With the NFL Combine in full swing, draft fever is soon to take hold, so it makes sense to jump into the first mock draft of the offseason.
Typically, the tricky part about putting together a mock draft this early is it doesn’t take into consideration how the Lions approach free agency. In March’s mad dash to add talent, does Detroit value and target marquee, starter-level talent like they did a year ago with Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman? Do they play it simple, opting to find depth pieces and players they can plug and play on the cheap?
Lucky for us, the Lions have quite a few positions of need, and free agency can’t address all of them—especially when the best player in the draft slips past the first two teams...
This year, I’m using The Draft Network’s “Mock Draft Machine” to put together my drafts.
Round 1, Pick 3: EDGE Chase Young (Ohio State)
The crown jewel of the draft ends up available for the taking when Detroit’s number is called at No. 3. After Cincinnati predictably selected Joe Burrow, Washington made good on head coach Ron Rivera’s promise that the team’s interest in a quarterback with the second overall pick isn’t “due diligence.” With Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa off the board, quarterback-needy teams aren’t calling Detroit, but with Chase Young available, there’d be no reason for Bob Quinn to pick up the phone.
Chase Young is the best player in the Draft regardless of position. pic.twitter.com/5Lttu2l7ax— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 13, 2020
Young was an absolute terror off the edge at Ohio State, and it’s hard to poke holes in his game. Athleticism? His tape oozes with examples of elite burst, bend, and power. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, he has the ideal size and length for an edge defender in today’s NFL. Technically speaking, if a tackle is brave enough to set and punch against Young, the Ohio State product has a bevy of pass rush moves and hand-counters to get his way to the quarterback. He isn’t a flash in the pan when it comes to production, he’s got the stats to back it: as a sophomore in 2018, Young totaled a whopping 75 pressures according to Pro Football Focus, only to follow up that performance with 18 sacks—an Ohio State record for a season—and 56 total pressures in his bogus suspension-shortened junior campaign.
In Detroit, Young would project as an OLB, or a JACK in Patricia’s 3-4 scheme, but the possibilities for where the Lions could deploy him on defense makes him all that much more of a no-brainer for the third overall pick.
Round 2, Pick 35: S Xavier McKinney (Alabama)
An absolute steal here at the top of the second round, it’d be damn near impossible for the Lions to shy away from the best player available just because it isn’t a position of need necessarily. McKinney is truly a Swiss-Army knife on defense, capable of lining up all over the place. At Alabama, McKinney played free safety, slot corner, along the defensive line, in the box, you name the spot, he played it—and all at a very high level.
Here’s just how well the true junior graded out over his career with the Crimson Tide, courtesy of Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner:
On 1,848 snaps in three seasons at Alabama, McKinney has proven that there’s not much on the football field he can’t do. He’s earned grades of 84.7 in run defense, 90.9 as a pass-rusher, and 91.2 in coverage for his career. The true junior is as well-rounded a safety as exists in this draft class and has only been getting better. He’s not only graded out exceptionally well in both seasons as a starter, but McKinney has actually improved his grade in every facet from 2018 to 2019.
As evidenced in the clip above, McKinney isn’t afraid to bring himself and all his momentum with him to punish opposing ball carriers. He’s instinctive, sticky in coverage (three touchdowns allowed on 984 career coverage snaps at Bama), and tough as nails. In Detroit, McKinney would be an absolute dynamo to pair with Tracy Walker, further fortifying the back end of the Lions’ defense.
Round 3, Pick 67: EDGE Joshua Uche (Michigan)
With their first pick, Detroit grabbed the best pass rusher in the draft in Chase Young, and in the third round, the Lions find themselves a player who can further their pressure off the edge in Michigan’s Joshua Uche. Don’t take my word for it, just listen to the best offensive tackle prospect the draft has to offer in Alabama’s Jedrick Wills:
Jedrick Wills' toughest matchup in college? Michigan's Josh Uche pic.twitter.com/ESPhvixBX3— PFF (@PFF) February 26, 2020
A move to off-ball linebacker would best accentuate Uche’s strengths at the next level. He’s an explosive player off the edge with wicked athleticism, and capable of working past guards as a linebacker to get to the ball quickly in the backfield, but for as undersized as he is, Uche isn’t going to be the type of player to set the edge and be a stout run-defender. Think of Uche as more of a Devon Kennard-type player in Patricia’s scheme, whereas in other systems he would project early on as a pure pass-rusher.
Erik Schlitt of USA Today’s Lions Wire documented the dominant Senior Bowl performance Uche put on all week long for the North team coached by the Detroit Lions staff.
Round 4, Pick 99: WR K.J. Hill (Ohio State)
The Lions recently re-signed wide receiver Danny Amendola to a one-year contract extension and for good reason: Amendola was one of the most productive and reliable skill position players on the team in 2019. With that being said, all three of Detroit’s top wideouts—Amendola, Kenny Golladay, and Marvin Jones Jr.—could be free agents after this season. Of course Detroit will make re-signing Golladay a priority, but a wide receiver corps in 2021 minus the two aforementioned receivers is a real possibility. Whether or not Amendola re-upped with Detroit was irrelevant for their draft strategy: the team will certainly be targeting a wideout—they had an informal meeting earlier this week at the NFL Combine with Penn State’s KJ Hamler.
But with their fourth-round pick, the Lions nab a shifty space creator at the line of scrimmage in Ohio State’s K.J. Hill—the Buckeyes all-time leader in receptions with 201.
Okay. Give me K.J. Hill. pic.twitter.com/NOXJkS0dUu— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) February 27, 2020
Ready right out of the box, Hill projects to be primarily a slot receiver at the next level, and with a sure set of hands—let only nine out of 210 catchable passes drop according to PFF—and the ability to rack up yards after the catch, Hill could be a longtime fixture in this offense.
Round 5, Pick 131: IDL Leki Fotu (Utah)
Damon Harrison Sr.’s release certainly accelerated the timeline for finding his replacement, but Utah’s Leki Fotu—standing at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds—is the perfect candidate to fill the Snacks-sized hole along the interior of Detroit’s defensive line.
A true run-stuffer, Fotu is best served lined up as a nose tackle, but for his size is surprisingly athletic and capable of making plays all up and down the line of scrimmage. He’s even the type of defender that resets the LOS from the 1-gap simply with strength and power:
Trying to study Bradlee Anae but it's so hard to not just watch Leki Fotu.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) February 24, 2020
Resets the LOS vs the USC center with power and totally mucks up this run. pic.twitter.com/qYtn5CRKhU
Round 5, Pick 154: EDGE Anfernee Jennings (Alabama)
Did I mention yet just how outright awful Detroit’s pass rush was a year ago? According to ESPN’s ‘Team Pass Rush Win Rate’ metric, the Lions were dead last in 2019. This isn’t a new concern, by any means. In fact, it was why I mocked Harold Landry to Detroit in my first mock draft of... 2018. Two years later and the Lions pass rush is just as anemic, but injecting Young, Uche, and now Jennings should give it a huge shot in the arm.
Jennings’ athletic profile is concerning, but if he can put together an impressive combine, there’s no way he makes it this far down the draft. But should he measure according to his tape, he could be a great value for Detroit as a crafty pass rusher, but an extremely sturdy run defender—88.6 run-stop grade according to PFF in 2019—something we know this coaching staff covets and
Round 6, Pick 162: CB Dane Jackson (Pittsburgh)
I can only offer my promises that I was targeting cornerback earlier in this mock but couldn’t find the right value after the second round. The landscape of Detroit’s defensive backs could be radically different by the time this offseason is done and over, so grabbing a corner this late often insinuates a “project,” but Pittsburgh’s Dane Jackson could find playing time early on for the Lions.
He’s a physical corner who is more than comfortable playing press man coverage, and a tough-nosed defender in the run game who contributed regularly at Pitt. His size and athleticism are going to limit him at the next level, but his physicality at the LOS and willingness to play the run makes him a prospect likely on the Lions radar.
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