We’re knocking on the door of free agency, but the Detroit Lions don’t figure to answer the call this season. Detroit leveraged their cap space into a Jared Goff for Matt Stafford trade, killing almost $14M in cap space but snagging some extra first-round picks for their trouble. As such, they have less than $10M in cap space remaining, as their books stand—enough to get a deal or two done, but nothing world-ending.
So the first draft for new general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell becomes all that more important. With four picks in the top 100 and a roster lacking star youth, the Lions are well-positioned to take big swings on developmental players and hope to accelerate their rebuild process with a couple of lucky hits. If they miss, no problem—they were going to be bad this year anyway, and they have tons of capital in the future to get aggressive.
ROUND 1 (NO. 7 OVERALL): JAYLEN WADDLE, WR, ALABAMA
If the QB board fell nicely to me, I would have taken one—but the Eagles took the fourth QB off the board, so that idea was nixed early. I don’t think the Lions should be too aggressive trying to trade up for a QB, either—they’re on such a long arc to rebuild the roster—that spending picks to trade up seems ill-advised.
Waddle is a heckuva consolation prize. Even when the Lions had Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola as their starting wide receiver corps, they didn’t have a ton of after-the-catch juice. Offenses need that player who can turn a shallow target or a screen into an explosive gain to alleviate the stress on the play-caller and the quarterback. Waddle is that dude and then some.
Waddle can start on the outside or in the slot for a weak Lions wide receiver room and offer threats on all three levels as a route-runner, deep ball tracker, and RAC stud. He’s never been a high-volume target getter at Alabama, so there’s some risk here if you’re not going to strengthen the rest of the room. But c’mon: Detroit has to strengthen the rest of the room, right?
ROUND 2 (NO. 41 OVERALL): ALEX LEATHERWOOD, OT, ALABAMA
I’m staying in Alabama and going for a far less sexy, but still solid pick in Leatherwood. A tackle in college who may move to guard in the pros, Leatherwood doesn’t have the flashy athletic ability or elite film of a first-round tackle—especially in this talented class—but he’s a rock-steady player with tons of experience.
The ill-gotten Halapoulivaati Vaitai contract is escapable after this upcoming season, and he may prove a better guard than tackle long-term. Leatherwood gives you an opportunity to test that out over the course of this season, in that he can start as a rookie, and then the freedom to move on from that contract in 2022, and deliver that starting role after a year as the sixth offensive lineman off the bench.
Campbell comes from a New Orleans franchise that wouldn’t stop investing in the offensive line over the last few years, and I imagine he’ll push for that approach in Detroit as well.
ROUND 3 (NO. 72 OVERALL): TYSON CAMPBELL, CB, GEORGIA
I would have liked to address the cornerback position earlier, but as it is, I figured I’d take an aggressive swing on a high-caliber recruit and athlete in Campbell. With multiple years of starting experience in Georgia, Campbell’s inconsistency keeps him from being a top pick, but he has both the frame and the reps for press-man coverage. That makes him a good scheme fit for new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and incumbent young cornerbacks in Jeffrey Okudah and Amani Oruwariye.
Campbell likely won’t start over either Okudah or Oruwariye, who played some solid ball down the stretch last year, but he’ll have an opportunity to win that job in camp and protect the Lions from another Okudah injury or further shaky play. I imagine the new coaching staff will prioritize Okudah’s development—he was such a good prospect coming out, and his play last season was shockingly poor—but Campbell provides insurance on that bet.
ROUND 3 (NO. 88 OVERALL): CAMERON MCGRONE, LB, MICHIGAN
This is a great landing spot and value for McGrone here, who is certainly a high-ceiling, three-down MIKE linebacker—but is far from that player at this time. McGrone only has 15 starts and was used as an aggressive blitzer in the Michigan defense, so his second-level play processing still leaves plenty to be desired, and he’ll likely be tasked with playing at a heavier weight in the pros than he did in the Big Ten.
With that said, the physical and productive nature of his play at a lighter weight is very promising to his pro projection—he isn’t afraid of contact and has some quality coverage reps in which he uses his power to crowd tight ends and running backs and discourage targets. For a Lions team that hasn’t seen good linebacker play in the last several years, McGrone is a worthy gamble.
ROUND 4 (NO. 112 OVERALL): ALIM MCNEILL, IDL, NC STATE
The defensive tackle position is weak and getting weaker in Detroit. With Nick Williams and Danny Shelton—that’s more than 1,000 combined snaps from last season—both hitting free agency in 2022, the Lions have no depth behind last year’s surprise standout rookie, John Penisini.
McNeill, like McGrone and Campbell, is a forward-thinking pick that may pay more dividends in 2022 than in 2021. Often a two-gapper on a three-man front in NC State, McNeill has the build and initial quickness of a one-gap penetrator but needs time to get his hands and feet right. McNeill has enough size and experience to play on base downs, however, which will provide the experience necessary to expedite his growth.
ROUND 5 (NO. 6 OVERALL): SHI SMITH, WR, SOUTH CAROLINA
There were way too many directions to go here. Depth at defensive tackle (Bobby Brown III was on the board), EDGE (Elerson Smith), linebacker (Tony Fields II), and safety (James Wiggins, Joshuah Bledsoe) were all on the board, and I had each name teed up for a moment as I thought through this pick.
At the end of the day, the weakest position on the Lions’ depth chart is wide receiver, and with its importance to a functional offense considered, it’s a position that demands double-dipping—especially with such a player as Smith on the board.
Smith is a tough-as-nails slot with smart routes, surprising contested-catch ability, and enough quickness to separate. He brings the same aggression to the position that once-Gamecock Deebo Samuel did, and while he doesn’t have Samuel’s athletic ability, he will serve as an underneath and intermediate stick mover to replace Amendola.