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Why the Lions’ Day 2 draft haul looks much better after seeing complete class

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Sometimes we get things wrong. Sometimes we just assume things wrong, and when we change our outlook we can view things in a different light.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl-Fan Day Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft is always an adventure. When you follow the players closely for several years, then focus tightly on them during their last few months of the draft process, there’s a sense of satisfaction when players are drafted to teams you expected to have targeted them or they go in the relative range you expected them.

Mr. Irrelevant’s selection is an annual tradition, but for those of us that cover the draft it also brings a sense of closure, a year or more of work that you can put on the shelf and revisit in the coming years to review and improve your process. When you share your thoughts about draft prospects with others, the expectation is that your responses will be mixed.

Some will agree, some will disagree, some will inquire about your process or views, some will scream at you for not loving the player you’re stuck with anyway for the next few seasons. It’s all part of putting your opinions on the internet. We get it.

Behind the scenes, viewpoints can change with new information, and with the draft spread out over three days a few months before the season begins, we have plenty of time to adjust our beliefs and expectations based on what has been proven likely to be correct, but also assumptions made that may not be valid.

This process can happen immediately as a sort of “Eureka!” moment or organically over time, but it’s always important to not let the team you follow get in the way of how you evaluate the team. We would be doing a grave disservice to you, our readers, our community, by simply blowing smoke up your backsides and telling you to love every pick because “They know what they’re doing!”

As it turns out, they (meaning the team) has shown several times that they sometimes don’t know what they’re doing, and lying to you so you can have those warm and fuzzies isn’t something we’re interested in pursuing. There are people who write those sorts of things do so for dem clicz, and you can indulge them if you want. We’ll keep our honest discussion and through evaluations, thank you very much.

So I’m a ways into writing this, and it’s a good time to point out this was supposed to be about the Detroit Lions’ Day 3 picks. I’ll certainly get to to those, but in trying to write about them, I realized several things about the Day 2 picks, and the more picks the Lions made the more it all fell into place. Like watching a movie told from different perspectives and in the final act all the threads get pulled and start to come together. So let’s quick revisit a couple of my evaluations I made more than a decade ago, way back on April 24, 2020, and why I feel differently now.

Jonah Jackson, third round

Prior to Day 2, I had a thread where I talked about Jackson as a guy who would be a reach in the third round and would have been my fourth-best interior offensive lineman on the day. I noted this pick was a good pick because the team needed an interior lineman and they got one, but that I felt it was a reach considering who was on the board.

With the Lions taking Logan Stenberg in the fourth round, I know now that I made a critical error in my assumptions. That error was assuming that the offensive line would be schematically and practically identical to former offensive line coach Jeff Davidson’s player usage under new coach Hank Fraley. Fraley is a Davidson disciple so it was a pretty standard logical conclusion that little would change.

After taking D’Andre Swift in the second round, taking a lacking-in-agility road grinder suited more for a straight power scheme didn’t make sense, and I’m even going to pull-quote myself for the thinking at the time:

I think this offense looks very different in 2020 than what we’ve seen from Darrell Bevell in the past, and I had initially thought that might mean a move to more outside zone or something similar. That didn’t make sense with the guards they have on the roster, and it still doesn’t with Jackson, who isn’t nimble or agile enough to do the sorts of pulls and cross-formation stuff that would take best advantage of Swift’s quickness. So I’m still left trying to figure out what the offense might look like.

Swift, by himself in this scheme, didn’t make sense. Jackson over Matthew Hennessy and Lloyd Cushenberry by itself didn’t make sense. Both together? Made even less sense.

The selection of Logan Stenberg in the fourth round, however, gave us that missing piece and everything started to line up.

Now, I had written of Stenberg before. He was one of the first guards I profiled many months ago. I’ll speak more about my thoughts then and now when I write about the day three guys in more detail, but the abridged version is that I liked him at first, didn’t like him at all upon rewatch (especially for this scheme), but now he’s somehow the guy who ties it all together? How does that work?

It boils down to scheme and usage. Picking a guy like Jackson made less sense for this scheme in a bubble, as did Stenberg. Picking both shows that my assumptions about the scheme were wrong, and upon reworking those assumptions, things started lining up.

Many zone-based running schemes, whether inside, outside, or otherwise, rely on the guards to be nimble and quick to pull across the line and do much of the work in space. The Philadelphia Eagles, who we had assumed the Lions were trying to mirror their offensive line after, as well as previous Jeff Davidson teams, had relied on this sort of philosophy.

If the Lions were, instead, relying on the center and tackles to do that sort of work, needing the guards to act as the anchors and power on the line, then a team would probably value a skillset like Jonah Jackson over a Hennessy or especially Cushenberry (who’s much more finesse). It even makes the Halapoulivaati Vaitai signing look even better in hindsight, and I already liked that one.

Now, I still think the Lions were betting only against themselves in trading up to grab Jackson in the third round, and that extra pick could have been useful to help upgrade depth. Knowing how the rest of their draft played out, picking a guy like Jonah Jackson absolutely fits. He’d more likely play left guard than right, with Logan Stenberg battling it out with Joe Dahl, Joshua Garnett, Oday Aboushi, and Kenny Wiggins. I had originally graded the pick as a C-, but knowing a bit more now I think it’s a pretty solid B- with the only knock being the trade up and value.

D’Andre Swift, second Round

Booooo! Boo this man! He doesn’t like picking a running back! Something about Barry and the last 20 years!

Look, I get it, picking skill positions is fun. It’s exciting. We’re also stuck with him, and as a second-round pick, he’s likely going to be getting a ton of touches. With those touches, some of them are going to be good ones, so grading a RB poorly is always going to both elicit a negative reaction and have people trying to “gotcha” post a few months from now. Like every running back the Lions have drafted (Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Kerryon Johnson), and all of the free agents they’ve signed, we’re going to predict 1,000-yard seasons and rookie of the year honors right out of the gate (and we’ll be right in roughly the same percentage).

Remember that when I rate players I do so with the Lions in mind (though due to other commitments this is the last year I do that). So when I rated my running backs, I was doing so under those same assumptions I made that Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg challenged.

So while I had Swift rated lower for the Lions power run scheme they ran in 2019, that’s probably not what they’re running in 2020. Sure, there will be plenty of power elements, and Swift doesn’t fit in those at all, but if they start using their offensive line differently to take advantage more of speed and getting the backs into space rather than having them initiate contact and power through, it makes far more sense.

I probably would have had Swift RB1 rather than RB3 (Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Cam Akers) knowing that, and since one other guy I’d rate in that range was already off the board, Swift would probably have been a guy I valued for the team... if I felt they had a roster built that could afford the luxury of a running back drafted highly.

I’m still not super high on Swift, viewing him as solely a rotational piece (the Lions’ own comments echo this sentiment), but a back who can make people miss in space certainly is the type here.

With the team sitting pat at 35 and not trying to trade up, at least we didn’t see additional picks given up for a RB like they did with Johnson in 2018. Seeing how Day 2 fell, I still would have rather seen the team taken Robert Hunt (who would go to the Dolphins a few picks later) with this pick and address running back with a player like Darrynton Evans later in Day 2 or, still more preferable, a Day 3 back and, instead, finding a way to bolster the defense more thoroughly.

After the pick I graded it a straight “F” based on the player, the cost, and the value. It was harsh, but based on what I believed at the time, I felt totally justified in it. After taking Logan Stenberg and getting that bigger piece of the puzzle, I immediately felt it would be a “D”, with value as always being the big piece. After the draft concluded and taking time to view the whole picture, including who went where and getting an idea of what the Lions are trying to build, I think the pick deserves a straight “C”, one of my least favorite grades to give (most analysts grade on a A-to-C scale).

Day 2, as a whole, still ends up mildly disappointing to me, but maybe a bit closer to “meh.” I’m trying to be fair here, because (spoilers!) I was far higher on Day 3 and Day 1, and I don’t want to pretend it was better than it was just because it’s sandwiched between better days. The Lions could have gotten far better value with the picks they made Day 2 of the draft, but another teaser for a future article here is that I think the team will finally establish, after years of trying and failing to do so, an identity on offense.