We’re just a couple of weekends away from the 2023 NFL Draft, and the Detroit Lions are still the talk of the town.
In our first mock draft, Erik Schlitt and I (Ryan Mathews) explored what Detroit’s draft could look like if they moved off of their pick at sixth overall by trading back with the Tennessee Titans. In this next exercise, we’re going to entertain a different approach to the draft process for Detroit. We’ll discuss what we were thinking as we made our way through the draft, briefly breaking down the players we selected, and including any relevant alternatives that were considered when making our selections.
For this experiment, we used PFF’s Mock Draft simulator and only allowed ourselves the option to trade once, with the qualifier that it must fall into the parameters of being realistic.
Before we get started, here’s how the first five picks happened in this mock draft:
Pick No. 1: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
No. 2: C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State
No. 3: Will Anderson, EDGE, Alabama
No. 4: Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida
No. 5: Tyree Wilson, EDGE, Texas Tech
And with the No. 6 pick, the Detroit Lions select...
Pick No. 6: Jalen Carter, IDL, Georgia
Erik: It’s nearly impossible for us to know how the Lions feel about Carter’s character, but his talent is undeniable, and he can massively upgrade a position group that was largely left unimproved—they only re-signed players (Isaiah Buggs, Benito Jones, and Demetrius Taylor) and did not upgrade the unit.
The amount "he's just fucking unblockable" tape Jalen Carter has is Ndamukong Suh levels of insane. pic.twitter.com/xKMGbsm4FM— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) April 4, 2023
Ryan: The things we don’t know about Carter, the information the Lions will learn behind closed doors about him as a person, is the most important piece to the puzzle. It feels like it’s the only piece of the puzzle left to fit in place because he would seamlessly slide right into a spot where Detroit has its most immediate need for a contributor in 2023—along its defensive line. Carter’s tape speaks for itself: his versatile skillset allows him to play in both even and odd fronts, he’s got big, violent hands he can use to help him monitor gaps or rip through defenders to make plays in the backfield, and he’s ready to play on all three downs from the jump.
If he passes all the character checks from Holmes and Campbell, and he’s there at six, I’d have a hard time understanding why Detroit wouldn’t make him the pick.
Erik: Dominant as a pass rusher. Dominant against the run. His traits are rare.
Pick No. 18: Darnell Wright, OT, Tennessee
Ryan: We chose Darnell Wright in our last mock draft, but if he’s the best player available at 18, that much doesn’t change when he’s here again at 18. And what’s more interesting is the way the board took shape after choosing Carter at sixth overall: Christian Gonzalez (Las Vegas Raiders), Devon Witherspoon (New England Patriots), and Deonte Banks (Pittsburgh Steelers) all came off the board before we were on the clock. This is a distinct reality, Erik, so does this make you regret us taking Carter at six? Do you wish we would’ve made a move to get up there for one of the elite cornerbacks, or are you perfectly happy with our 6-foot-5, 333-pound consolation prize?
Darnell Wright is a bad bad man! pic.twitter.com/I4w7elWMLG— The GOAT House (@GoatHouseNFL) April 9, 2023
Erik: I’m completely fine with taking Carter because he is arguably one of, if not the best player in this class. I was disappointed to not have a legitimate corner option available, but I’m not sure I would take Banks over Wright anyway.
Wright was at his best against his top competitors and is an ideal scheme fit for the Lions’ offense. Dropping him into the right guard competition immediately makes the Lions’ biggest strength even more powerful.
At the end of the first day of picks, we ended up with two prospects that can be two more foundational pieces for this organization to build around, and that’s a win.
Pick No. 48: DJ Turner, CB, Michigan
Erik: And just like that, an option at corner became available to us. This really speaks to the depth of the corner class. While there is a clear separation of talent at the top, this class has plenty of depth options to choose from.
Before I get blamed for us picking a player from my alma mater, I do want to point out that Turner ranks 22nd in NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein’s rankings, 42nd on The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s board, and 44th on The Draft Network’s board—so this is a value selection.
Turner can operate in Glenn’s press-man scheme, and has the speed to play outside—his 4.26 40-yard-dash was the fastest at this year’s NFL Combine—while also having the range to kick inside to nickel if needed. He’s intelligent, confident, and can match up with a variety of different styles of receiver.
Ryan: Turner is absolutely a value pick here, and even though we did this mock draft before the Lions traded Jeff Okudah to the Atlanta Falcons, this selection gives the Lions a highly capable nickel cornerback to replenish the team’s depth.
Some of the more popular prospects available here at 48 were Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton, TCU’s Steve Avila, and Baylor’s Siaki Ika, but after drafting Carter and Wright, it seemed a bit early to double dip in our minds. Turner represented a great opportunity where value met need, and Detroit would take another step towards reimagining their cornerback room entirely.
Pick No. 55: Cedric Tillman, WR, Tennessee
Ryan: Give us all the Volunteers.
Tillman is steadily climbing up boards, and it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see him sneak his way into the end of the first round with a team who wants an X-receiver. He’s likely a second-round pick, though, and if Detroit doesn’t want to risk it as we did here, I’d be just as happy with Tillman at 48.
Correct me if you think otherwise, Erik, but I see Tillman being most effective as a tertiary receiving option, effective doing damage outside the numbers with his ability to stretch the field. Seems like the perfect fit for what Detroit is building long-term with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams being the primary receiving targets.
Erik: Yeah, I’m with ya. Coming from Tennessee’s scheme, his route tree isn’t as vast as the NFL teams may desire but he has the frame and skill set to be an outside-the-numbers WR-X, which is becoming more uncommon in college as offenses operate in more spread concepts. Of the 50 receivers invited to the NFL Combine, only 17 were over 6-foot-2, and only three of those prospects are expected to be top 100 picks.
While the Lions could easily add another smaller gadget/speed option at receiver (like Michigan State’s Jayden Reed, who we picked in our first mock draft), Detroit has done its homework on several of the WR-Xs in this class, and the value of adding an upside player like Tillman was too tempting to pass up.
Cedric Tillman, a thread. pic.twitter.com/PwgliIBsN2— Nick Penticoff (@NickPenticoff) February 25, 2023
Pick No. 81: Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane
Erik: Silky smooth as a runner, Spears can Houdini his way in and out of gaps with his explosive change of direction drills. He shows great patience as a runner and has the ability to make defenders miss, but he isn’t going to overpower defenders with his running style.
Spears is capable of competing for snaps instantly and is a prime option to replace D’Andre Swift after the season if the team decides to move on.
Tyjae Spears makes football fun pic.twitter.com/H3GYPELrmS— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) April 2, 2023
Ryan: Speaking of value, Spears at 81 feels like a really comfortable spot to grab a running back, but to have it be a prospect as dynamic as Spears speaks to how deep this class is at the position.
The reason why Spears is capable of finding playing time as early as this season with a team like Detroit is simple: despite the Lions having two very talented running backs in Swift and David Montgomery, Spears is a player who can play on any down. Though he’s small in stature—5-foot-9—he’s a willing blocker in pass protection and has shown improvement in his pass catching over his four years at Tulane. Spears had the sixth-most yards after contact in the FBS (1,052), and that goes to show you just how elusive he can be in bringing down.
Pick No. 152: Anthony Bradford, OG, LSU
Ryan: We’ve officially double-dipped—in a sense—by taking two players who would play guard in 2023, but this is the spot where it’s free to swing on a player with high upside, or players you can clearly see having a role in the NFL. The latter is true for LSU’s Anthony Bradford.
Erik: Bradford is one of my “sleepers” and a perfect fit in the Lions’ gap scheme. Quietly living under the radar right now, Bradford (6-foot-4, 332 pounds) is a people mover in the run game and a smooth mover when pulling. He is limited as a starter, and there is some technique rawness that needs to be refined, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up hearing his name called at the end of Day 2 or early on Day 3.
At a minimum, Bradford could be a backup in 2023, challenging Logan Stenberg and Kayode Awosika for a reserve role, then step in as a starter as soon as 2024 with his skill set.
Ryan: To be honest, I’m perfectly fine with adding another dependable guard who fits what the Lions want to do upfront at the expense of drafting someone who could come in and compete for a starting role anytime soon. Anyone care to remember what Thanksgiving Day looked like against the Buffalo Bills when the Lions were down both of their guards? Awosika and Dan Skipper gave up four QB pressures and two sacks, and they couldn’t move defenders at all in the run game. Bradford does move people, as Erik mentioned, so I see him fitting in immediately as an NFL-ready reserve at guard—and he even has some experience playing left tackle (five games total over his junior and senior seasons).
Pick No. 159
Note: This is the pick acquired via the Jeff Okudah trade, but as noted earlier, we performed this mock draft before the trade was announced.
Pick No. 183: Josh Whyle, TE, Cincinnati
Erik: At 6-foot-6.5 and 250 pounds, Whyle has a legitimate NFL TE-Y frame and a quality athleticism score (8.94 RAS). He was a bit miscast in Cincinnati's spread system and may have shown better in an offensive scheme where he could lean on his blocking skills more—which was the main reason we drafted him. This is an upside pick more than anything, where his blocking chops get him in the door and his athleticism gives him a chance to compete for a spot on the roster.
Ryan: Before we got to this pick, we went back and forth about different tight ends throughout this entire exercise. Picks 18 through here were all met with, “Alright, but let’s just double-check to see what tight ends are on the board.” The value just never seemed to line up with the other prospects at different positions still on the board, and we have over a half-season of data to show how the Lions can get by just fine with the group they currently have on the roster.
However, as Erik mentioned, Whyle has some unrealized potential the Lions could tap into by getting him into a system where he can be more at home with his skill set.
Pick No. 194: Jake Moody, K, Michigan
Ryan: Huzzah, a kicker!
Erik: Another Michigan player, geez.
In all seriousness, there are probably two draftable kickers in this class, Moody and Chad Ryland, who played for four years at Eastern Michigan before transferring to Maryland as a fifth-year senior. The debate between the two centered around Ryland being the more accurate kicker from distance (converting nine of 15 from beyond 50 yards), while Moody had the bigger leg (just four of 10 from beyond 50-yards, but is capable of hitting from 59 yards, which he did in college football playoff against TCU).
We went with the showman, because why not?
Ryan: Be honest, Erik, we went with the guy who didn’t leave the state of Michigan because those who stay will be champions. #Hail.