The NFL Draft is approaching -- mercifully.
The draft is always a time of supreme optimism for NFL fan bases around the country. It’s a chance for teams to grab those few players who can potentially change a franchise. Getting it right at the top of the draft can mean the difference between a playoff berth and a seat on the couch come January.
The Lions are on the lookout for impact players who can help them close out games. Guys who can make key plays that could have been the difference in the 15 games last year the Lions either led or were tied in the fourth quarter, yet finished 7-9.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has always had the philosophy of best player available, as do most teams. But last year was probably the best draft Mayhew has had since 2009 because the team was able to match best-player-available along with needs.
Here’s a look at my top five remaining needs for the Lions.
Why is it a need: How big of a need this really is depends on how well Jones returns from that ruptured Patellar tendon he suffered in Week 3 last year. If he’s not the same player they thought they were getting when they signed him the first day of free agency last offseason, that’s a problem.
Taylor showed great promise last year, but he’s still a developing player and the Lions have to kind of guess at what his production might look like next year. All the talent is there, but …
A team can never have too many good pass rushers and there is great value for the position anywhere in the draft.
Who fits: We can all imagine what a line of Ansah,
The Lions shifted the profile for the position starting last year. They like long, athletic ends. Ansah, Jones, Taylor, Johnson and Brown are all at least 6-foot-4. Only Brown is less than 270 pounds.
A few players who can fit that profile early in the draft would be Missouri’s Kony Ealy (6-4, 273), Oregon State’s Scott Crichton (6-3, 273) and North Carolina’s Kareem Martin (6-6, 272)
Why is it a need: More so an outside linebacker. By all accounts, the Lions plan to be more aggressive with their linebackers this season. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wants to play multiple fronts and bring pressure from a lot of different areas. To do that, the Lions could stand to add more versatility to their linebacking corps.
The Lions haven’t had a really good rush linebacker in years, not since Julian Peterson in 2009.
Whitehead is an interesting prospect to watch this offseason and in training camp because he played a similar role in college at Temple. He recorded five sacks his senior season in 2011. Will he fit this scheme better than Jim Schwartz's?
The Lions could use some versatility at linebacker. A player who can drop in coverage, play the run and also rush in passing situations. A player who can almost be like a rover and move around.
Who fits: Khalil Mack would be a terrific pick for the Lions if they can work a trade. He fits all the criteria for the position and would be an immediate impact player.
UCLA’s Anthony Barr (6-5, 255), BYU’s Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 243), Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier (6-1, 237), Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu (6-3, 252) and Alabama’s Arian Hubbard (6-6, 257) are all versatile type outside linebackers to be had in the first few rounds.
Why is it a need: The Lions did a nice job addressing the position in free agency with the acquisition of Tate, a guy who can play both inside and outside and has terrific hands. That’s important because Lions pass catchers have led the NFL in drops the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, the Lions can’t count on Broyles just yet after his third major leg injury in as many years, but he's still on the radar. Ross, Ogletree and Durham are all complimentary players, but the Lions need that third playmaker on the outside.
New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes over from New Orleans and a system that featured a lot of different wide receiver groupings and a lot of different playmakers.
Also, if something happens to Johnson or Tate the Lions need to have that third player who can step up and take the load off.
Who fits: Who doesn’t? This draft is loaded at the position.
Sammy Watkins (6-1, 211) is the gold standard, and is probably a player the Lions have had discussions about moving up for. He’s the best playmaker in the group, and like Tate, can move all over the field to get the best matchup.
Mike Evans (6-5, 231) is an intriguing prospect, too, because it would give the Lions two big, physical receivers in Johnson and Evans on the outside. Tate can then roam free in the middle against slot corners and safeties. It would be a similar situation Chicago has with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Watkins and Evans are at the head of the class, but there’s lots of talent that can probably contribute Day 1 all the way into the third round.
One thing to keep in mind with the receivers the Lions want to bring in is that they have good hands. Drops need to be a thing of the past.
LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. (5-11, 198), Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks (5-10, 189), USC’s Marqise Lee (6-0, 192), Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews (6-3, 212), Indiana’s Cody Latimer (6-3, 215), Clemson’s Martavis Bryant (6-4, 211), Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240) and Penn State’s Allen Robinson (6-3, 220) all seem like players who can step in and contribute right away.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN
Why is it a need: Raiola is playing his best football in the latter stages of his career, but he is 35 years old and the Lions need to start thinking about the future. They also need a Plan B for this season in case something happens to Raiola.
Ideally, they draft a player who can be groomed at center and initially challenge Sims and Austin for playing time at guard.
Who fits: The Lions brought in former USC guard/center Marcus Martin for a pre-draft visit. At 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, Martin has the size to play guard right away. He’s a versatile interior lineman with a lot of upside at center, a position he only played his final year at USC.
Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (6-2, 293) is probably a more refined center, but doesn’t have elite size. Arkansas' Travis Swanson (6-5, 312), Oklahoma’s Gabe Ikard (6-4, 304) and Vanderbilt’s Wesley Johnson (6-5, 297) are a few other names that could fit in the middle rounds.
Why is it a need: Teryl Austin said a team could never have too many cornerbacks during his introductory press conference, and he’s right.
The unit has been one of the most unreliable and inconsistent for the Lions the last couple seasons. It’s never a bad idea to add talent, and the Lions will, it just has to match the value at the spot they take them. Is there enough value in this draft taking a cornerback at No. 10?
Who fits: Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard are at the top of the class, but are two very different cornerbacks. Gilbert is the faster cover corner, whereas Dennard is the more physical all-around player. It just depends on the scheme of the interested team as to who goes first.
Gilbert is a premiere kick returner, however, which might give him a slight edge.
The Lions like big, fast corners, so Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller (6-0, 190), Ohio State’s Bradley Roby (5-11, 194), Utah’s Keith McGill (6-3, 211), Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 218) and Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir (6-1, 198) could all fit their profile.