The post-draft season is almost as interesting as pre-draft. Whereas the rumors swirl before the draft regarding what team will take what player, the ensuing weeks are full of whispers regarding what could have been.
With Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell faced with a monumental moment of their tenures, they made the move to select offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh overall pick. The war room was ecstatic about the move, and it was clear the Lions got their guy.
But what if they didn’t?
Holmes spoke shortly after the draft, and the general manager mentioned some other options that were under consideration at seventh overall. No names were named, but some hints were made:
Holmes said if the Lions hadn't taken Sewell, they would've picked one of 2 other guys. One player he said played a similar position (seems like Rashawn Slater).— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) April 30, 2021
Two other players were candidates for the Lions at seventh overall, and Sewell was their choice. However, in the event that Sewell wasn’t available, it would be interesting to see which players those could have been. Rashawn Slater seems like one of the likeliest options, but in a first-round that saw Elijah Vera-Tucker, Alex Leatherwood, and Christian Darrisaw get selected as well, there is no certainty.
That second player is a bit more of a mystery, but some light got shed on the matter recently. On the Pardon My Take podcast, Campbell spoke about their options had Sewell not been available, and he mentioned that they would have probably selected a wide receiver.
Determining who this could be requires a bit of theorizing. Holmes mentioned that two players were also considered at pick number 7, with the first being an offensive lineman as mentioned. At first, the recent evidence seems to point to the second player being a wide receiver, but that might not be the case. At the time, Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle were off the board. Therefore, this second player Holmes mentioned could not be Chase or Waddle. There is the possibility that the player was DeVonta Smith, but it could also be a completely different position.
Campbell says that they would have chosen a wide receiver had the Bengals or Dolphins selected Sewell instead, which would have caused one of Chase or Waddle to fall to Detroit. This does not answer who the mysterious second player atop their draft board was, however. If it was Smith, it would fulfill both requirements from the quotes: a non-offensive line talent chosen after Chase and Waddle, while also being a receiver. Alternatively, it could be that Chase or Waddle would have been the receiver Campbell mentioned, and that other player Holmes mentioned was just that—another player.
With nothing conclusive, let’s look at the first round.
The 2021 NFL Draft truly started with the Cincinnati Bengals. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Kyle Pitts were unsurprising picks for the Jaguars, Jets, 49ers, and Falcons, respectively. The Bengals, picking fifth overall, threw the first curveball of the draft by selecting wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Despite a weakness at offensive tackle, the prospect of reuniting Chase with his college quarterback Joe Burrow was too tempting to pass on. The Bengals signed Riley Reiff to a one-year deal this offseason, but that by no means took Sewell off the board.
The Lions were benefactors of the Bengals opting for Chase, as the front office even considered trading up for Sewell. However, what if the Bengals went with the move everyone expected and took Sewell fifth overall?
6. Miami Dolphins — Jaylen Waddle, WR
The immediate impact of taking Sewell instead of Chase is that Miami suddenly has three wide receiver options to choose from. Waddle, Chase, and Smith were the likeliest targets for a team looking to give tools to their young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The debate between which of the three prospects was superior was hotly debated all draft season, and even after the draft, there is no consensus. Much like the Bengals, the Dolphins might opt to reunite receiver and quarterback, with Waddle and Smith both having played with Tagovailoa at Alabama. With rumors that Waddle was their top wide receiver anyway, I think this pick stays the same.
7. Detroit Lions — Ja’Marr Chase, WR
I don’t think Lions fans would be too upset had the draft fallen this way. Chase would immediately step into the WR1 spot left vacant by Kenny Golladay, a position otherwise barren at the time.
The interesting part of Campbell’s quote is that they were prepared to take a wide receiver if Sewell was not available. Despite Holmes saying that they were considering two other players over Sewell, Campbell seems to indicate that a receiver was their next top option regardless. With Sewell off the board in this scenario, that means a wide receiver has to be the pick. It would either have to be Chase or Waddle, whichever fell, or Smith. This doesn’t give us a clear indication about which receiver they preferred, but it tells that they preferred at least one of them over the other available positions.
8. Carolina Panthers — Jaycee Horn, CB
With the Lions selecting Chase, we return to our original timeline for the first round. The swapping of Sewell and Chase in the draft order is unlikely to alter the first round any further.
If DeVonta Smith was indeed the top receiver for the Lions, then we could see some changes. The Panthers selected receiver Terrace Marshall in the second round, so it is possible that Waddle or Chase would have been a target. This would in turn cause a cornerback to fall, either Horn or Patrick Surtain. Dallas was keen on taking a corner, but with both top options off the board, opted to trade down with the Eagles, who selected DeVonta Smith in an effort to leapfrog the Giants for him. The Giants, having missed out on a wide receiver, traded down from 11th overall with the Chicago Bears, who traded up for Justin Fields. If the Lions chose Smith, the Giants still likely trade out of their draft spot.
From here, we will focus on just the Lions, as well as a few ripples from earlier moves; it becomes too hard to predict what every team would do.
41. Detroit Lions — Levi Onwuzurike, DT
This pick likely stays the same for Detroit. Given how much Holmes has gushed about him, including considering trading up for him, I don’t think the selection of Chase instead of Sewell impacts the Lions. The offensive tackle prospects still on the board included Liam Eichenberg, Walker Little, and Jackson Carmen—who was selected by the Bengals. Maybe Cincinnati drafts Terrace Marshall to get a different LSU receiver to reunite with Burrow. Sorry, Carolina.
72. Detroit Lions — Spencer Brown, OT
This is a difficult selection to predict, since the Bengals taking a player like Marshall over an offensive tackle likely pushes one down the draft. However, the third round is a point where draft boards lose their consensus, and the top tackle prospect at the time could have been a wide array of players. Spencer Brown and Robert Hainsey were chosen later in the third round and might have been options for Detroit with no Sewell. Elsewhere, Jalen Mayfield and Brady Christensen, chosen before Detroit’s pick, could have fallen due to the Bengals passing on Jackson Carmen in the second. The Panthers traded up for Christensen, so I’d wager they liked him either way. The Falcons are likely playing Mayfield at guard, so his selection might not be influenced by the available tackles.
For the Lions, you also have to consider whether or not to invest in Tyrell Crosby. By the time you reach the third round, offensive tackles become harder to project as starters. Is a third-rounder going to be a better starter than Crosby? At this point, drafting a tackle becomes more of a move for the future. Drafting a tackle here also means passing on Alim McNeill, a coveted nose tackle.
I’m giving the slight edge to Spencer Brown. The Buffalo Bills are planning on using him as their swing tackle, a position currently filled by Tyrell Crosby on the Lions roster. It would make sense to make Brown the backup behind Crosby in 2021, then let Crosby walk next offseason when his contract expires. Sadly, this would mean we would be deprived of Brown jumping through a table in celebration of being drafted by the Bills. Good news for the Eagles, however, who seemed keen to pick McNeill.
101. Detroit Lions — Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB
The next few picks come in quick succession, and it is likely that the Lions end up with at least one of those players in this timeline. In this case, Melifonwu is still a Detroit Lion. He might not start in 2021, but he has the tools to develop into an outstanding corner alongside Jeff Okudah. A nose tackle to replace McNeill is an option here, but I think the value fits best here with Melifonwu.
112. Detroit Lions — Derrick Barnes, LB
With wide receiver not as pressing of a need for Detroit, they could opt to use their fourth-round pick on Barnes instead of Amon-Ra St. Brown. The team was eager to acquire the linebacker out of Purdue, trading up to select him with the very next pick (113), but in this scenario, they pick him at 112.
153. Detroit Lions — Tedarrell Slaton, NT
Having selected Barnes with their fourth-round pick, do the Lions still trade up to pick 113? I’m not sure. There is the chance that they still pick St. Brown and Barnes at 112 and 113, given their need for a slot receiver, but double-dipping at wide receiver might not be on the agenda. A lot of players went off the board between pick 113 and Detroit’s final pick, 257, so it is hard to predict what their late-round board looked like.
With no McNeill, a nose tackle could be an option for Detroit. The Green Bay Packers drafted Tedarrell Slaton 173rd overall, and the 6-foot-4, 330-pound former offensive lineman would have been an option to bolster the Lions interior defensive line. Much like McNeill, he has some passing rushing presence at nose tackle, and he would compete with John Penisini for a roster spot. Penisini is a stout run defender but a marginal threat as a pass rusher, so Slaton would not be an exact replacement. McNeill likely has the edge over Penisini, but it would be close between Slaton and Penisini.
With no trade up for pick 113 occurring, this would have been the last pick for the Lions, barring another late-round trade. This would mean no Jermar Jefferson in the seventh round. It would, however, mean that the Lions still have their 2022 fourth-round pick, which was surrendered as part of the Derrick Barnes trade. The Lions might have considered a running back in the fifth round, but it did not seem like a pressing need. Jefferson might have gone undrafted, but it could also have meant that Kerryon Johnson would still be on the team.
It’s very interesting to consider the alternative draft possibilities by changing an early draft pick or two. Many of us make our own mock drafts beforehand, trying to predict what the team will do or what we would do if we were in charge. As the dominoes of the draft fall, everyone’s predictions go out the window, and the impacts of those moves are felt throughout the draft.
As someone that was not overly excited for Penei Sewell, I actually love how their draft turned out in comparison to the above scenario. While I like Ja’Marr Chase as a prospect, being able to land Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round is fantastic compensation. The drop-off from Sewell to Spencer Brown is far larger than the drop-off from Chase to St. Brown. Add in St. Brown’s ability to play in the slot, and the Lions still secured an instant impact player.
The Lions were able to add one of my favorite prospects in the draft in Alim McNeill, a pick that might not have happened if they drafted Chase. I like the Jermar Jefferson pick too as a low-risk move, although the 2022 fourth round pick given up as part of the Derrick Barnes trade will be missed. No draft is perfect, but I think the Lions ended up with a fairly good draft class.
Did the Bengals make a mistake by passing on Sewell? We will see in a few years.