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Dan Campbell sends mixed messages on Lions drafting a quarterback

Dan Campbell mostly kept an even stance on whether the Detroit Lions will draft a quarterback with the second overall pick or kick that can down the road and stick with Jared Goff.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions continue to do a good job masking their intentions—both short-term and long-term—with the quarterback position.

On Thursday, Lions head coach Dan Campbell met with a small group of reporters, and like general manager Brad Holmes said last week at the owners meetings, he had some serious praise for current quarterback Jared Goff.

“I like Goff. I like where he’s at,” Campbell said. “I thought he finished strong last year. I’m glad we got him this year and I like the prospects that are in this draft, I do.”

And there lies the conundrum. The draft. The last three years of Goff’s career have been average, at best. The optimism lies in how Goff finished the season—with a 3-1 record and a 103.3 passer rating in his last four starts—and the fact that just four years ago, Goff was a Pro Bowl quarterback who helped take the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl.

But at some point, the Lions need a little more certainty at the quarterback position, and the team has a prime opportunity with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft to add the best quarterback in this year’s class. There are serious questions about whether a true franchise quarterback exists in the 2022 class, but the Lions got an extra edge up on figuring that out by coaching in the Senior Bowl. There they got a unique look at two of this year’s top quarterbacks in Liberty’s Malik Willis and North Carolina’s Sam Howell.

“I feel like we got a pretty good handle on both of them, and I like both of them,” Campbell said. “Look, Malik, he’s explosive now. This guy’s an explosive athlete and he’ll learn to play the quarterback position, but he’s explosive.”

So what are the Lions to do? Ride out and see what they have in Goff and go back to the quarterback well in next year’s draft (or later)—when they may not be in such a prime position to take one? Or do they take a quarterback this year in a class full of serious questions?

If you were to dissect Campbell’s media session, there were hints in both directions. When asked about what they’re looking for in the No. 2 pick, Campbell mentioned the ability to come in and make an immediate impact.

“You want a guy who can come in and he’s a day-one starter,” Campbell said. “That’s really what you’re trying to acquire—a guy that you feel like can come in and he’s gonna be able to have solid production for you.”

That certainly seems to disqualify a quarterback at two, especially one like Willis, who may take a year or two to develop. But when asked shortly thereafter why quarterback is being considered if you need an immediate contributor, Campbell provided an intriguing case.

“If you really love a guy and you know people are going to be all over him, and the only way to acquire that guy is pick them where they’re at, it’s something worth thinking about, especially if you think you can develop those guys,” Campbell said.

Part of the debate, too, is whether you truly need an elite-level quarterback to win in this league. At this point in his career, it seems unlikely Goff will develop into that guy. Meanwhile, Willis not only has the physical tools to be an elite passer, but he also brings the kind of mobility that is trendy in NFL quarterbacks.

Campbell was asked directly if they needed a star quarterback—particularly a mobile one—to win consistently, and, again, the messages were mixed.

”No, I don’t think you need that,” Campbell said. “I think, boy, you’d love to have that type of player, because they can improvise. There’s things that they can do and they can improvise with their eyes downfield, so they can run your offense, they’re going to do what they need to do, they understand it well, they know their reads. If something just kind of isn’t right, they’ve got pocket mobility and then they can break it, but their eyes are always downfield.

“Those are guys that hurt you, not just the pure runners. It’s the ones that can always just kind of keep looking for the next play while I’m moving away from you. But I think that those, guys like that are obviously, they’re special. And they certainly can give you a better chance. But no, I don’t believe you have to have one of those guys to have sustained success.”

To paraphrase: they don’t need an elite, mobile quarterback, but it sure would be nice to have one.

If there was ever a point in the conversation where Campbell may have tipped his hand, it was near the end. He spoke about the importance of the here and now, and seemed to focus on building the roster, then when the time and player are right, do everything you can to add the quarterback.

“What is best for us right now?” Campbell said. “Now, Brad’s got to look at it a little bit farther off than I am, but right now, what gives us the best chance? And man, let’s build this roster, in general. Now, (if) the right guy is sitting there at the right pick at that position, then let’s do it. But we like Goff and I like where he’s at. He finished strong. Keep adding pieces and then, man, whenever that is—is it next year? Is it this year? Is it two years from now? And the right guy’s sitting there, then you figure out a way to get that guy. You figure out a way when it’s the right guy.”

If I had to interpret that quote myself, I would come away with the same conclusion I had after Holmes last week. The Lions want to build a roster around Goff for the time being. If that doesn’t work out, they’ll have a strong enough roster to get aggressive and use every resource they need to add a quarterback they like.