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Detroit Lions Day 3 draft grades: Scheme-heavy picks make sense

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The Lions drafted for scheme on the final day of the draft and filled several needs that needed to be addressed.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After filling a hole at cornerback with their first pick, the Lions loaded up for the run game in Round 2 with a shiny new toy at running back and a guard to block for him, as well as Devon Kennard’s replacement at jack linebacker. Some questions remained and the reactions to Day 2 were pretty mixed.

Day 3 is where teams tend to reload their depth and special teams. While fans usually remember the Day 3 hits that became starters, most of the guys who find NFL success in this area are the guys who simply find a role that gets them to stick. With that in mind, I was surprised to see as many negatives about the Lions Day 3 haul, so let’s put some of selections in perspective.

Logan Stenberg, fourth round, RG, Kentucky

When you’re trying to build an identity on the offensive line, there’s a number of ways you can go about it. You can start by punching the other guy in the mouth, for instance. We’re talking about your straight-line maulers, the explosive lineman who win with a strong punch and manhandling their guys through sheer power.

You can build with speed and agility. Some of the best offensive lineman in history have been the type that move so well on their feet they seem like they’re floating, 300-pound wrecking balls.

Some, like Logan Stenberg, eschew the agile and light-footed approach and think only punching the opponent in the mouth is weak sauce. Stenberg’s tenure in the SEC will be remembered for two things: Being a penalty machine and being the most hated blocker any defender grappled with. The latter is promising because the Detroit Lions desperately need an identity on offense that is more than “bad at most things, worthless without Matthew Stafford,” and Stenberg allows the team to get some truly mean and nasty trench work in.

The former? That’ll have to be cleaned up and quickly. You can’t be burying your defender after the running back is past you. That’s just a killer for drive momentum. You can’t be trying to bodyslam your defender after your quarterback has already thrown the pass. That’s just nonsense. Clean those up and you have a heavy-footed power blocker who projects solely as a right guard who should help the Lions’ attempts at establishing the run game.

Grade: B+

Quintez Cephus, fifth round, WR, Wisconsin

Bob Quinn has had a strange obsession with trying to build a room full of big possession receivers with strong hands and a lack of speed who can’t separate... And also Danny Amendola.

Cephus was one of only two wide receivers to run worse than a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Combine and one of only 11 who’ve done so in the past five seasons. Those previous nine have combined for a total of 18 catches in the NFL since 2016. Cephus improved his time slightly at his pro day, running an official 4.62, but that’s still on the extremely slow side.

Jeff Okudah, the Lions first round pick, spoke in glowing terms about Cephus, as did former NFL personnel man Gil Brandt. so there are those who hold Cephus in fairly high regard. Still, his tape is pretty pedestrian as a pass catcher and as a route runner he’s clearly limited by a lack of speed and agility.

His primary role, should he make the team, is likely in that “wide receiver as blocker” role that Bill Belichick has prized since forever and one that Matt Patricia carried into his tenure, targeting players like ODU’s Travis Fulgham last season and UDFA receivers who have also done well keeping receivers well out of the way of any rushers.

With the addition of D’Andre Swift, this team will see its runners on the boundary fairly often, so getting someone to help keep them clean makes sense. It’s a fairly limited role, however, and one that you can get just as easily from UDFA (as Lions have in recent years).

Grade: D

Jason Huntley, fifth round, RB (KR), New Mexico State

Huntley first drew my attention back in early March, before the quarantine, when he ran an unofficial 4.37 at his pro day. That would later be officially recorded as a 4.40 flat but still flying.

He’s severely undersized at only 182 pounds, but extremely fast and explosive. Some have compared him to Tarik Cohen, and I think that comp actually fits quite a bit. Like Cohen the prospect, Huntley was incredibly elusive in college and rushed for 7.1 yards per carry in his final season for the Aggies. He also caught over 130 passes in his time there, so it’s probably time for our annual reminder that pass catchers out of the backfield are not generally wide receiver conversion candidates. The fact they face linebackers and safeties instead of corners is part of why their production is so strong in general. It was actually a weakness of Huntley’s in his final year as he was only able to net 4.8 yards per catch as a pass catcher, but overall, it’s a huge strength of his that a savvy offensive coordinator can take advantage of.

Doubling up on running backs came up during our Pride of Detroit on-air draft coverage, and I posited that it wouldn’t surprise me if the team did, as a shift in scheme up front likely renders some of the current crop of RBs superfluous.

After Huntley was drafted, I stated that there are only two running backs safe for the 2020 Lions roster and both of them were just drafted. Don’t be surprised if a combination of Swift, Kerryon Johnson, and Huntley is your primary rotation by mid year. If you’re among those that disliked the pick, go back and watch him, this is both good value and a good selection.

Grade: B+

John Penisini, sixth round, NT, Utah

Who truly expected Matt Patricia to come out of this without taking at least one nose tackle? Anybody? I thought not.

Some (not this guy) liked Penisini more than his teammate, Leki Fotu, who would go significantly earlier in the draft, but if you like your nose tackles powerful and assignment sound, you’ve got one. I had Penisini rated below Baylor’s Bravvion Roy, who I didn’t expect the Lions to be very interested in due to a serious lack of length (still a very fun player). Penisini is a true nose tackle that needs to gain about 15 or 20 pounds. Most developmental nose tackles need to shed weight to put on more muscle than fat, but the Lions drafted a very lean player who’s going to need the year to build himself up.

I don’t expect him to find much use in 2020, but a redshirt year to get an NFL build and the Lions are in a pretty good spot replacing Danny Shelton in 2021 (not to mention learning from Shelton for a year is a plus).

Grade: A

Jashon Cornell, seventh round, DL, Ohio State

A former five-star recruit, Cornell is the typical reclamation project Bob Quinn liked to look for in New England and continues to here. Rarely does it pay off, but it’s your Day 3 picks, this exactly when those types of risks are taken.

Cornell played five years of college ball in the Big 10 and came away with 7.0 sacks. A rotational, part-time player for all but his final season, Cornell doesn’t offer much as an interior run defender, and despite his 4.0 sacks this past year, there wasn’t really much there on tape as a pass rusher, either.

While he didn’t test during the offseason due to quarantine, he probably would have tested very well—think in the Da’Shawn Hand range athletically—so there’s upside to play with. I wonder if the team may consider him a DL-to-FB convert, a trick the Patriots had done several times and something that occasionally happens with good athletes you want to find a more limited role for.

If they hadn’t went Cornell, they may have picked their 27-year-old Aussie punter instead. But if they were looking for a higher-upside player, I probably would have taken Derrek Tuszka out of North Dakota State, who has a much higher floor and ceiling. With only 20 picks after him, this is more of a “snatch a UDFA you want” type of pick, which is the story of most seventh rounders.

Grade: C-

Summary

The Lions guard room was practically bare, so drafting someone who may actually find a starting role in 2020 is a pretty big win for Bob Quinn. Selecting a change-of-pace running back with ACTUAL receiving experience and not imagined is also a huge get. There’s a much clearer road to productive playing time than someone like Ty Johnson had (the productive part being the key).

On top of that, the team set themselves up nicely in 2021 with a nose tackle who could challenge for a starting role down the road. If your worst picks on Day 3 are a receiver who probably won’t do much other than block and a flyer on potential for a former five-star recruit, then you’re doing alright.

I think the team walked away from this draft knowing that wide receiver is going to be their biggest draft need in 2021, and they’re okay with that. And while I’m not okay with that philosophically—especially considering how strong this draft was at receiver—I at least knew it was a possibility they might go that route. So I’m fine finishing the draft this way.