ESPN continues to ramp up its 2023 NFL mock draft output. In December, Todd McShay released his first mock draft of the season, in early January, his colleague Jordan Reid dropped his first projection, followed by Mel Kiper’s first mock draft in late January.
Now, Matt Miller, the fourth NFL draft analyst at ESPN, released his first mock draft of the season ($ubscription), a two-rounder following the conclusion of the Senior Bowl.
Let’s set the table for Miller’s projection. The Colts traded up to the top spot and selected Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. Houston stayed at pick No. 2 and grabbed Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, followed by the Cardinals selecting Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson at pick No. 3. The Bears still managed to land Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter after trading down, and the Seahawks took Texas Tech edge rusher Tyree Wilson.
The Detroit Lions stayed at pick No. 6 and with that selection took...
Pick 6: Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois
Here’s Miller’s reasoning for his projection:
“The top-ranked cornerback in the class goes to the Lions, and Witherspoon is exactly what the team needs as a physical, sticky cover man with instincts and ball skills. He is 6-1 and only 180 pounds, but he plays much bigger and is the best open-field tackler among this group of corners. Plus, he allowed just two completions of over 20 yards all season to go with his three interceptions. The Lions are another team that could trade back with a quarterback-needy club, but the risk there is sliding back too far and missing out on the top cornerback in the class after allowing a league-high 6.2 yards per play in 2022. If the front office and coaching staff are aligned on Jared Goff continuing as the signal-caller, this is the move to best improve the team.”
The Witherspoon hype continues to grow and more and more draft analysts, like Miller, are projecting him as the top corner in the class. And Miller is right, Witherspoon is exactly the type of corner that would fit in the Lions' scheme and locker room.
Would Devon Witherspoon fit in Detroit?— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) January 21, 2023
Exhibit A is at the bottom of the screen —> pic.twitter.com/XWBb4595d3
I’m on board with this selection. I also have Witherspoon as my CB1 and, while I would love to grab him at No. 18, he may end up costing the Lions a much higher pick.
Speaking of pick No. 18, with that selection, the Lions pick...
Pick 18: Lukas Van Ness, DE, Iowa
Let’s go back to Miller for his logic:
“After selecting the best cornerback in the draft at No. 6 (Devon Witherspoon), the Lions are back on the clock and look to double-down on defense. Van Ness is a raw pass-rusher after playing sparingly at Iowa, but he performed well enough to notch 6.5 sacks in 2022 and seven in 2021. The 6-5, 270-pound defensive end has shades of Trey Hendrickson to his game, which is why he’s seen as a potential first-rounder despite not starting for the Hawkeyes. The Lions hit pay dirt with Aidan Hutchinson and have a very good situational pass-rusher in fellow rookie James Houston. So Van Ness could round out the defensive line group with power, length and an ability against the run that’s needed opposite Hutchinson.”
Van Ness has slowly been drawing more attention and has shown up in our mock draft roundup series over the last couple of weeks. He’s an ideal closed end in the Lions scheme, would be a perfect replacement for John Cominsky, and would rotate with Josh Paschal opposite Hutchinson.
Adding another pass rusher, after spending three picks on edge rushers last year, may seem a bit like overkill, but you can never have enough players who can get after the quarterback. Adding an edge player early would likely mean the end of the road for Romeo Okwara or Charles Harris, but it would also give the Lions a young core of edge disruptors for the next several seasons.
In the second round, Miller flipped his focus for the Lions and addressed the offensive side of the ball.
Pick 48: Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa
Once again, here’s Miller:
“The Lions traded T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings in November and can add his replacement with the surprising availability of LaPorta at this spot. He is a fantastic move blocker and a stellar receiver over the middle, and he has enough after-the-catch ability to project as a starter. LaPorta had just five touchdowns in college, but like his NFL comparison Dawson Knox, he looks to be a better pro than college player.”
I hate the narrative that the Lions should take a tight end because they traded Hockenson away, but that being said, this is a deep tight end class where there is very good value on Day 2 of the draft.
Like most Iowa tight ends, LaPorta is balanced as both a receiver and blocker, but as we saw with Hockenson (also an Iowa tight end), the blocking element takes some time to adjust to in the NFL. In Detroit, LaPorta would challenge to start in his rookie year and would project out to be the team's long-term starter but when he is able to step into that role would all hinge on his blocking skills.
Miller sticks with offense for his final Lions pick.
Pick 55: Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama
Here’s Miller’s explanation:
“The running back room in Detroit is highly dependent on Jamaal Williams, who is hitting free agency as he turns 28. Williams might be back on a short-term deal, but D’Andre Swift hasn’t developed into a true RB1 candidate. Gibbs, a fantastic receiver out of the backfield and a slashing runner, was compared to Alvin Kamara by one scout I talked to recently, though I see more Tony Pollard in him.”
Gibbs could easily be RB2 on most teams' draft boards because of his dynamic skill set. To get him at pick No. 55 would be a steal in my book, as I believe he has borderline first-round potential, which could entice a team picking near the end of Day 1.
He’ll likely need a power back—like Jamaal Williams—to help ease some of the workload burdens in the NFL, but he has legit breakaway speed and explosiveness. At times, he reminds me of watching Jameson Williams in college, where he is so much faster than everyone else, he is gearing down and still pulling away from defenders.
Jahmyr Gibbs vs. Arkansas:— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) October 3, 2022
226 total yards
2 rushing TDs
22.8 mph max speed pic.twitter.com/2d1Jg2XcUQ