“I believe, early on, that the defense that you’re going to see is going to be different. It’ll look different. The players will look different as far as body types go, and it’s going to be a defense that, when we get there, will be built on speed, just to match what the NFL is today.”
Those were the words of Chris Spielman, shortly after the hiring and introduction of new Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell. After years of building a defense around big, strong types, those words were music the Lions fans’ ears. But words are just words. Did Holmes share that vision? Would he follow up on it during free agency and the draft?
Free agency was fairly quiet for the Lions, mostly by necessity. They added some speedy, athletic wide receivers, but the only key pieces the defense added were Michael Brockers, who brings far more leadership than speed, and a decently athletic Alex Anzalone.
But if the Lions’ 2021 NFL Draft class was any indication, the Lions are sticking to Spielman’s words, because it is chock-full of athletes. Let’s take a closer look at the class, one-by-one, using our friend’s Kent Lee Platte’s RAS metric, which averages each athletic trait against his peers and spits out a 0-10 grade
Pick 1 — OT Penei Sewell
Penei Sewell was drafted with pick 7 of round 1 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 8.99 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 116 out of 1143 OT from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/1SoSWXw6IW #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/qHNRaJIXzh— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 30, 2021
The only metric in which Sewell does not grade out above average is height, but with an elite weight score to match elite speed grades, there should be literally no concern with Sewell’s athletic profile. There were a lot of athletic offensive tackles in this year’s class; Sewell’s 8.99 RAS was 10th-highest at the position this year.
Pick 2 — DT Levi Onwuzurike
Levi Onwuzurike was drafted with pick 41 of round 2 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 8.73 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 167 out of 1309 DT from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/R04Qn8fh29 #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/yqxSPUsa1x— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 30, 2021
Onwuzurike is undersized for the defensive tackle position, which is why he projects to mostly play three-tech instead of right over the center. But his true appeal is his speed, where he moves like no big man should. His explosion grades border on elite, and I reckon if he would’ve ran the shuttle and three-cone, he would’ve been near elite in those categories, as well. This is the kind of athletic build that has become trendy in the NFL after seeing what an undersized, but crazy athletic defensive tackle (Aaron Donald) can do.
Pick 3 — DT Alim McNeill
Alim McNeill was drafted with pick 67 of round 2 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 8.53 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 194 out of 1309 DT from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/ZnlSsQfNKF #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/YCIV8Yp4pR— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
It’s not often you can find a nose tackle that runs a 5.0 40-yard dash. We’ve already heard plenty of praise of McNeill’s impressive first step off the snap, and his explosion grades confirm that. Though he weighs 317 pounds—considered elite for defensive tackles—that’s actually a bit small for a pure nose. Again, this is why many are projecting him to be far more than a nose tackle in the NFL.
Pick 4 — CB Ifeatu Melifonwu
Ifeatu Melifonwu was drafted with pick 101 of round 3 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.69 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 56 out of 1790 CB from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/RQB3GDGWSS #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/UE3SPjJW1z— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
There’s a reason why Holmes just could not avoid the opportunity to draft Melifonwu at the end of the third round. Athletic cornerbacks like him just aren’t found that deep in the draft. Melifonwu’s 9.69 RAS was fifth-best in the class among corners, and clearly a reason why Holmes drafted him.
“The appreciation for the athletic skill-set and the same thing with ‘Iffy’. You think press corner, but that’s the way he kind of grew on me in the process is like when we started matching him up versus the other corners in the Draft and just his movement skills in space was very, very impressive.”
Pick 5 — WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
Amon-Ra St. Brown was drafted with pick 112 of round 4 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 7.14 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 722 out of 2517 WR from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/kRiNYrvtPj #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/ayexF15QbQ— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
St. Brown isn’t the biggest or fastest receiver in this year’s class, but it’s his short-area burst that could make him valuable at the next level. That aspect of his athleticism really shows up in his route-running, and could make him a decent weapon close to the line of scrimmage. Just don’t expect him to take off the top of the defense up the seam.
Pick 6 — LB Derrick Barnes
Derrick Barnes was drafted with pick 113 of round 4 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 8.42 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 342 out of 2155 LB from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/cyy2V1BU0a #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/mm6Xpuehgu— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
This is the pick Lions fans were waiting for. While the Lions have had extremely athletic linebackers in the past (Jarrad Davis - 9.07, Jamie Collins - 9.33), the one that always stuck out was that of Jahlani Tavai (4.13).
Matt Patricia loved his linebackers big and strong (and athletic, if possible), but the drafting of Barnes shows that speed and burst are the primary traits desired now.
Pick 7 — RB Jermar Jefferson
Jermar Jefferson was drafted with pick 257 of round 7 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 2.28 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 1151 out of 1490 RB from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/eqnHwB4JgM #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/VyU2jm2BMT— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
The black sheep of the group, Jefferson doesn’t measure out great in any aspect of his athletic build. His speed is acceptable, but far from elite. You can see some shiftiness on tape, but that did not translate to his explosion or agility scores.
Lions average RAS per draft class
As Platte points out here, this draft class has five players with elite RAS (8 or higher), which is the most the Lions have drafted in a class in the past 35 years (they also had five in 2019). But to see just how impressively athletic this year’s class is compared to Lions history, let’s look at the collective average RAS per draft class.
This year’s draft class is the second-most athletic for the Lions in the past 13 years. But if you take out the Lions’ final draft pick—running back Jermar Jefferson, who had just a 2.28 RAS score—the Lions’ 2021 draft class averaged a whopping 8.58 RAS, which would be the most athletic draft class in Lions history, going back to at least 2004, the last year in which there was significant athleticism data for full draft classes.