DETROIT – What if the Detroit Lions shocked the football universe and selected Tua Tagovailoa with their first pick in the NFL draft?
Sure, questions about Detroit and Alabama’s star quarterback have surfaced for months, but with the draft just hours away, nobody expects the Lions to actually pull the trigger on a first-round quarterback.
But what if they did?
It’s such an interesting hypothetical because of the strong arguments on both sides.
First and foremost, the Lions already have a quarterback -- a very good one. Matthew Stafford is coming off an injury-shortened season, but he had been Mr. Reliable in terms of health for an entire decade.
Stafford is a very good centerpiece for the franchise. He’s been great at times, but he hasn’t quite earned the label “great” yet. Great quarterbacks can essentially carry their teams to the postseason and beyond. We’ve seen if from the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahommes, Lamar Jackson and others.
Stafford isn’t the problem with the Lions. But is a not-quite-great player truly irreplaceable?
The answer should be no, especially at a position where greatness can hide so many other holes on the roster.
Look at how a first-round quarterback gone right can affect a franchise. The Kansas City Chiefs are Super Bowl champions right now primarily because they took Mahommes in the first round three years ago. Baltimore will begin 2020 among the favorites in the AFC because Lamar Jackson -- a first-round pick in 2018 -- is a budding superstar.
Sure, Brady was a sixth-round pick, but that’s obviously the exception, not the rule. Does the Lions’ history suggest they could luck into a star quarterback in the later rounds?
Current plan isn’t working
Say the Lions draft Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah. He essentially replaces Darius Slay as the team’s top cornerback.
Do fans expect him to be better than Slay right off the bat? Wouldn’t Okudah becoming as good as Slay be a reasonable -- if not optimistic -- career projection?
So imagine if the Lions had simply kept Slay and not drafted a first-round player. The defense would look about the same as last year, and it was an embarrassment. How does that help the trajectory of the franchise?
Yes, the Lions need defensive pieces. They need a cornerback. They need defensive linemen. They need linebackers. But how many years of losing does it take before the Lions realize maybe they need to swing for the fences?
Whenever the Lions make their selection Thursday night -- whether it’s at No. 3 or later due to a trade -- the name called will likely be Okuah, linebacker Isaiah Simmons or defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Those are all defensive studs. It’s hard to argue with those picks.
But there are defensive studs in every draft. Ezekiel Ansah, Nick Fairley and Jarrad Davis were all considered studs, and their career impact on the Lions felt a bit, well, underwhelming.
A quarterback has more bust potential than just about any position on the field. Missing on a first-round quarterback is also the most public mistake for a general manager.
Bob Quinn will likely play it safe and stick with Stafford, because who can really blame him for that? The worst-case scenario for Quinn is that he drafts Tagovailoa and it doesn’t work out, because he already has a franchise quarterback on his roster and can’t afford to waste a high draft pick.
So by avoiding Tagovailoa, he can eliminate the worst-case scenario, right off the bat.
But he’s also robbing the Lions of the elusive best-case scenario: that Tagovailoa could be a star.
As the general manager, he has to weigh those options with what’s most likely and what his team needs.
Tagovailoa could be a Mitch Trubisky or Jameis Winston type of disappointment. There are dozens of other examples of top 10 quarterback selections not working out.
How would you feel?
Detroit Lions fans, how would you feel if the Lions drafted Tagovailoa? Would it breathe new life into what’s become a stale, unsuccessful product or would it be a waste of a draft pick?
There are two segments of the fan base: One that sees more than 60 years of consistent losing and doesn’t think a rookie cornerback or linebacker is a big enough step toward changing that, and one that still sees Stafford as the one who can lead Detroit to playoff wins.
One thing is for sure: Tagovailoa would spark a new excitement around the team that hasn’t been felt in years -- not only in Detroit, but around the NFL. That doesn’t necessarily translate to wins, but if it did, Lions fans would be in for an insanely fun ride, for once.
In reality, Detroit seems an unlikely destination for Tagovailoa. The Lions will probably end up with an elite defender or offensive lineman in the first round.
That would be a smart, completely understandable move, and it would also feel a whole lot like the last decade.