Detroit Lions betting that boring 2021 NFL draft ushers in entertaining team

by | May 2, 2021 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

The NFL draft was exciting. The Detroit Lions were not. While other teams like Jacksonville were building explosiveness by moving Clemson’s starting backfield into their own, the Lions seemed intent on putting their fan base to sleep. They picked, in order, offensive linemandefensive linemandefensive lineman and cornerback, a position they used their high first round pick on last year.

Never mind that new GM Brad Holmes acted as if he’d won the Lotto (“They have grit, they’re tough, they’re physical, they’re smart and they’re explosive,” he gushed over his top four picks), nobody gets excited over building your line. It’s like watching a sculptor mash clay together.

But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do. The NFL draft has become such a bloated piece of entertainment that teams sometimes get criticized for not putting on a good show. That’s foolish. Back in the days when this was all done via telephone, nobody worried about what Mel Kiper said.

And they shouldn’t worry now. Kiper felt the Lions drafted their middle selections too high, but even he admitted there’s nothing wrong with rebuilding a losing franchise from the middle out.

And remember, that’s what the Lions are. A losing franchise with a new head coach and GM. Holmes and Dan Campbell don’t have to worry about getting fired (this year) so they did the solid, if less flashy, thing: they put bricks in the wall.

Dull, yes. But needed? Absolutely.

It all starts up front

Now I know Penei Sewell from Oregon, the Lions’ first-round pick, won’t have fans looking twice across the street to see if it’s “really him?” (how many know what he looks like in the first place?) but he was pretty much the consensus best offensive lineman coming out of college this year. You put him on the right side, Taylor Decker on the left, Frank Ragnow in the middle, you have the makings of something.

And if you say “Who cares? Those guys don’t score points!” that’s true. But ask yourself how many times the guys who scored points for the Lions in previous seasons — Matthew Stafford, DeAndre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Kenny Golladay — were either sacked, stuffed or unable to get an accurate throw because the line couldn’t protect or open holes.

One reason you see guys like Aaron Jones in Green Bay come out of nowhere and dominate is less about his talent than the fact that he gets to run behind a great line. One reason Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott put up the numbers they do is because of the holes and protection their draft-built line offers in Dallas. The Cleveland Browns, terrible for years, built their line through recent drafts: Last year they were third in the league in rushing. 

You get strong on the O-line, you suddenly have a better running game and passing game. One of the knocks on Jared Goff is that he doesn’t handle pressure well. He turned the ball over way too much last year in L.A. Maybe Holmes, who was working for the Rams last year, knows that, and wanted to build a better wall around his starting quarterback. Can you blame him?

We swear he’s good

As for the second- and third-round picks, well, at least the Lions won the “Most Bleeped Out Press Conference” award. If defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike tackles as often as he curses, the Lions got a steal in Round 2. In a single answer, the Washington lineman managed to get bleeped three times:

I like (bleeping) people up … (bleeping) up an offense’s scheme … I like making them feel like (bleep).”

Well, who could argue with that?

Kiper, by the way, thought the Lions took Onwuzurike “more than 50 spots above where I had him ranked.” I have an idea. Why don’t we let the two of them fight it out on ESPN? That should produce some pretty good sound bites.

But again, you can’t fault the Lions for trying to build up a weak part of their team. The defensive line last year made average running backs look like world beaters and mid-level quarterbacks look like Bart Unitas Mahomes.

Personally, if they were going to go this route, I might have liked them to do what New England did a few spots ahead of them, trade up and grab defensive tackle Christian Barmore from Alabama, a beast of a lineman who, unlike Onwuzurike and Sewell, actually played last season and was on fire.

But Holmes publicly espoused his philosophy on this: “We don’t say like, ‘OK, we have to get this defensive lineman, we’ve got to get this nose tackle, because those are the positions that we need.’ No. We just get football players that we’re really excited about and that we’re hot on.”

Perhaps that explains why a team with more needs than an island full of castaways chose to draft two guys who play the same position in back to back picks. Selecting Alim McNeil from N.C. State in Round 3 was a bit of a head scratcher. But as McNeil told the media when asked about three linemen in the first three picks: “I don’t really have many thoughts about that, I just know the games are won and they’re started in the trenches and I feel like that’s where they wanted to go. But I don’t really have any thoughts on that really.”

That about sums it up. Late in the third round, the Lions took cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu. Again, Holmes reacted as if he’d just been handed a lifetime pass to the Cheesecake Factory. He claimed Melifonwu had “movement skills in space” that were “very, very impressive.” Then again, the same could be said for astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Personally, I’m a bit wary of a guy’s chances when his nickname is “Iffy.”

Everything that shines isn’t gold

The rest of the Detroit board, well, you can get excited if you want. Lions fans finally got an offensive skills player in receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown from USC, and it’s true, the Lions need somebody to throw the ball to. And trading up for Purdue linebacker Derrick Barnes looks smart, because they desperately need help there and Barnes, like most of the players drafted by Detroit this year, supposedly has a mean and nasty streak. But fourth-round picks have about an 11% frequency of becoming starters, so you can save the ticker tape for now.

Meanwhile, as the Lions were being efficient, other teams were making headlines. It was an exciting first round, mostly due to the quarterbacks, who went as expected at No. 1 (Trevor Lawrence) and No. 2 (Zach Wilson) and after that, it was a grab-bag. The 49ers elevated Trey Lance, a somewhat unknown quantity out of North Dakota State, to better-not-miss status with the No. 3 pick. Meanwhile the Chicago Bears traded up big to get Justin Fields from Ohio State (so, great, Michigan fans can watch him beat up another local team for years!) and the Patriots just sat still and had Mac Jones, who threw for five touchdowns in winning the national championship with Alabama, fall into their laps at No. 15.

That stuff was cool, fun. But so was taking Ryan Leaf or Jamarcus Russell, both NFL busts. The draft may feel like a Las Vegas floor show, but it’s really about construction. The Lions need building pretty much everywhere, and plenty of winning teams have first been patient building their two lines.

No, it doesn’t get anyone excited. But then, for the most part, neither do the Lions’ games. This is one way to change that. Let’s hope it works.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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