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The Lions Are the Most Interesting Team of the NFL Draft’s First Round

The first real drama on Thursday night will come when the Lions are picking at no. 3. Will they stay put and take the best player, trade it for assets, or do something truly radical?

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There was a brief period at the turn of the 2010s when the Lions, despite their myriad difficulties with most facets of being a professional football team, excelled on draft day. Long devoted to wasting consecutive top picks on wide receivers who bust before the end of their rookie contracts, Detroit broke out a run of stellar selections. In 2007, the Lions exorcised their wideout demons and landed Calvin Johnson. In 2009, they hit on their franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. The next year, it was All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and in 2013, they nabbed two more future Pro Bowlers in Ezekiel Ansah and Darius Slay.

But only one of those stars remains with the team, and in recent years, the Lions have reverted to their poor drafting. In 2014, they snagged tight end Eric Ebron, who struggled with drops, totaling just 11 scores in four underwhelming years in Detroit before breaking out with 13 touchdowns in 2018 in Indianapolis. Their 2017 first-rounder, Jarrad Davis, graded 94th of 99 qualified linebackers last season by Pro Football Focus, and their first-round choice last spring, T.J. Hockenson, was the first top-10 tight end pick since Ebron, and only the second since the 49ers took Vernon Davis sixth in 2006. Hockenson graded 29th out of 43.

As a result, the Lions are again drafting toward the top of the first round, picking third—their highest slot since taking Suh at no. 2 a decade ago. The Lions had holes [checks notes] everywhere in 2019. After a win over the Giants on October 27 left Detroit at 3-3-1, Matt Patricia’s squad lost nine in a row, six of which were by single digits. Stafford, hampered by a back injury, missed eight games—his first on the sideline since 2010—and without him the offense sputtered. The defense continued its slide under Patricia’s supposed guruship, and the outlook for this season could be just as bleak after general manager Bob Quinn shipped Slay to Philadelphia in what Gwyneth Paltrow would call a “conscious uncoupling” with his head coach. Patricia’s retention in the offseason was mildly surprising, and owner Martha Ford delivered a soft ultimatum to her head coach and GM, telling The Athletic’s Chris Burke she expected “to be a playoff contender,” and that those expectations had been “expressed to both Bob and to Matt.” Which makes Detroit’s situation on Thursday all that more interesting.

It’s all but certain the Cincinnati Bengals will select LSU quarterback Joe Burrow first, and it’s widely expected Washington will follow by taking Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at no. 2. Detroit’s plans, meanwhile, are a mystery. The Lions could play it safe and draft a much-needed defensive blue-chip talent like Young’s teammate, cornerback Jeff Okudah, to bolster the secondary or Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons to freestyle across the field. They could try to trade down to pick up a few assets. Or they could take an unlikely gamble on Tua Tagovailoa, despite having a franchise quarterback already under contract.

The Lions are this draft’s skeleton key. In other words, how the first round unfolds rests on their shoulders. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s examine the pros and cons of Detroit’s options:

Door 1: Play It Safe

Even assuming Washington takes Young, the top defensive player in the draft, Detroit still has a plethora of options on that side of the ball. In his most recent mock draft, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has the Lions selecting Ohio State defensive back Jeff Okudah. The Buckeye started only one full season in Columbus, but like his former OSU teammate Joe Burrow, he didn’t need much time to show off his skills. Okudah projects as a Marshon Lattimore–type corner and had nine pass breakups and three interceptions in 2019. And that’s something the Lions could desperately use.

Even before the Lions shipped All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay to Philadelphia for two 2020 midround picks, Detroit’s secondary left much to be desired. The team finished 2019 with the fourth-worst pass defense, according to Football Outsiders, and allowed more yards through the air and tied for fewest interceptions in the league. 2017 second-rounder Teez Tabor was cut just before the season, and defensive back Quandre Diggs was shipped to Seattle at the deadline, much to Slay’s chagrin. And even though the Lions signed former Falcons Pro Bowler Desmond Trufant, Okudah would likely be a day-one starter.

If the Lions pass on Okudah, they could still use the third pick to bolster their anemic defense. Only the listless Dolphins sacked opposing quarterbacks fewer times last season, as the Lions finished with the second-worst adjusted sack rate in the league one year after finishing fifth. Despite shelling out $90 million ($56 million guaranteed) for former Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers last offseason, Detroit pressured opposing QBs on less than one-fifth of dropbacks, and no player currently on the roster has ever tallied double-digit sacks in a season. Their second-best pass rusher after Flowers, Devon Kennard, was cut in March and later signed a deal with Arizona. And even though they landed a handful of former Pats to bolster the unit this offseason (more on that later), there’s still a long way to go before Detroit sports even a mediocre pass rush.

Thankfully for the Lions, they have options. Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons—he of the 4.39-second 40-yard dash, best at his position at the draft combine—offers supreme upside and the versatility to make an impact all over the field. When asked what position he plays, Simmons told reporters “defense,” and he wasn’t kidding. In his junior season with the Tigers, Simmons finished with 102 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, eight sacks, seven pass breakups, three interceptions, and one forced fumble en route to a national championship game appearance.

Simmons’s versatility, in the wrong hands, could leave him as the latest in a long line of so-called tweeners who never find the right fit, but in a scheme built around his myriad talents, he could shine. Detroit has been thin at linebacker for years, and despite trading for Patriots safety Duron Harmon during the offseason, could use more help. As senior writer Tim Twentyman noted, Patricia is no stranger to three-safety packages, and Simmons’s flexibility could allow him to shine all over the field. There’s a reason Danny Kelly called him “Mega Derwin James.”

Door 2: Trade Down

This is where things could get a little funky. Assuming the first two picks go as planned, the best player available when the Lions make their pick will be Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. In Matthew Stafford, Detroit already has a surefire leader under center, and it’s unlikely the Lions will move on from him. With a handful of teams behind them looking to grab their quarterback of the future—namely the Chargers and Dolphins—and a clear drop-off from Burrow and Tagovailoa to the quarterbacks in the rung below them, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love, it’s not unreasonable to think Detroit could field offers from teams looking to jump up for Tua.

They could gain a lot of assets in a swap: In 2018, the Colts traded back from no. 3 to no. 6 and netted themselves three second-round picks in the process. By letting the Jets climb the board to select Sam Darnold, they landed Quenton Nelson—an All-Pro left guard in both of his seasons with the team—as well as a second starter on the line in Braden Smith and starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. The year before, the 49ers flipped their no. 2 pick to Chicago for that year’s no. 3 (Solomon Thomas), two third-rounders (one of whom was subsequently traded and became Alvin Kamara), and a fourth-rounder. And while none of the players acquired in the deal—or in subsequent trades San Francisco made using assets received from Chicago—jump off the page, the swap netted the 49ers a handful of contributors that helped them reach Super Bowl LIV.

Trading down for a surplus of picks doesn’t always lead to a bounty. Just ask the Titans and Browns, who traded back with the Rams and Eagles in 2016 for the rights to the picks that became Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Both Philly and Los Angeles have been to Super Bowls since, while the Titans punted on the quarterback they decided to keep in lieu of Goff, and the Browns waited two years to get their man.

Still, there’s almost always value in moving back. Chase Stuart’s 2012 draft-value chart attempts to quantify the worth of each pick. The no. 3 pick has an approximate value of 34.2. Last week, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell proposed trades for each team heading into the draft. The Lions, he proposed, could swap their no. 3 pick, their fifth-round pick (no. 151), and backup tight end Jesse James to the Chargers for picks 6 and 37 and tight end Hunter Henry. A deal like that wouldn’t only bolster Detroit’s pass-catching group, but would provide the Lions with a surplus expected approximate value of 8.6, which is equivalent to a mid-third-round selection.

At the sixth pick, Detroit could still have a shot at landing someone like Simmons, or could beef up an anemic offensive line with a player like Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs or Louisville’s Mekhi Becton. The key to the trade down, however, is making sure you’re getting the best value for your picks. And if the Lions return to their favorite recent trade partner, that may become an issue.

Since Bob Quinn took over the front office in 2016, the former Patriots executive has had a chummy relationship with his old team. By June 2019, the two teams had completed six trades under Quinn’s stewardship—including one for starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who twice finished second on the Pats in sacks and received a $51 million contract from the Dolphins in March—and nearly agreed on a seventh that was later rescinded. Through free agency, the Lions have added more players familiar with the Patriots Way. In 2018, they brought in backup quarterback Matt Cassel, running back LeGarrette Blount, and defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois. Last season, former New England receiver Danny Amendola joined ranks in Detroit, and Detroit shelled out for former Pats defensive lineman Trey Flowers and defensive back Justin Coleman. This offseason, the Lions returned to the well, signing defensive tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins and trading for safety Duron Harmon. In all, 15 players on the current roster have at one time or another played for Bill Belichick.

Having just moved on from Tom Brady and with only two quarterbacks—Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham—still on the team, it’d make sense that New England would be in the market for a new man under center. And though this is highly unlikely—Belichick hasn’t traded up in the first round since 2012, when he did it twice to take Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones—there’s an opportunity for the Patriots to fast-track their Bradyless future. Assuming they could work out a deal with their favorite trade buddies, the Patriots could move up to no. 3 to land Tagovailoa, securing their new quarterback of the future and ensuring our long national nightmare would continue at least one decade longer.

Oh God, this was a mistake.

Door 3: Risk It All

The Detroit Lions do not need a quarterback. I checked the tapes and the roster and everything. It turns out Matthew Stafford has been, and continues to be, quite good at throwing the ball. Before his injury last season, Stafford was on pace to complete one of the better campaigns in a career filled with eye-popping stats. Through eight games, the Georgia product had 2,499 yards, 19 touchdowns, and only five interceptions, and had clocked career highs in percentage of passes thrown for touchdowns (6.5), quarterback rating (106), and adjusted net yards per attempt (8.15).

It’s a safe bet that the Lions would’ve finished with a much better record had he been healthy enough to close out the year; David Blough and Jeff Driskel went 0-8 in his stead. At 32, Stafford is no longer young, but his durability—before last year, he had started 136 straight games—and performance do nothing to suggest he’s close to slowing down. And beyond that, his contract, inked in August 2017, carries a $32 million cap hit this season and a $19 million hit in 2021. Trading or releasing him to make room would be a financial disaster. But fuck it, we’re doing five blades.

At full health, Tua Tagovailoa is an undeniable talent; he’s a better passer than Burrow and was more productive for longer. In 2018, he posted the single most efficient season in college football history (surpassed this past fall by Burrow), and followed it up with what looked like another record-breaking campaign that was ultimately cut short. As I wrote after his season-ending hip injury:

Through 31 games (and 24 starts), Tagovailoa sits third all time in passing yardage in Alabama history, is first in passing scores by 10 touchdowns over his next-closest competitor, and has lost only twice. He finished second in Heisman voting last year, and was a shoo-in to return as a finalist after this season. His career passer rating is more than 20 points higher than the current NCAA record holder, Sam Bradford. His career completion percentage of 69.2 percent places him eighth all time, and no player over the past two seasons has completed more passes of 20 yards or more than his 119. He wasn’t just one of college football’s most aggressive passers, he was one of its most accurate.

If Tagovailoa fully recovers from his injury—he was cleared for all football activity in March—and is able to avoid more setbacks as a professional, his upside could outweigh the financial drawbacks. While the fear of injury is ever present with Tagovailoa, Detroit offers a best-case solution: With Stafford still productive under center, Tua would have the luxury of taking a redshirt season to rehab further, if needed.

For a decade, Detroit has attempted to claw out of the league’s basement behind Stafford, and for its efforts has been granted with perpetual mediocrity. Detroit made its only three postseason appearances of the 21st century with Stafford at the helm, but hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season. Tagovailoa is a reset button; another chance at breaking through with a new, wildly talented prospect under center.

It’s rare that the full impact of a pick is understood on draft day, and more often than not, it happens when things are clearly about to go horribly wrong. The Lions hold this season’s first true wild card. And how they play it—whether they go safe, or go for broke—will shape not only the draft this season, but the franchise and a handful of others for years to come.