In case you missed it, it’s “What If?” week at SB Nation, where we imagine scenarios that could have gone differently for our favorite teams. Our first installment imagined a scenario in which the Lions had re-signed Ndamukong Suh after the 2014 season.
No football decision over the past five years has tormented the Detroit Lions fanbase more than the decision general manager Martin Mayhew made on May 8, 2014.
The Lions, coming off a collapse of epic proportions in the 2013 season, were in need of one piece to push them back into NFC North contention. With the 10th overall pick in the draft, they were poised to get an immediate playmaker.
Mayhew, much to the chagrin of the Lions fanbase, thought North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron was the missing puzzle piece. Unfortunately, not only did that decision prove to be wrong, but it remains the biggest blemish on Mayhew’s career in Detroit.
Though Ebron was an unpopular pick from Day 1, fans were split on who the Lions should have drafted. Some wanted Odell Beckham Jr., others wanted Calvin Pryor and a small, but noticeable portion of fans wanted defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Donald’s career immediately blew up, and suddenly Ebron’s career was irrevocably connected to Donald’s. As the Rams defensive tackle quickly emerged as one of the best defensive players in the league, Ebron went on to have one of the most divisive four years in Detroit sports history. It soon wasn’t about Mayhew’s poor decision to pick Ebron, but rather his decision not to draft Donald.
So let’s rewind history, and ask ourselves: What if the Lions had drafted Aaron Donald instead? A question, I’m sure, many of you have tearfully asked yourselves in the mirror. No? Just me?
What if the Lions have drafted Aaron Donald in 2014?
Rams fans are currently drooling over the prospect of having Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh lined up next to each other for the 2018 season, but the Lions could have made that a reality four years prior. With one more year left on Suh’s contract, Donald could have teamed up with Suh in 2014 and taken that team to a whole new level.
That 2014 Lions team was one of the best in recent history, and with Donald on the squad there’s a very good chance they could have made a deep run in the playoffs, rather than a quick, bitter end in Dallas. I won’t dare speculate how far they could have gone, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a very good chance that playoff win drought would be gone—as would that pesky narrative that Matthew Stafford has never won a big game.
But the impact of Donald’s addition would have been felt even more in the following years. Having Donald’s presence would have softened the blow of losing Suh to free agency, and would have prevented the Lions from using valuable draft picks to grab Haloti Ngata via a trade. Much like the Packers seamlessly transitioned from Favre to Rodgers, the Lions could have moved on from Suh to Donald with only minor turbulence.
Detroit’s defense has flailed since losing Suh, costing nearly every Lions defensive coach their job in 2018. However, Donald is the type of franchising-changing player that the Lions defense likely could have kept its head above water, especially as the secondary steadily improved every year.
If the Lions had a pass-rushing threat like Donald throughout 2015-2017, it would have only made players like Glover Quin and Darius Slay look even better. And can you imagine Donald working alongside Ezekiel Ansah? Left tackles would be in for a world of hurt.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Donald would have had the same kind of success in Detroit that he’s enjoyed with the Rams. Donald came into a solid situation in St. Louis/Los Angeles. He had Robert Quinn working aside him and a solid linebacker corps filled with Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis behind him. While the Lions had a similarly talented roster in 2014, it quickly fell apart due to injuries. Detroit likely would have had to heavily rely upon Donald to keep the defense competitive. Whether he would have risen to the occasion is simply impossible to know.
Still, there’s little doubt the Lions would be better off with Donald on the roster, especially seeing as though the Lions let go of Ebron this offseason without getting anything in return. Even if the Lions were in the middle of an ugly contract negotiation with Donald right now, there would be considerably more excitement surrounding the defense, even if the Lions had retained their old coaching staff.