Detroit — To no one’s surprise, the Lions pulled no surprises in the first round of the NFL Draft. Call it safe, call it sluggish, call it prudent. Just don’t call it inspiring.
They landed an elite prospect in Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, the guy they seemingly targeted all along, and it required no effort to get him. All they had to do was lose their final eight games last season, climb all the way to No. 3, then sit tight and take their man.
On a night when the Lions selected a prime player at a position of need, it felt like they didn’t get enough. GM Bob Quinn said the trade market was dead, nothing happening, and in the unusual circumstances of the pandemic-created virtual draft, that had to be a factor. But that’s too often the issue with Quinn and Matt Patricia — nothing happening. They don’t push it. They don’t veer from their strategy. If they’re ever to hop off the treadmill of mediocrity, apparently they’re going to do it deliberately, painstakingly, without any bold leaps.
Quinn was looking to move down to collect more draft assets, but in a quiet first round Thursday night, despite lots of talk, he said he literally received no offers. In fact, there were no trades in the top 12. Quinn said he was happy to get Okudah, but sounded mildly disappointed that nothing else transpired.
“We never got a firm offer, no team put anything on the table,” he said. “We were open for business, and nothing was ever put in front of us to evaluate. I told you guys, it takes two teams to make a trade. Unfortunately, we were open and willing to move back a little bit. We felt like we had a group of players we really liked that we could’ve gotten if we moved back.”
Passing on passer
GMs were drafting from their basements without the normal volume of player evaluations, so perhaps some felt it too risky to take a risk. Except with Quinntricia, it always seems too risky to take a risk — in the way they draft, in the way they sit back on defense with a minimal pass rush, in the way they build their roster. No out-of-norm characters, few uniquely gifted talents, and never any real interest in Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Sitting just behind the Lions in the draft were three teams looking for a quarterback — Miami at No. 5, the Chargers at No. 6, the Jaguars at No. 9. Normally, a quarterback-hungry team is the perfect trade partner. Normally, a loudly touted prospect such as Tagovailoa would force teams to stumble over each other to get him.
The Lions never appeared to want him, so naturally, nobody had reason to deal with them. You can argue they didn’t need Tagovailoa with Matthew Stafford here. Plus, he’s coming off a major hip injury, otherwise he’d probably have gone No. 1 instead of LSU’s Joe Burrow. I still think someone as productive and accurate as Tagovailoa is worth the risk, and the Lions might regret not exploring it.
Sure enough, the Dolphins sat at No. 5 and drafted him. And sure enough, the Chargers sat at No. 6 and took Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. So they weren’t bluffing about their intentions. They also weren’t falling for other bluffs, not that Quinn tried any.
The Lions’ urgency to improve quickly based on ownership’s edict, as well as Quinntricia’s faith in Stafford, certainly were noted by other teams.
“We evaluated Tua, had a really good meeting with him,” Quinn said. “An excellent college quarterback, and he’s gonna be an excellent pro quarterback. The medicals were evaluated as well, and those are all the things you have to put into the equation.”
If any move down was possible, the Lions still would’ve landed a top defender, such as Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown or Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, which is why it feels like an opportunity missed. Now, don’t misunderstand. They might have gotten the right guy anyhow, and you can’t dislike the player.
Okudah is one of the top cornerback prospects in recent years, the highest choice at that position since 1997. He immediately upgrades the Lions’ league-worst pass defense. He has no discernible weaknesses and should be a valuable commodity, a shutdown corner in a league loaded with receivers. He has good size — 6-1, 205 — but started only one season at Ohio State and had three interceptions.
Okudah seems both grounded and confident, and fans will appreciate his tough backstory — he lost his mother, Marie, to lymphoma one week after he arrived on Ohio State’s campus in 2017. By most accounts, a good guy and a great player. But there’s a reason cornerbacks rarely are taken this high, because it’s hard to be game-changers when quarterbacks can throw away from them. Six cornerbacks went in the first round, so it obviously was a deep pool.
“Jeff is really a very, very well-rounded corner, a complete corner in our eyes,” Quinn said. “He fits the mold of a top-flight corner.”
The Lions need tons of help on defense, which is why they need lots of picks. In free agency, nine of their 13 signees were on defense, including Desmond Trufant and two other cornerbacks. They had a gaping hole at the position that they created by trading Darius Slay. Okudah may be plug-and-play, but the Lions always seem as if they’re plugging the same holes, year after year. Quinn’s five first-round picks — Taylor Decker, Jarrad Davis, Frank Ragnow, T.J. Hockenson, Okudah — were no surprises and no major gambles. (Yes, even the tight end Hockenson was expected to go in the top 10).
There’s no doubt Okudah fills a need, and there wasn’t much debate among NFL analysts. The Lions’ defense was last in the league in interceptions and passing yards allowed.
“I would put Okudah down as the safest for me,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “I know exactly what position he plays, I’ve seen him play that position against elite competition and I’ve seen him play at a very high, consistent level.”
By any measure, Okudah should fit in any defense, especially in Patricia’s man-heavy scheme. But immediate impact can be limited by the position. This is Quinn’s fifth draft, heading into Patricia’s third season, and there’s heat to turn it around quickly. Good luck with that. As we’ve seen, changing the Lions and their ways never happens quickly or dramatically.