DETROIT – The Detroit Lions are coming off of a disappointing 2013 season in which an epic late-season collapse saw the franchise surrender the NFC North crown to the rival Green Bay Packers in Week 16.
Both the Packers and the Chicago Bears lost their starting quarterbacks to injury and opened the door for a Detroit team hungry for a return to the postseason. With a 6-3 start, the Lions stood on top of the division standings through Week 10, but they lost six of their last seven to complete their 12th losing season since 2000.
The late-season collapse earned Detroit a familiar luxury: A top-10 selection in May's NFL Draft. Jim Caldwell and his new staff will make the 10th selection on May 8.
Detroit has developed a reputation for botching important draft picks. Recent failure during the draft not only led to 10 straight losing seasons for the Lions from 2001-2010, it also sparked the "Fire Millen" campaign that forced out former team president Matt Millen and handed the reins to current president Tom Lewand.
Since his promotion to team president in December of 2008, Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew have improved the Lions' ability to target impact players and draft according to team needs.
Their first draft yielded quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. Detroit has added Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Riley Reiff and Ezekiel Ansah in the first round of the last four drafts, and all five players have become major contributors on the field.
With a new staff in place and an aging core of players, the 2014 draft is crucial to Detroit's chances of contending for its first Super Bowl appearance in the near future.
One glaring need for the Lions going forward is an impact player in the secondary, which allowed 246.9 passing yards per game last season (26th in the NFL). For a team that boasts one of the top defensive lines in the country, Detroit ranked just 16th in the NFL in team defense in 2013, demonstrating the need for a lock-down cornerback.
If the Lions decide to spend the 10th overall pick on a cornerback, Justin Gilbert (6'0, 200 lbs., Oklahoma State) offers the best possibility of having an immediate impact. Gilbert, who grabbed seven interceptions in 2013, would add a ball-hawking safety to a Detroit defense that recorded just 22 takeaways last season. His huge frame would help Detroit contain teams with tall receivers like the rival Bears, who feature 6'3 Alshon Jeffery and 6'4 Brandon Marshall in the receiving core. Spending a summer with Detroit would match Gilbert with star wide receiver Calvin Johnson during training camp and bring out the rookie's true potential.
Another cornerback available at No. 10 will be local star Darqueze Dennard (5'11, 189 lbs., Michigan State). The 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner offers Detroit an immediate defensive leader, as he anchored one of the top defenses in the country during his time at Michigan State. Dennard is a more polished all-around cornerback than Gilbert, offering sure tackling and more support in the rushing defense. His ball skills aren't on the elite level like Gilbert's and the Lions ranked 6th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2013, surrendering under 100 yards per game. Considering all of the factors should land Dennard second on Detroit's cornerback radar.
After cutting fan-favorite Nate Burleson in February, Detroit signed Golden Tate in March and seemingly improved a receiving core that struggled to perform during Johnson's battle with knee injuries. However, the 2014 draft offers two options at wide receiver that could put the Detroit offense on an elite level.
The top offensive weapon in the draft is wide receiver Sammy Watkins (6'0, 211 lbs., Clemson). Detroit has expressed interst in Watkins throughout the offseason, as the speedy receiver could stretch the field for Johnson. In his final college game, Watkins showcased his elite potential by catching 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the Orange Bowl. Adding Watkins would give Stafford two receivers that are impossible to contain one-on-one, and free up Tate for a breakout season as the No. 3 option. Detroit has struggled with drafting wide receivers in the recent past, but Watkins represents a can't-miss offensive talent.
If the Lions refuse to trade their pick and move into the top 5 slots in the draft, then Watkins is unlikely to be available at No. 10. But if the new coaching staff is determined to equip Stafford with another weapon, the draft offers another elite receiver in Mike Evans (6'4, 231 lbs., Texas A&M). Evans lacks the downfield speed of Watkins, but makes up for that with an elite ability to beat defenders to the ball. The 6'4 receiver recorded a 37-inch vertical at the NFL Combine, giving him a skill set similar to that of Johnson. Drafting Evans would seemingly give the Lions a bigger and better version of Chicago's Jeffery-Marshall tandem and exploit the shortage of tall cornerbacks in the NFL.
Detroit made another quiet acquisition in the month of March, adding James Ihedigbo to a shockingly thin group of safeties. Though both Gilbert and Dennard offer quality draft options at cornerback, the Lions can't fix the entire secondary with a single pick. With this mindset, Detroit might decide to draft a safety in order to support the cornerbacks downfield. If so, the best choice would be Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6'1, 208 lbs., Alabama).
Clinton-Dix would bring an Alabama defensive mentality to an organization that lacks clubhouse leadership. Nick Saban's program consistently produces NFL-ready defenders, and Clinton-Dix could be the best option to improve the defense in 2014. He offers playmaker talent with elite range at a thin position in this draft.
Detroit could also wait until the second round to draft a cornerback, as quality options like Jason Verrett (5'10, 189 lbs, TCU) and Bradley Roby (5'11, 194 lbs., Ohio State) may still be available.
The new coaching staff needs to create a winning atmosphere in the locker room, and drafting an Alabama product, like Clinton-Dix, with the skills to make an immediate difference could be an effective first step towards that goal.
Though the Lions have a long list of needs, the team's overall talent at important positions offers them the opportunity to contend in 2014. An improved secondary would solidify a defense that squandered six fourth-quarter leads in the final seven games en route to missing the playoffs in 2013. On the other hand, an elite receiver would give the talented Stafford enough weapons to outscore any team in the NFL.
Detroit should have many players on its radar on May 8, and the right pick could land it back in the playoff race.