Detroit Lions First-Round NFL Draft Targets: Expect An Addition To The Defensive Line

The Detroit Lions are still in the early stages of their rebuild, but there was plenty for fans to get excited about in 2021. Head coach Dan Campbell, general manager Brad Holmes, and assistant general manager John Dorsey make up the brain trust for what seems to be a Lions’ front office with excellent stability and direction for the first time in quite a while.

After trading away Matthew Stafford last year, the Lions have two first-round picks to work with this year and several Day 2 selections. In this article, I’ll look at the Lions’ team needs, draft tendencies, and top prospects to look out for.

Lions’ Brass Draft Tendencies

With Holmes, Dorsey, and Campbell all having extensive NFL experience, there is plenty of insight to glean from their respective draft results in the past. Let’s take a look at some of their respective tendencies over time in the draft.

Expect a Running Back to be Drafted: Holmes served as the director of collegiate scouting for the Rams from 2013 to 2020, and the team drafted a running back in every draft but one. Dan Campbell’s Saints also drafted a running back every year from 2015 to 2018, including Alvin Kamara, to keep the backfield fresh.

While D’Andre Swift is an exceptional talent in the backfield, he isn’t built to handle 250+ carries per season. Jamaal Williams is back for another year in Detroit, but the team still has some long-term needs at the position even after spending a seventh-round pick on Jermar Jefferson last year. This is a deep class at running back, and I’d look out for Brian Robinson, Zamir White, and Dameon Pierce as some top names the Lions could consider.

No Linebackers Before Day 3: In the time that Holmes was with the Rams, they only took one off-ball linebacker in the first 120 picks. Dorsey only took one off-ball linebacker before the fourth round across his time with the Chiefs and Browns. Before selecting Pete Werner last year, the Saints had only drafted one off-ball linebacker since 2015.

Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone are the projected starting linebackers for now, but it’s arguably a fairly significant need for the Lions. Still, we shouldn’t expect them to use a premium pick on the position in such a deep class. In the middle rounds, Christian Harris, Brian Asamoah, Troy Andersen, and Brandon Smith are names to look out for.

Wide Receivers After Round 1: None of the members of the Lions’ brass have a considerable track record of selecting wide receivers early in the draft. With the Chiefs, Dorsey selected Demarcus Robinson and Tyreek Hill in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. With the Rams, Holmes helped find Cooper Kupp in the third round. The Saints hit on Michael Thomas as a second-round pick.

Detroit also found Amon-Ra St. Brown, who broke out down the stretch last season, on Day 3. With plenty of hits in the middle rounds, it seems unlikely that the Lions will force a pick at receiver in the first round. There will be plenty of potential playmakers available later in the draft, such as Romeo Doubs, Jalen Tolbert, and Khalil Shakir, who could last into Day 3.

What We Learned From 2021

Investing in the Line of Scrimmage: Last year, the Lions spent their first three draft picks on offensive tackle Penei Sewell and defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill. The Lions also added Michael Brockers in free agency while helping Charles Harris reach a career-high seven sacks to earn himself a new contract this offseason. Detroit isn’t done investing in the trenches, and both lines will be in play with their early picks.

Comfortable with Jared Goff: As part of the massive Matthew Stafford trade, the Lions acquired Jared Goff at quarterback. Ironically, Holmes was part of the Rams’ aggressive trade-up in the draft in 2016 to select Goff with the first overall pick. Dorsey was also a part of the Chiefs’ trade-up for Patrick Mahomes. However, the Lions don’t appear to be in a rush to move on from Goff, and in a weaker quarterback class, I don’t see them being aggressive at the position.

Position Versatility is Coveted: The Lions prioritized positional versatility in their draft picks last year, and it paid off in spades. First-round pick Penei Sewell spent time at both right tackle and left tackle. Onwuzurike and McNeill have experience playing all over the defensive line. St. Brown can play in the slot or on the boundary. Derrick Barnes has played every single linebacker position. With a roster in the rebuilding stages, having players who can contribute at different spots is a huge benefit.

Lions Top Team Needs

With draft tendencies and positional preferences in mind, let’s take a look at the top positions the Lions could look to address with their premium picks in this year’s draft.

Defensive Line: Holmes and Dorsey have an extensive history of investing in the trenches, and the defensive line is not as far along as the offensive line. Romeo Okwara and Charles Harris are nice pieces at the edge position, and Julian Okwara could be primed for a third-year breakout, but the team still lacks an elite game-changing talent at that spot.

Travon Walker, Kayvon Thibodeaux, and Aidan Hutchinson are the standouts early in this class, but there could also be solid options early in the second round. Even after drafting Onwuzurike and McNeill last year, the interior defensive line could also be addressed.

Wide Receiver: Amon-Ra St. Brown just broke the Lions’ franchise record for rookie receiving yards in an impressive season. Josh Reynolds was resigned, D.J. Chark was brought in on a one-year deal, and T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift are high-level pass-catchers.

Still, the Lions could use more in the way of dynamic playmakers at their skill positions, and there will be options for their late first-round and early second-round picks. Keep an eye on Christian Watson, George Pickens, Skyy Moore, and Jahan Dotson in those spots.

Cornerback: After a brutal rookie season and a torn Achilles in 2021, Jeff Okudah has had a rocky start to his career, to say the least. I loved him as a prospect coming out of Ohio State, but he was drafted by the prior regime in Detroit, and this could be a make-or-break year for him.

2019 fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye is coming off a career year, and Mike Hughes was a solid veteran addition, but the Lions could still look to improve their cornerback group. Adding a player like Daxton Hill or Lewis Cine, who can play slot cornerback and safety with their early second-round pick could be a great use of resources.

Honorable Mentions: Linebacker, Safety, Quarterback, Tight End

Lions’ Top Draft Targets at #2

EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: It seems highly unlikely that the Jaguars will pass on Hutchinson after their free agency additions along the offensive line, but the buzz has been growing that the team could select Travon Walker over the Michigan product.

If that happens, the Lions would sprint their draft card in to select Hutchinson as a high-character, hard-working edge player with a ton of heart and elite athletic attributes. He may not have the elite athletic upside of a Myles Garrett or Chase Young, but he would be a big part of the Lions’ efforts to reset their culture and establish an identity in the trenches.

EDGE Travon Walker, Georgia: Walker’s meteoric rise up draft boards has been extremely compelling, and it’s hard to blame teams for rising on the Georgia product with his elite athletic attributes. He registered a 9.99 Relative Athletic Score, which has only been accomplished by Myles Garrett this decade.

Walker doesn’t have the same pass-rush productivity as his peers in this class, but he has the versatility the Lions covet and will be a high-impact run defender right from the jump. If he can translate his elite athleticism into a more complete pass-rush toolkit, he has All-Pro potential in the NFL.

EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon: The final edge defender the Lions will likely be considering at #2 overall is Thibodeaux, and he’s regarded as the betting favorite to be their selection. Campbell called Thibodeaux an “explosive athlete” and a “playmaker.” He highlighted his “good, quick first step” and said, “he’s pretty special on tape.”

Some analysts have cited concerns over Thibodeaux’s purported “overconfidence” or lack of concentration on football, but those issues are overblown. He’s a dynamic athlete who’s a double-digit sack threat in the NFL, and the Lions need someone like that on their roster.

QB Malik Willis, Liberty: I don’t anticipate Malik Willis being the Lions’ selection at #2, but he’s been repeatedly linked to the team and met with Detroit bass in the pre-draft process, so we can’t rule it out entirely. Willis is an excellent athlete with arm strength that has many scouts and executives highly intrigued.

However, Willis likely needs a full year riding the pine to hone his technique and improve his mechanics across the board. The Lions would be able to start Jared Goff for another year while Willis would sit and develop, but the team likely wants an instant-impact franchise player at #2, and Willis is a lottery ticket who may not fit their immediate plans.

CB Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati: The Lions have been more often linked to an edge defender at #2 overall, but the prospect of Ahmad Gardner being the pick hasn’t been discussed enough. Gardner is a lab-made press coverage cornerback with all of the physicality, toughness, and competitive spirit you want in your alpha corner.

Derek Stingley Jr. could also be in consideration with this pick, but Gardner is the higher-floor prospect, and he feels like a Dan Campbell player with the way he commands the line of scrimmage on the boundary. Selecting Gardner would take some pressure off Jeff Okudah as he works his way back from the Achilles injury.

Lions’ Top Draft Targets at #32

CB Kaiir Elam, Florida: There is a significant drop-off in cornerback talent following the top five at the position (Ahmad Gardner, Derek Stingley Jr., Trent McDuffie, Andrew Booth Jr., and Kaiir Elam). I see Elam as the final player in that tier, and if the Lions want to bolster their cornerback room, this could be the spot to do it.

Elam ran an impressive 4.39-second 40-yard dash, and he has the ideal size for the position at 6’1”, 191 lbs. As a physical press corner who’s a menace at the line of scrimmage and the catch point, Elam would change the complexion of the Lions’ defense.

EDGE Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State: If the Lions don’t address the edge position with their first pick, Ebiketie would likely be a top option at #32. The Penn State product is on the older side, as are some of his peers in that third tier of edge defenders, but he has a well-developed pass-rush toolkit.

Ebiketie was one of the most productive pass-rushers in the country last year with an elite 22% win rate (with stunts and blitzes removed) per PFF. He is undersized at 6’2”, 250 lbs, but it’s hard to ignore his high-end athletic attributes across the board, and his closest RAS comparison is Khalil Mack.

WR Skyy Moore, Western Michigan: The potential range of landing spots for Skyy Moore has been huge in various mock drafts, and I ultimately don’t think he gets past the Packers and Chiefs, who are both very receiver-needy teams. However, if Moore does last to #32, he would be a top option for the Lions.

With Moore’s ability to get off the line of scrimmage, create space through his routes, be physical at the catch point, and win with dynamic YAC creation ability, there’s plenty to love about his game. Moore would be an enticing complement to Amon-Ra St. Brown and the rest of the Lions’ receiving corps.

QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati: We can’t rule out the Lions’ possibility of drafting a quarterback at #32 as there is a solid case to be made that the value of securing the fifth-year option would make it worth investing in the position. Depending on how things pan out, the Lions could take a quarterback at the back end of the first round and still be in on the 2023 class.

Ridder’s accuracy is the biggest concern with his game, but it steadily improved throughout his time at Cincinnati, and he has the arm talent to make an array of downfield throws. Ridder’s elite athletic testing and high-level character traits have seen his draft stock rise, and I believe he’s a near-lock to be a first-round pick.

S Daxton Hill, Michigan: The final player I wanted to list here is a safety from the Lions’ backyard in Daxton Hill. With his elite athletic measurables, Hill’s closest RAS comparison was Minkah Fitzpatrick. He rated in the 97th percentile for the 3-cone drill and the 95th percentile for the 40-yard dash.

Hill can play as a slot cornerback, single-high safety, or even boundary defender, and the Lions covet that versatility. If they want to improve their secondary without impeding Jeff Okudah’s path to a breakout campaign as their top outside corner, Hill would be a great choice.

I've been writing about sports for Lineups since the beginning of 2020 and on my own website since 2018. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. With my educational background in the sports business and a strong knowledge of the inner workings of professional and collegiate sports, I hope to tell enthralling stories about the world of sports as it unfolds around me.

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