The Detroit Lions appear to be turning a corner with their franchise, and the NFL Draft is a big reason for that. General manager Brad Holmes has done an excellent job hitting on his top draft picks and then subsequently complementing the roster with solid value picks on Day 2 and Day 3.
But Detroit’s ability to find diamonds in the rough has been on display for some time now. ESPN dropped the 50 best NFL Draft steals of the past decade, and the Lions found themselves on the list three times.
Amon-Ra St. Brown—arguably Holmes’ best draft pick—sneaks onto the list at 48 overall. St. Brown was taken in the fourth round—112th overall—and was the 17th receiver taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. Through two years, St. Brown has more receptions (196) than any other receiver from that draft class, ranks fourth in yards (2,073), and fourth in receiving touchdowns (11). He made his first Pro Bowl last year, and there’s a good chance he’d be higher on the list with a longer resumé. So give it a few years.
The other two Lions picks on this list were courtesy of former general manager Martin Mayhew. Coming in at 23 on the list is cornerback Darius Slay, who was the 36th overall pick by the Lions in 2013. In that draft, Slay was the fifth corner off the board—behind Dee Milliner, D.J. Hayden, Desmond Trufant, and Xavier Rhodes. Now entering Year 11 of his NFL career, Slay has five Pro Bowls to his name and is still considered one of the best man-coverage corners in the league.
Of course, Slay butted heads with Lions coach Matt Patricia and was subsequently traded for a third and fifth-round pick in 2020 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
That is something he shares with the other Lions pick who made this list: 2015 sixth-round pick Quandre Diggs, who landed 42nd on the list. Diggs has become a three-time Pro Bowler, but all three of those honors came after Diggs was traded from Detroit in the middle of the 2019 season. Diggs is still considered the heart of the Seahawks' secondary as he enters the ninth year of his career.
So what does this tell us about the way the Detroit Lions have drafted? Well, for one, it shows us that Mayhew did a better job than some remember. He’ll always be haunted by the Eric Ebron pick over Aaron Donald, but he was also responsible for building one of the best Lions teams of the modern era in 2014, which included solid draft picks like Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy, Matthew Stafford, and Ezekiel Ansah.
It’s also telling that no picks during the Bob Quinn era made this list. Instead, that era is responsible for trading away two of the Lions’ best draft picks. That isn’t to say Quinn was absolutely horrible at his job. The only reason the Lions’ offensive line is as dominant as it is today is because Quinn drafted Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Jonah Jackson. However, there is much else left from those Quinn drafts.
Finally, when it comes to Holmes’ drafts, the early outlook is positive. He’s already scored one undeniable draft steal in St. Brown, while players like James Houston and Malcolm Rodriguez have offered early, valuable contributions and could be well on their way to “draft steal” territory.