Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous few Sundays and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.
Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Round 5 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.
This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Detroit Lions. Will they have a new starting quarterback for 2021?
We’ve heard the talk of Matthew Stafford possibly playing elsewhere before. But now it feels louder and more possible than ever.
In a way, the Detroit Lions moving Stafford in the offseason would be as much a favor to him as it would be an acknowledgement that the team is headlong into a rebuild that has no clear maturation date.
There will be a new coach and a new general manager. The roster is old and stale. And moving Stafford — without a clear successor on the roster — potentially would set the team back ever farther.
Stafford’s incredible toughness, high-end talent and importance to the franchise can’t be overlooked. More often than not, he’s been a beacon of light for a team cloaked in darkness for way too long.
Stated clearly: Stafford isn’t the Lions’ biggest problem by any stretch of the definition. Moving on from him isn’t some cut-and-dry call.
Stafford is due a $10 million roster bonus in March, so that feels like an obvious line of demarcation. But moving him still would incur a salary-cap hit of nearly $25 million. It’s yet another Sophie’s choice the franchise will be forced to make this winter.
On top of that, wide receiver Kenny Golladay leads a crop of nearly 20 unrestricted free agents this offseason. Right now, the Lions are nearly flush up against the expected salary cap. That means some veterans under contract not named Stafford also could be on the way out.
Old friends such as Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders have jumped in to help the process. Owner Sheila Ford Hamp appears to understand just how critical this offseason is. The reality of the situation isn’t lost on anyone, but neither is hope that there is a pathway to prosperity.
There’s a lot to do. But there also is at least a small nucleus of talent — headlined by Frank Ragnow, D’Andre Swift, T.J. Hockenson, Taylor Decker, Da’Shawn Hand, Julian Okwara, Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, Jonah Jackson, Jeff Okudah, Quintez Cephus, Amani Oruwariye and a few others — around which to compete until the rest of the roster is in reasonable shape.
But will Stafford be among that group? Or will the Lions decide that trading him now (perhaps a year early) is the best way to help the franchise down the road? That chatter will dominate the offseason chatter for the Lions.
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
The Lions currently reside in the No. 7 slot in the 2021 NFL draft and could rise higher than that if any of the four teams directly ahead of them (Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals or Philadelphia Eagles) win on Sunday and the Lions lose to the Minnesota Vikings.
That puts Detroit squarely in the mix to draft a quarterback with their first-round pick if Stafford is moved. All signs point to Trevor Lawrence going first to the Jaguars. BYU’s Zach Wilson feels like the favorite to be QB2, likely off the board prior to seven.
So that is how we get to Fields being in play for the Lions.
There’s a lot to like about the 6-3, 220-pound Fields as a prospect, although maintaining some measure of perspective is needed, too. In his biggest games this season and last season, more often than not Fields has shown a need for development.
In games against the well-crafted defenses of Clemson (in the 2019 playoff semifinals), Indiana and Northwestern (this season), Fields struggled to diagnose coverages, fronts and pressures with ease. It’s an indication that his processing speed and decision-making under duress remains a work in progress.
But his high notes remind us a bit of a smaller, early-career Cam Newton. The vast body of work over the past two seasons suggests he’s a high-end talent with a ceiling that hasn’t yet been reached despite some bonkers performances.
Just ask Lions fans who also root for Michigan and Michigan State what they think of Fields (8-1 TD-INT ratio, 3 rushing TDs in three games against the Wolverines and Spartans the past two seasons) and his ability to break down defenses with his arm and scrambling.
If trading Stafford is the decision the Lions feel they must make, then pairing Fields with a smart, patient QB coach/offensive coordinator/head coach and signing a veteran option who can serve as the placeholder if he’s deemed not ready feels like a reasonable next chapter.
And if that requires moving up a slot or two to land Fields, whatever the Lions get back in a trade for Stafford should provide them ample ammo to do so. Detroit currently has all its draft picks in 2021 in Rounds 1 through 5 but lacks sixth- and seventh-rounders.
Clemson WR Amari Rodgers
Very quietly, Rodgers has been one of the more pleasant surprises this season in what looks like another loaded WR class in the draft.
Entering the season, there was some suspicion in his projection to the NFL, as a handful of scouts we spoke with over the summer suggested that Rodgers’ height (believed to be in the 5-8 to 5-9 range), good but hardly elite speed and unusual build (more than 200 pounds, shaped more like a running back) might limit his mass appeal.
But in a breakout season after the injury to Justyn Ross, Rodgers has been Trevor Lawrence’s most trusted target in 2020. In the Tigers’ seven closest games this season, Rodgers averaged 9.1 targets, seven receptions and 90.9 yards, along with scoring four receiving touchdowns.
Rodgers has all the looks of a quality slot receiver and possible kick and punt returner, following in Clemson’s tradition at the spot that includes starting a trend that included NFL successes Adam Humphries and Hunter Renfrow. Rodgers also has been trusted to attempt three passes and has been used as a run threat, too.
Coming up with a perfect comp for Rodgers is tricky. But I see some hints of Sterling Shepard in his play.
With the Lions possibly set to lose free agents Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., there might be a need for help on the outside. But they also could use a boost in the slot, with Danny Amendola and Mohamed Sanu likely to be allowed to walk. And despite Rodgers’ strong final season, the sheer depth of this WR class could allow him to slip to the Round 3 or 4 range.
As if the Ohio State-Clemson Sugar Bowl wasn’t a spicy enough matchup to begin with, now Lions fans have an additional reason to watch. They can scout their potential starting QB (OSU’s Fields) and potential starting slot receiver (Rodgers) in one fell swoop.
West Virginia LB Tony Fields II
It’s hard to know what the Lions’ defense will look like next season. But one area of need that should be checked off at some point this coming offseason is a LB group that could use upgrades in terms of speed and coverage.
As of now, the Lions have three linebackers under contract for 2021: Collins, Jahlani Tavai and Christian Jones. Even with a system change, Collins likely figures to have a role. But the other spots certainly could use improvement for the long haul.
Fields transferred from Arizona to West Virginia for his final season, and it was a fairly remarkable and smooth transition as he emerged as one of the Mountaineers’ best defenders this year. Despite getting eaten up a bit in coverage in his last outing, Fields has excellent burst, instincts, blitzing ability and coverage potential.
Running backs and tight ends have stung the Lions for 17 touchdown receptions this season. They need whatever help they can to help bring that number down.
Fields is undersized at an estimated 6-foot-1 and about 215 pounds. But his four-down potential (he has extensive special-teams experience) would be a nice addition to the mix. Fields received mostly Day 3 grades coming into the season and should be in that 100 to 150 range come draft time, we suspect.
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