Lions’ Den: Where can team improve in draft?

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After two underwhelming drafts, third-year Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn has a franchise quarterback with a diminishing window and a win-now blueprint that is starting to fade away.

Last season highlighted a load of deficiencies on the team and with a new head coach in Matt Patricia, Quinn, who was Patricia’s colleague in New England, knows this will be his biggest NFL Draft yet. The Lions will have the 20th pick this year and will be without their sixth-round pick after acquiring Greg Robinson from the Rams last year. 

The Lions finished the 2017 season with a disappointing 9-7 mark after impressing early with a 3-1 record through a quarter of the season. Following a loss in the wildcard round of the playoffs in 2016 to the Seattle Seahawks, 2017 was supposed to be the year the Lions took a big step forward.

Considering what they returned in 2017, many felt the Lions took a step backwards. Having missed the postseason altogether in a division with Aaron Rodgers missing much of the year and Minnesota down to backup quarterback Case Keenum, a division title, if not at least a playoff berth, seemed more than achievable.

Quinn was all in ahead of the 2017 season, extending quarterback Matthew Stafford to a five-year, $27-million dollar per year deal, a deal that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history. Despite some injuries offensively and an abysmal ground game, Stafford helped drive an offense that produced 25.6 points per game, which was seventh-best in the league.

While the contract is paying him like the league’s top gunslinger, Stafford has yet to notch a postseason victory under his belt. Entering his tenth season in the league, the Lions are continuing to use Stafford’s talents to no avail as his window to win in the postseason is slowly closing shut.

With the NFL Draft on April 26 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas, here’s a glimpse of some possible position groups that need to be addressed as well as names to look out for at each position.

Defensive line

Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is coming off a productive year in which he was eighth in the league with 12.0 sacks. As a result, the Lions franchise-tagged Ansah on Feb. 27 with the option to broker a long-term deal with the former 2013 No. 5 pick in the next couple of weeks. Kerry Hyder will also be back after missing all of last season with an Achilles injury. Hyder tallied eight sacks in 2016 and could be a productive force on the edge.

The Lions need a pass rusher and Boston College edge-rusher Harold Landry may just be that guy. Landry recorded 16.5 sacks as a junior but an ankle injury in 2017 had his numbers plummet, along with his chances of being a top-five pick. Paul Pasqualoni, Landry’s former DC at Boston College, is now the defensive coordinator in Detroit. UTSA’s Marcus Davenport will also be a name to watch. With Haloti Ngata headed to Philadelphia, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne will be guys to look at who can stuff the interior of the line.

Offensive line

Prior to the 2017 season, Detroit made some moves up front that looked promising on paper, but didn’t pan out as the Lions allowed 47 sacks last season, which was 25th in the league. Detroit let center Travis Swanson head to the New York Jets in free agency, which means Ohio State’s center Billy Price and Iowa’s James Daniels could be great additions on the line. Given the success Kirk Ferentz has had producing lineman in Iowa City, Daniels would be a safe bet to fill the role.

Linebacker

While Detroit had a young linebacking group in 2017 with first-round pick Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, it didn’t excuse some of their struggles at the position. Since Tahir Whitehead left for Oakland, Paul Worrilow will be back, but they should address a linebacker in the middle rounds to add some flexibility, depth and youth to the rotation. Keep an eye on Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter. Iowa’s Josey Jewell, who was one of the nation’s top tacklers, could be a real steal in the middle rounds.

Secondary

If Detroit decides to move Quandre Diggs to strong safety, the cornerback position will be an area of need. Insert Ohio State’s Denzel Ward. Ward’s 5-foot-10 frame could cause him to slide into the late second round (which if he does, he’s a steal), but he’s a corner who should see immediate playing time on an NFL team. Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver has the top-end speed to keep up with most receivers he’ll face in the league. Oliver’s speed prevents down-field separation as he finished last season with 12 pass breakups on the year and 19 in his last two seasons. Michigan’s own Darius Phillips will be one of the more intriguing talents. The Western Michigan product has all the physical and athletic traits to distinguish himself despite his school’s relative lack of prestige–not to mention Phillips was one of the country’s most explosive returners.

Running back

If the defensive line is Detroit’s top draft need, the running back need is a close second. The Lions have gone without a 100-yard rusher since Reggie Bush back in 2013 and finished dead last in the NFL this season with just 76.3 rushing yards per game. With a deep running back class, Detroit may be able to address the need somewhere in rounds 2-4. Derrius Guice is an impressive talent out of LSU, running for over 1,200 yards last season with double-digit touchdowns in each of his last two seasons.

Oregon’s Royce Freeman is a back who was underappreciated in his collegiate career, totalling almost 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns last year in his senior campaign. The 5-foot-11, 250-pounder has all the makings to be a premier bell-cow at the next level. USC’s Ronald Jones, Georgia’s talented duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson are also names to keep an eye on.

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