d love to see Detroit add a cornerback on the second day, so they can bring him along slowly and eventually have someone to pair alongside Slay for the long term. As many have pointed out, the Lions currently do not have a cornerback on the roster—outside of Slay—that is signed beyond the 2018 season.

Tight end

Eric Ebron’s fifth-year option has still not been picked up, leaving serious doubt as to whether the former first-round pick is in the Lions’ long-term plans. Detroit did finally address their blocking tight end need this offseason by adding Darren Fells in March, but he signed to just a one-year deal. Detroit has devoted quite a bit of draft capital to the position in the past, but the cupboard is still nearly bare. I would be very surprised if the Lions didn’t add at least one tight end on draft day.