The first round of the 2022 NFL draft is just over two weeks away and media outlets are producing mock drafts at a feverish pace. On Wednesday, ESPN’s Mel Kiper published his latest mock draft, and as is typical this time of year, he went a bit off-script to keep things fresh.
As has become commonplace, Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson was first off the board, and while most draft analysts have been pairing the Detroit Lions with an edge rushers’ like Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux or Georgia’s Trayvon Walker—with some sprinkling of Florida State's Jermaine Johnson, Notre Dames’ Kyle Hamilton, and Liberty’s Malik Willis—Kiper pivoted in another direction.
With the second overall pick, Kiper projected the Lions to select...
Sauce Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
“Can I interest you in a 6-foot-3 corner with long arms and 4.41 40-yard dash speed who didn’t allow a single touchdown in coverage in college? That’s Gardner,” Kiper wrote. “The Lions have several needs and would likely jump at Aidan Hutchinson if he somehow fell here. If they can get something out of Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft who has played just 10 games in two seasons, they could have a much-improved secondary.”
Kiper’s explanation mirrors that of NFL Networks Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, who discussed the possibility of the Lions taking Gardner at No. 2 on their podcast this week. In their explanation, Jeremiah said that he has Gardner ranked as the second-best defender in this draft class after Hutchinson. He acknowledged it was unlikely Detroit would take him, but if they were strictly following his draft board, it’s possible he could be the pick.
As a player, Gardner is terrific and worthy of being in the top-five discussion. His combination of physical attributes, ability to stay sticky in coverage, physicality at the point of attack, and confidence to stay with any wide receiver in the country makes him a very appealing long-term solution for any team, including the Lions.
But how likely are the Lions to take Gardner?
A lot of that depends on the recovery process of Okudah (Achilles) and Jerry Jacobs (ACL), as well as the contract status of Amani Oruwariye (who the Lions have had internal discussions about extending), and the development of last year’s third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu.
There is a scenario where the Lions are not confident they will get their injured corners back in time for the season, Oruwariye can’t/won’t be extended and Melifonwu is not where he needs to be, which could put the Lions in the market for a top-flight corner—and Gardner is the best option in this class.
At the same time, the Lions have invested in this position and at this time they are scheduled to have three corners under contract in 2023 (Okudah, Melifonwu, and Jacobs) as well as another four that carry a restricted or exclusive rights tender options.
Bottom line, Gardner is a talented prospect worthy of consideration and there could be a reason to justify taking him, but with the investment at the position and bigger needs elsewhere—and players of equal caliber available to fill those roles—it seems unlikely he will land in Detroit.
At pick No. 32, Kiper had the Lions taking another secondary player...
Lewis Cine, safety, Georgia
“The more I talk to people in the league, the more I think the Lions will stand pat on a quarterback with their three picks in the top 34,” Kiper said. “Jared Goff can be the starter in 2022, and if he struggles, chances are Detroit will be right back in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick, which it can use on a signal-caller. Cine is the fifth Georgia defender in the top 32 picks here (with more to come). He’s a good cover safety who is rising after he ran a 4.37 40 at the combine.”
After projecting a quarterback at this spot all offseason, Kiper has changed his tune and given the Lions a player who many, including myself, believe would be a great fit in Detroit's scheme. Cine is an ideal split-zone safety, capable of dropping to single-high, as well as making an impact from the box where he delivers aggressive, sure tackling.
At pick No. 34, Kiper has the Lions taking a third defender...
David Ojabo, edge, Michigan
“Ojabo is my top-ranked outside linebacker, even after he tore his Achilles last month and could miss most of the season,” Kiper wrote. “If the Lions are thinking long-term, they could get a steal with a high-ceiling edge rusher.”
A first-round talent for certain, Ojabo was on his way to a possible top-15 selection before being injured at his pro day. There’s a lot of debate about how long his recovery process will be—my study from last year suggested nothing is guaranteed—but it’d be hard to justify adding a player who is dealing with an Achilles injury, when they already have two other defensive starters currently recovering from the same injury.