As big-time sporting events go, it was more transistor radio than virtual reality. But in the end, a draft is just a team making a pick. And low-tech or high-tech, the Lions made the pick that wasn’t surprising, wasn’t earthshaking, but filled a need with the best guy at that position.
Jeff Okudah from Ohio State became a Detroit Lion shortly after 8:40 p.m. Thursday, in one of the strangest NFL draft productions ever, held in the shadow of a virus pandemic that has shut down nearly every element of life as we know it. In choosing Okudah, the Lions sent up a few flares: 1. Cornerbacks don’t usually go that high; 2. Some Detroit fans were hoping for perhaps a trade down and a bigger haul. 3) Tua? Tua? Tua?
But trades take two dance partners. And apparently, the Lions were left alone against the wall when the music played.
So they picked the guy who fills their biggest need, and if the pick was too high for the player, well, what are you gonna do? The Lions just got better in their secondary. And this is a team that needed to get better in the secondary.
Okudah, who went to high school in Texas, became the third player from the 2017 Ohio State team to be taken on the night, the other two coming just before him at No. 1 (Joe Burrow) and No. 2 (Chase Young). That’s ridiculous. But it does answer another local football question: why does Michigan keep losing to the Buckeyes? Look at that talent load! And Ohio State won big WITHOUT Burrow, who transferred to LSU!
But that’s a digression. Stick with the professional side. The Lions just got a 6-foot-1 corner, well-built for the position, a smart player, low on penalties, high on tackles, he breaks up passes, reads the offense well. That’s all in the tape and the scouting report.
The Lions no doubt hope he can start — whenever and if ever the season starts — because with the departure of Darius Slay, their secondary is crying out for help.
“It’s a crazy feeling being drafted that high,” he said in a conference call, acknowledging that he’s the highest cornerback taken in 23 years. “Obviously the Detroit Lions think a lot about me. I think it’s up to me to return that.”
So … what about Tua?
Now, let’s address the other elephant in the room. Some felt the Lions, if they weren’t going to trade down for a cache of picks, should have taken a chance on Tua Tagovailoa, the Alabama quarterback who led his team to a national championship and was on his way to a possible No. 1 slot until he suffered a serious hip injury in November.
From that point, Tua became a question mark. And with the limited contact imposed by the coronavirus shutdown, any team choosing him would be doing their buying without the normal shopping.
The Lions front office is supposedly under an edict from Martha Ford to win this year, or risk being swept out. If that’s for real, a young quarterback who likely needs to sit for a year wasn’t going to help their chances.
Then there’s the fact that they have a star quarterback, a good one, an expensive one, in Mathew Stafford, who has three years left on his big contract.
You add that up, and you can’t blame the Lions for not risking it all on Tua. There’s a Tua-like hype every year for some quarterback, and sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes it isn’t. You know who there wasn’t much hype over? Patrick Mahomes. He went 10th. And he’s the biggest star in the league right now.
Still, for those who think the future just got way, remember that quarterback can be a risky position even high in the draft. There’s no flop like a flop from the top. JaMarcus Russel. Akili Smith. Ryan Leaf. Andre Ware (a Lions pick). There is no such thing as a sure thing. And as great as the Crimson Tide has been on the college level, there is certainly no sure NFL quarterback thing coming out of Alabama (clue: the last impactful ones were Bart Starr, Kenny Stabler and Joe Namath). The fact is, when you play with a team that good, your receivers are more open, your blocks are better, your holes are the size of Buicks.
Tua was selected two picks later at No. 5 by Miami, a team many hoped the Lions would engage in a trade. Instead, the Dolphins stayed pat and got Tua without flinching. But if that enrages you, let me save you some aggravation. Comparing what your team could have picked to what it did pick is a sure path to madness. How many times can Portland Trailblazers fans torture themselves over choosing Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan?
The Lions already have too long a list in this head-banging exercise: Charles Rogers in 2003 over Andre Johnson, Terrell Suggs and Troy Polamalu? Eric Ebron in 2014 over Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald and Taylor Lewan?
Stop it. This will drive you nuts. The Lions took who they took. You can hope for the best, or make your current life even more frustrating than it already is.
Who needs that?
We needed this draft
As for the draft itself Thursday night? Well. There has never been and will likely never be anything like it again. A TV spectacle minus the spectacle. At times it had the look of two teenagers FaceTiming each other from the back of the car.
But extraordinary times mean extraordinary measures. And, amidst countless urgings of “we’re all in this together” and calls for various charity fundraising efforts — even a shout out from Dr. Anthony Fauci — here was Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, broadcasting from his “man cave” basement, which looked like an IT department that had moved in around his La-Z-Boy.
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning began the broadcast with a somber, low-key voiceover, saying things like “the draft is when hope starts all over again.” And for a night, that’s what sports fans were wishing for. Hope starting over. A momentary return to normalcy.
The draft, let’s be honest, has become an extravaganza, a bloated, pompous, over-the-top spectacle — but it’s a tradition. And in 2020, that tradition found itself as the Last Thing Standing on the sports calendar. Literally. Every single major sporting event in America over the last month has been canceled except this. Half the audience was simply enjoying seeing one monument to our previous culture still standing, like spotting the Statue of Liberty in the middle of a filthy fog.
I may be alone here, but I found it refreshing. Considering the NFL draft began with men in offices on telephones, there was nothing wrong with going to the houses of the draft picks and seeing them sitting with immediate family only. Social distancing? Yes. But also focusing on the people who mattered the most in their journey, their families. No entourages. No agents. No over-the-top fancy suits. No massive crowds booing or cheering. When the ESPN announcers said that Suzy Kolber was “standing by” with Joe Burrow, the No. 1 pick, it meant she had half the screen and he had the other.
It was low key, but it was also proper key, especially for this moment in time. It was real sports news, not refried stories or reshown games. For one morning, there are actual facts to report. That’s refreshing. And maybe we learned something from the stripping down of the “light, cameras, overdo it!” of drafts past.
In the end, as I said, a draft is just a team picking a player. The top teams went according to the chalk, no surprises, no trades, and in that mode, the Lions followed suit. Jeff Okudah. A solid pick. A talented player. Will he win anything by himself? No. But will he help? For sure. And at a time when we could all use a little help, the Lions played it safe. Can’t fault them for that.
Mitch Albom is offering a new work of fiction,”Human Touch,” for free on the internet to help first responders fighting COVID-19. You can read a new chapter each week or listen to the audio version at humantouchstory.com. Albom is encouraging donations from those who can to the “Detroit Beats Covid 19!” project at saydetroit.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.