After drafting in the 20s with their fellow playoff teams last year, the Lions are back in the draft territory where we’re more accustomed to seeing them: Detroit, coming off a 4-12 season, owns the fifth overall pick. But while the Lions’ draft position has changed, their team needs look a lot like they looked a year ago: This team still needs help on the offensive line and the secondary.
Offensive line: The Lions have lost three of last year’s starters this offseason: Left tackle Jeff Backus retired, right tackle Gosder Cherilus signed with the Colts, and right guard Stephen Peterman was a cap casualty. The Lions haven’t signed any starters to replace those three departures, so they’ll surely try to get at least one starting offensive lineman in the draft.
Fortunately for Detroit, this is a good year to have a Top 5 pick if you need to rebuild your offensive line. Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M played very well against high-quality competition while protecting Ryan Tannehill and Johnny Manziel as the Aggies’ starting left tackle, and he could definitely step in and start right away as the man to protect Matthew Stafford’s blind side this year. Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher didn’t play against the same kind of competition that Joeckel did, but some draft analysts think Fisher is an even better left tackle than Joeckel. And Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson, though less experienced at the position and perhaps in more need of seasoning in the NFL, may have the most upside of any of the tackles in this year’s draft.
Finally, although No. 5 overall would seem to be awfully high to take a guard, Alabama’s Chance Warmack is so good that it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Lions to consider taking him with their first-round pick. It’s unlikely that the Lions will go for a guard instead of a left tackle at No. 5, but it’s very likely that the Lions will get a starter on their offensive line in the first round of the draft.
Cornerback: Detroit’s secondary was its downfall in 2011, and the Lions weren’t able to fix that troublesome secondary in 2012. This year they took a good step toward improving the pass defense by signing safety Glover Quin from the Texans, and they took two good steps toward not getting any worse by re-signing starting safety Louis Delmas and starting cornerback Chris Houston. But they’d like to add a starting cornerback in the draft.
There was a great deal of talk early in the offseason about the Lions being infatuated with Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, to the point where some people were saying you could pencil in Milliner to Detroit in February. But more recently the Lions’ interest in Milliner has appeared to wane, either because they want to focus on the offensive line or because they may think another cornerback, like Desmond Trufant of Washington or Xavier Rhodes of Florida State, is the best in the class. (Or maybe because the Lions have done a good job of putting out smokescreens.)
In any event, cornerback is a position the Lions need to improve. Last year they drafted cornerbacks in the third, fifth and sixth rounds. This year it will be a major surprise if they don’t draft at least one cornerback, and probably earlier in the draft than they did last year.
Defensive end: Both of last year’s starting defensive ends, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, are gone. A good pass rusher like BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah or Oregon’s Dion Jordan could be tempting at No. 5. However, a defensive end will probably not be as tempting as one of the cornerbacks or offensive tackles at No. 5, and the Lions are more likely to address their need at defensive end later in the draft. If a player like Florida State’s Bjoern Werner is still around with the Lions’ second-round pick, No. 36 overall, he could make a lot of sense there.
Wide receiver: It sounds crazy that a team with the NFL’s best receiver in Calvin Johnson would need help at this position even after trying to get that help with moves like signing free agent Nate Burleson, using second-round picks in back-to-back years on Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, and pulling off a mid-season trade last year to acquire Mike Thomas. But Young is already gone after demonstrating that he lacked the mental makeup to be a team player in Detroit, Burleson is aging and coming off a broken leg, Broyles is coming off a torn ACL, and Thomas has never proven that he can be a consistent playmaker. So while the Lions won’t draft a receiver at No. 5 overall, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them try to address the position later in the draft. A receiver like USC’s Robert Woods or Baylor’s Terrance Williams could tempt the Lions.
For the Lions, this draft will go a long way toward determining whether they can put the kind of team around Stafford and Johnson that can make them consistent contenders for years to come, or whether that 2011 playoff appearance was a fluke, and they’ll need to go back to the drawing board. If this draft doesn’t bring in some players who can start immediately and help the Lions improve significantly from last year’s 4-12 record, then the Lions may clean house, and a year from now G.M. Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz may no longer be in the Lions’ war room.