2014 Combine

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: A deep draft will help Lions

Posted Feb 24, 2014

Mike O'Hara looks at how the depth in this year's draft will help the Lions, how a change at quarterback could effect Matthew Stafford, news to come from the NFL Combine and more

INDIANAPOLIS -- Monday Countdown rap line: How a deep draft helps the Lions (and every other team), what a change in depth at quarterback could mean for Matthew Stafford, the hat flap involving Stafford, a Michigan State linebacker who didn’t make the Combine and Jim Harbaugh laughing off reports that the 49ers considered trading him to Cleveland:

We start with draft depth:

1. Lucky 10 spot: The Lions can get a good player if they stay put with the 10th pick in the first round, whether a receiver that’s a priority for the offense or a player at another position.

The early workouts have confirmed what personnel men thought going into the Combine. It’s the deepest draft in years.

Khalil MackLB Khalil Mack trains for the NFL Combine. (Photo: AP Images)

One personnel man put it this way: the middle picks in the first round – roughly in a range of 8-20 – have more quality than the top five of last year. And the Lions scored with defensive Ziggy Ansah with the fifth pick a year ago.

That bodes well for teams such as the Lions, who might have a priority position but can feel good about a pick at more than one position.

For the Lions, if it’s not a receiver it  could be a cornerback or one of the linebackers – Khalil Mack of Buffalo, Anthony Barr of UCLA or C.J. Mosley of Alabama.

Mack in particular is an instant starter and difference-maker on the outside. Barr converted from running back to linebacker and might be more of a pass-rusher than a pure linebacker. Mosley is a high-quality inside backer.

2. On the line: It shapes up as a deep draft for the offensive line, particularly tackles high in the first round, and with quality guards and centers still available  in later rounds.

Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, Greg Robinson of Auburn and Taylor Lewan of Michigan solidified their status as the top three tackles, and probably in that order.

The Lions hit big last year, getting two starters on the offensive line – guard Larry Warford as a third-round pick and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle as an undrafted free agent. Warford will be a fixture at right guard. For Waddle, so far so good, but he has to prove he has staying power to be a starter for the long haul.

3. Hands down: The receiver position was just as projected – deep, with a variety of prospects.

Sammy Watkins of Clemson is the top prospect and not likely to be on the board for the Lions at No. 10. His times in the 40 clinched the top spot.

After him, take your pick.

Mike Evans of Texas A&M is probably the No. 2 receiver because of his size – 6-5, 230 and with good hands.

Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State, Jordan Matthews of Vanderbilt and Allen Robinson of Penn State also are 6-2 or taller.

Marqise Lee of Southern Cal and the LSU tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are 6 feet or under but productive and talented.

Sammy WatkinsWR Sammy Watkins (Photo: AP Images)

Beckham rates ahead of Landry for overall ability, but Landry’s toughness stands out.

4. Backup QB plan: Shaun Hill served the Lions well for four years as a backup quarterback, but a change could be coming. Hill becomes a free agent on March 11, and there are options for a No. 2 quarterback. One, of course, is to keep Hill.

Other options are to bump Kellen Moore up from No. 3 to the backup role and draft a quarterback for development with a low-round pick, or sign a veteran free-agent as the backup and draft a quarterback to compete with Moore for the No. 3 job.

Moore, signed as a rookie free agent in 2012, has not been active for a regular-season game, which makes him largely unknown. However, GM Martin Mayhew said Moore has shown progress in practice.

Hill, who turned 34 earlier this year, has provided a comfort level with his preparation and performance when given the opportunity. Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick and others have labeled him the NFL’s best backup quarterback.

However, Stafford is proving to be durable. He has not missed a game since the start of the 2011 season, and his streak of 49 straight starts – including a playoff game – is the longest in the NFC North.

Hill’s contract for 2013 called for a base salary of $2.4 million, with a total value of $3.25 million including bonuses. It’s not impossible that he could return on a lesser contract.

5. The Man: That is Stafford’s role now, with an overhaul in the management and support system he performed under in his first five seasons. There’s been a change in head coaches, offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches since the end of last season.

If Hill departs, Stafford no longer will have a veteran to rely on as a sounding board. And neither will his teammates. Everything will flow through Stafford as the offensive leader. It’s another natural step in the progression of a franchise quarterback. Suddenly, you’re the last man standing. More specifically, the man standing alone.

6. Progression: The obvious question is whether Stafford is ready for that. My opinion: it’s a no-brainer that he is.

At 18 as a true red-shirt freshman, he was a starting quarterback for Georgia.

At 21, he was the opening-day starter for a Lions team that went 0-16 the previous year.

And now at 26, he has 109 career TD passes and has elevated expectations for a Lions quarterback to the point where 29 TD passes against 19 interceptions is considered a bad year, with some fans clamoring for a change.

7. Hat flap: I’m amazed that Mike Ditka, an NFL icon, joined the chorus questioning Stafford’s leadership ability because he wears his cap on backward. Former Giants QB Phil Simms first raised the issue about Stafford’s hat.

Ditka and Simms obviously come from an old-school perspective.

It’s far beyond the time for both to graduate to at least the 20th century, if not the 21st.

8. Kyler Elsworth: He’ll be best remember by Spartans fans for his hit on the fourth-down stop that clinched Michigan State’s 24-20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

Elsworth got his chance to start at middle linebacker because Max Bullough had been suspended by the school for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Elsworth was not invited to the Combine, but he’ll get a long look from NFL scouts. His wrestling background will help him. Elsworth was an All-American at Goodrich High, with a 165-31 record, and was ranked among the nation’s best in the 189-pound class.

The discipline, strength and agility required to compete successfully in wrestling translates to football.

9. Jim Harbaugh trade: The 49ers’ head coach had a one-word respect when asked about reports that the team considered trading him to the Cleveland Browns.

“Ridiculous,” Harbaugh said.

He repeated it for emphasis: ‘RIDICULOUS.”

“Like ‘Semi-Pro,’ traded for a washing machine,” he said.

In the 2008 movie “Semi-Pro,” starring Will Farrell and Woody Harrelson, the Flint Tropics basketball team trades a washing machine for a player.

For Harbaugh, who has coached the 49ers to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl in three years, you’d think they’d at least throw in a dryer.

10. Draft countdown: The first round is May 8 – 74 days from today.

Plenty of time to change our minds about everything we think we know today.