They’ve been safe when being bold might have made the difference. And bold when safe was probably the better play.
Though if you’re still steamed Bob Quinn took a tight end with his first-round draft pick a year ago, T.J. Hockenson may eventually take the steam away.
Under different circumstances — and under a different edict — the Detroit Lions’ general manager might take a swing at Tua Tagovailoa on Thursday night when his team is on the clock at No. 3, and make the selection that could lift the entire franchise.
Before his November hip injury, the Alabama quarterback was considered the jewel of this year’s draft. If he’s healthy, he may still be.
As it stands, and considering his win-now orders from ownership, Quinn isn’t in a position to take that gamble. Yet that doesn’t mean he can’t afford to take a gamble.
Sure, if the right trade comes along, and the Lions still get a chance at a playmaker — along with an extra draft pick or two — they will take it. And they should take it.
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Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn during his news conference at the practice facility in Allen Park on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Photo: Romain Blanquart, Detroit Free Press)
If no trade materializes, the safe pick is Jeff Okudah. The Ohio State cornerback will start immediately — whenever the season begins — and should provide stellar play on the outside for years. That’s no small thing.
Especially when you consider the franchise the Lions most emulate — the New England Patriots — fielded their best teams when they had a lockdown cornerback. Think Ty Law, Darrelle Revis, Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots won a Super Bowl with each.
So, taking Okudah makes sense in both likely production and franchise philosophy. Okudah can — and should — be that good.
The safe choice could mean the Lions missing out on a (relatively) new kind of difference maker. One that would give coach Matt Patricia the ultimate defensive chess piece.
Offense rules at the moment because the most explosively versatile players reside on that side of the ball. Coordinators employ the advantage of surprise with big, fast, nimble players who can line up in a variety of places.
Isaiah Simmons does the same thing on defense. And while his versatility at Clemson might not fully translate to the NFL, he is easily the most versatile player in the draft.
Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons leaves the field after losing the College Football Playoff national championship game against LSU at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Jan. 13, 2020 in New Orleans. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
In the past, versatility was used as a form of soft praise to highlight a player’s athletic ability or smarts, while undermining his positional fit. Or to suggest a player did many things solidly but nothing great.
Simmons played linebacker in college … in name only. Yes, he lined up in the middle of the field behind the defensive line at times. He also played strong safety, nickel cornerback and edge rusher.
At 6 feet 4 and 238 pounds, Simmons isn’t big enough to play every down as an edge rusher. Nor is he nimble enough to play every third down as a nickel corner. He does both well enough to make plays in those spots, however.
He can also cover tight ends, seek out running backs and slip into the backfield and disrupt plays. He is one of the best tacklers in the draft. He has a keen eye for sniffing out plays before the snap. And he runs sideline-to-sideline as well as anyone in recent memory.
He’s long and fast. Though not just for a linebacker. His 4.39-second 40-yard-dash was the third fastest at the NFL combine among defensive players – behind two cornerbacks.
In other words, he is new. But then so is Patrick Mahomes. And Lamar Jackson. And the bevy of tight ends who run and cut like receivers.
It’s true cornerbacks are increasingly valuable to combat all the speed these days on offense, and Okudah is as promising a prospect at that spot as there has been in a while. Yet if the Lions take Okudah, how much better will he be than Darius Slay, whom they traded to Philadelphia in mid-March?
Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah reacts during the second quarter against Michigan at Ohio Stadium, Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo: Joseph Maiorana, USA TODAY Sports)
If a lot, and Quinn is convinced they are taking the next Revis? Cool. But if it’s closer to an even swap for the first few years, then the Lions aren’t using the No. 3 pick to get better.
Simmons gives them a better chance to do that. He gives Patricia a player who can end a possession from any number of spots on the field, a player for whom quarterbacks must account.
The Lions had no one on their defense like that last season. And while Simmons is projected to go anywhere from No. 4 to No. 8, this doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of being taken at No. 3.
Now, if Quinn can pull off a trade and still find a way to draft Simmons, he’d have the best first round of his tenure. If he can’t, he should still take the gamble.
The game is changing. The Lions have a chance to change with it.
One of these five players likely will be Detroit Lions’ first-round pick in 2020 NFL draft, according to Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett.