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4 NFL Draft questions with Dane Brugler: Could the Detroit Lions afford to pass on EDGE early?

How far apart are the defensive ends in this year’s draft?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

After Malik Willis wowed the Detroit Lions world—or at least me—in the Senior Bowl, his draft stock began to rise to the point where he might be a top-10 pick. With that in mind, I proposed that if the Lions want to draft Willis, they should be looking to trade down to do so. This, of course, would take the Lions out of the the Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux conversations.

The Lions are still in need help on the edge, though. This team needs guys that can get to the quarterback. Would the Lions be fresh out of luck on that front if they didn’t get either of the top two options? That’s what we want to try to figure out today. How far apart are the edge rushers in this year’s draft? To help answer this question, we reached out to one of the top draft experts in the land. Mr. Dane Brugler of The Athletic. Here’s what he had to say:

How far apart are the remaining first or second-round edge rushers from Hutchinson and Thibodeaux?

“I think it’s fair to put Hutchinson and Thibodeaux in the top tier. But the second tier of pass rushers is crowded with prospects who could all be top-20 picks. I seem to be higher on Georgia’s Travon Walker than most, but if five years from now, you told me that he was the best defensive player from this draft, I wouldn’t be surprised. He has that type of ability.

David Ojabo has natural rush skills for a player who is still learning the game. He isn’t stout vs. the run and that is something that must improve if he is going to be an every-down player.

Jermaine Johnson is one of the more complete players in the draft. He rushes with speed, length, and power. And he has outstanding awareness vs. the run.

And then Purdue’s George Karlaftis, who isn’t a long player and has some stiffness, but his skilled hands and motor create disruption.

So while the top two guys are on a tier by themselves, there isn’t a monumental drop off to the next four guys. And honestly, there isn’t a huge gap between the second and third tier, if you want to include guys like Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie, Houston’s Logan Hall, South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare. Moral of the story is this is a great year to address the pass rush for NFL teams.”

The Lions need someone that can rush the passer, but it seems as though quarterback could be the move, if the Lions grab Malik Willis early, who might be available with the Lions 32nd pick?

“I don’t think any of the players from the top-two tiers mentioned above make it to the final pick in the first-round. But that is where the third tier of pass rushers could start to come off the board. Ebiketie is a really interesting pass rusher. Does he need to become more refined? Yes. But he is long, twitched-up, and never quits. I’ve scouted over 100 pass rushers for this class so far and no other rusher made more plays away from the line of scrimmage than him because he never quits hustling. He’s a Temple transfer, but I love how the Penn State coaches rave about him based on such a short time they had him. Ebiketie would make sense in the late first round.”

Aside from Thibodeaux and Hutchinson, what edge rusher or edge rushers do you think best fit the Lions defense?

“Jermaine Johnson makes sense for a lot of reasons. He is equally disruptive vs. both the pass and the run, which is important to the Lions coaches. He is ready to start from day one and make an impact. He is a nuanced pass rusher who understands how to use his hands and the Lions’ coaches got a great sense for that by coaching him for a week in Mobile. Honestly, you could make an argument for several of these guys - they all would have a chance to be successful in Detroit. But the Senior Bowl connection and his well-rounded skill set makes him extra appealing for Detroit.”

Is the Malik Willis hype real? Would you take Willis over Thibodeaux or Hutchinson if you’re in the Lions position?

“I think the hype is mostly media driven by those who hadn’t studied Willis yet. Because while I think he did well throughout Senior Bowl week, he didn’t do anything at the Senior Bowl that we didn’t already know. We know he has dynamic athleticism and outstanding velocity - those are the main selling points with him. However, NFL teams still have question marks (pocket presence, post-snap reads, field vision, etc.) that make him a tough projection. Willis has the potential to be the best quarterback in this draft, there is no question. I would love to draft and develop him because he has so much talent. But there are areas of concern that make it a difficult when talking about where teams feel confident drafting him. If you’re going to draft him No. 2 overall, you better be convinced that he is going to eventually be a top-12 quarterback in the NFL and someone who routinely leads you to the playoffs.”