No NFL team aspires to be drafting in the top 10, but when they do find themselves in that unenviable position, general managers know those selections are the ones that often will make or break their tenure with a franchise.
The Detroit Lions unfortunately have found themselves in that position not just in the most recent draft, but the past two, snapping a four-year reprieve. It was uncharted territory for Lions GM Bob Quinn, who spent 16 years in New England, where that franchise typically wasn’t making its first selection until the end of the opening round.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Brian Burns (53) was selected 16th in the 2019 NFL Draft. (Photo: Gerry Broome, Associated Press)
In those two drafts, Quinn went outside the box with his choices, taking tight end T.J. Hockenson and cornerback Jeff Okudah. If you surveyed NFL decision-makers, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful who would criticize either as a prospect, but it was unquestionably rare to see either position addressed so early in the first round.
As the No. 8 pick, Hockenson was the earliest tight end selected since Vernon Davis was selected at No. 6 in 2006, while no team had taken a cornerback at No. 3 or higher since the Seattle Seahawks snagged Shawn Springs at No. 3 way back in 1997.
While there’s nothing wrong with thinking outside the box, it naturally opens yourself up to even more second-guessing than an general manager already faces.
And while there’s no point rehashing the conversation about quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is thriving in Miami, but was never a realistic possibility for the Lions with Quinn fighting for his job, there were other players the Lions passed up on who would look pretty good in Honolulu blue. Coincidentally, the team will get an up-close look at two of them this Sunday when they go on the road to play the Carolina Panthers.
In 2019, no one will argue the Lions needed help at tight end, but it’s also fair to say a team never can have enough pass-rushing talent. After just missing out on Josh Allen, who went to Jacksonville one pick before the Lions were on the clock, they had the choice of several other viable prospects, including edge rusher Brian Burns, who eventually landed with Carolina at No. 16.
Sure, the Lions probably felt less urgency to address that spot after signing Trey Flowers that offseason, but it didn’t stop the team from taking a long look at the Florida State product prior to settling on Hockenson.
“We definitely looked very closely at him as someone that was kind of an outside linebacker, defensive end — really had some inside linebacker flex,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “He was a very smart player, has really good pass-rush ability, which I think that’s been the thing that transfers right away, that you see he has unbelievable get off.
“His burst off the ball, I think it’s like one of the top in the league right now, just from that standpoint. He’s very quick, very explosive, he has a good freeze move and then a little bit different of a rusher from some of the power rushers that we’ve seen. He has just more of that speed, get to the edge and he has a great ability to turn the corner.”
The Panthers’ pass rush actually has been anemic this season. They rank toward the bottom of the NFL in both sacks and pressure rate. But that’s not because of Burns, who has produced in both departments, with four sacks and 38 pressures. He’s clearly an ascending talent in his second season.
Then this year, the Lions went with Okudah over defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who the Panthers happily snapped up four picks later.
Again, Detroit’s free-agency additions of Danny Shelton and Nick Williams could be seen as tipping their hand, but there’s little doubt Brown would be playing and contributing in Detroit this season based on how much the team has leaned on sixth-round pick John Penisini.
Like Okudah, Brown has had an up-and-down rookie season, flashing their lofty potential while battling inconsistencies. Still, Carolina has trusted him to be on the field for 448 defensive snaps, more than any Lions interior lineman has played in 2020.
“Obviously, Derrick Brown, just really kind of a staple for them on the front right now,” Patricia said. “It’s exactly what you saw on tape coming out of college. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s powerful, he can knock the line of scrimmage back. He does a great job of his pad level, his hand placement. He’s a strong guy. He’s someone that you have to deal with inside, and you see it on tape. That’s definitely something — especially in the run game — I think that’s something that transferred very quickly for him at the position from college to Carolina.”
To be fair, Burns and Brown haven’t transformed the Panthers into a contender any more than Hockenson and Okudah have done for the Lions. And like Burns, Hockenson has developed into the high-caliber contributor he was expected to be coming out of college.
Still, the four players add an interesting layer to Sunday’s matchup, and as each continues to develop, likely will be a source of discussion for years to come.