The value of a draft pick is something that is impossibly hard to measure while in the moment. We like to claim that picks were “reaches” or “steals,” but the true value of a pick is the production you get out of it, and we won’t know the true value of any of these picks until at least three years down the line.
Still, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes kept mentioning that word—value—when it came to his decisions to select the players he did over the weekend
Here’s him talking about taking second-round pick Levin Onwuzurike:
“Toward the end of Thursday, we were just trying to see if there were ways to maybe go back up and get him. Even earlier today – the guys in the draft room did a heck of a job about keeping me tempered to practice a little bit more patience, because he’s one that was highly sought after.”
And third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu:
“He was actually standing out (on our draft board), I wouldn’t say like a sore thumb, but he was standing out significantly. So, from a value standpoint, from the cream of the position, let’s just go and just trust our board, trust the process, all the work that we put in and really feel good about the value you get.”
And fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown:
“He was a guy that actually we strongly considered yesterday to consider. But obviously as we talked about the value where we had Iffy (Ifeatu Melifonwu) was pretty high. But he was a guy that I slept on overnight and was really, really excited to be able to come off with.”
And seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson:
“When we made the trade and got (Pick) 257, I believe it was. I didn’t really think that he would still be on the board. So, we were very, very happy about him.”
So it appears, by the Lions’ board, they got a lot of value out of their picks. However, value isn’t only determined by one team’s draft board. If every other team had a player ranked far lower than Detroit, then they could have theoretically drafted the same player much later in the draft.
Obviously, we don’t know every other team’s draft board and there’s no way to find out. However, we can compare the Lions’ draft picks to the overall consensus of the media and see if they got guys that were presumed to go earlier or later. It’s not a perfect methodology, as the media’s board may look far different than those of NFL teams, however, some are plugged in and many have refined their scouting over the years.
So let’s look at each pick the Lions made, and compare it to the consensus big board from The Athletic Arif Hasan, which ranked 300 players according to averages of 70 different media big boards.
Round 1: OT Penei Sewell
Consensus big board ranking: 3
Lions draft selection spot: 7
The top two consensus talents in this draft (Trevor Lawrence, Kyle Pitts) were long gone by the time the Lions were on the clock. They could have still gotten value out of Justin Fields—the consensus fifth-best player in this class—but Sewell represented the best value pick possible, and he also happened to fit a significant need.
Round 2: DT Levi Onwuzurike
Consensus big board ranking: 43
Lions draft selection spot: 41
Onwuzurike was selected right around where he was supposed to go. Holmes displayed a good amount of patience here despite a desire to go up and potentially draft him in the first round via a trade. It’s worth noting, however, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler ranked Onwuzurike as the 29th best prospect in this class, meaning he saw good value with this pick.
Round 3: NT Alim McNeill
Consensus big board ranking: 80
Lions draft selection spot: 72
One of the Lions’ most popular picks, Alim McNeill also went right around where he was supposed to. Again, though, if you trust a source like PFF, they had a second-round grade on him.
Round 3: CB Ifeatu Melifonwu
Consensus big board ranking: 56
Lions draft selection spot: 101
Outside cornerback wasn’t a pressing need for the Lions in 2021, but Holmes mentioned several times over the weekend that the value for “Iffy” Melifonwu was just too much to pass up and that checks out: Brugler had him at 57, while PFF gave him a 2nd/3rd-round grade.
Round 4: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
Consensus big board ranking: 69
Lions draft selection spot: 112
Another extremely valuable pick came at the start of Day 3, and Lions fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was at the wide receiver position. Some had as high as a second-round grade on St. Brown. He ranked 67th on Brugler’s board (WR11) and had a third-round grade from PFF.
Round 4: LB Derrick Barnes
Consensus big board ranking: 148
Lions draft selection spot: 113
Barnes was the Lions’ only true reach in the draft, and that was further complicated by the fact the Lions traded up from the fifth round to get him. Still, he was given a fourth-round grade from Brugler.
Round 7: RB Jermar Jefferson
Consensus big board ranking: 158
Lions draft selection spot: 257
Another pick in which Holmes boasted about the value, Jefferson went nearly 100 spots later than projected, validating the running back’s frustration that he didn’t go as early as he expected.
It looks as though the Lions got considerable value with every pick but one. So how does that compare to the rest of the league? Thankfully, all we need to do is go back to our friend Arif Hasan, who wrote a fascinating article about the overall value in each team’s draft class. His methodology, in as simple terms as possible, used the same consensus big board to determine value, and combined it with both positional value and team needs, spitting out an objective number for each draft class.
The results: the Lions got the sixth-highest return on investment in the class. Only the Bears, Chiefs, Broncos, Browns, and Bills fared better.
And this wasn’t the only study to find Detroit’s draft as extremely valuable. Benjamin Robinson of GrindingTheMocks.com also tried to calculate draft value by creating a metric called Draft Capital Over Expect—essentially measuring the value of the players received against the team’s draft capital going into Thursday. Here are those results:
This was my most controversial chart of the 2020 NFL draft: Draft Capital Over Expected (#GrindingTheMocks Expected Draft Position vs. Actual Draft Slot) by team in the 2021 NFL draft. Low doesn't mean your team is bad only that their drafting process might be questionable! pic.twitter.com/8rqvRDJMTD— Benjamin Robinson (@benj_robinson) May 2, 2021
The Lions ranked eighth in both charts.
So, overall, it looks pretty clear that the Lions got great perceived value in their 2021 draft class. But the draft’s true value won’t be known for some time.