It’s not a question of if the Detroit Lions will target a corner in this year’s draft, it’s a question of when and how many.
The Lions had a gaping hole in the secondary in 2013, mostly because the play of Chris Houston declined after he cashed a big check. Bill Bentley’s injury didn’t help and Darius Slay’s inexperience showed, although I still think both guys have starter-level potential.
With that said, Detroit will surely take at least one cornerback, and it could start with their first pick at number ten overall. Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert are the top dogs of this year’s draft, and the Lions wouldn’t surprise anyone if they grabbed either guy in the first round.
But they also wouldn’t turn heads by drafting the likes of Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans, as the need for a number two receiver to compliment Calvin Johnson is also a pressing issue.
And what about the linebacker position? The Lions need help there too. They could also use a safety, center and defensive end- so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Lions fill other needs if they feel the best player available isn’t a corner.
Should that happen, there are two guys who impressed me at the combine that the Lions could get late, or even sign as undrafted free agents.
Phillip Gaines is a corner out of Rice that really dominated Conference USA this year. He was targeted just 40 times all season, and allowed only 13 receptions. Throw in four picks and you’ve got a dynamic playmaker. His strongest attribute is his speed: he ran a 4.38-second 40 and his 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle times were among the fastest at his position. The combine definitely improved his stock, but I still think he’s around in the 5th or 6th round because of his lack of experience against NFL-caliber wideouts.
Jonathan Dowling is the next guy I noticed at the combine, mostly for his extraordinary length. He’s a wiry 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, but he can still run with the best of them. His 4.52 is certainly respectable for a safety, the position he played at Western Kentucky. He looked smooth in all the drills and has good ball skills from what I saw, but his lack of strength will certainly be an issue for many teams.
Dowling only did eight reps on the bench, which was last among safeties. His slight frame and lack of power is why I think he’s a corner and not a safety at the next level. He would be a project, but would come at a low cost- he may not even be drafted. His upside, however, is a scary thought- a 6-foot-3 monster with good athletic ability and speed.
Again, he hasn’t faced elite completion in the Sun Belt conference, but he’s show he can play: 67 tackles, 3 INTs and 6 forced fumbles are pretty solid numbers.
Whether the Lions decide to take a corner early or wait until the later stages of the draft, there are good prospects there to be had. Hopefully, Martin Mayhew and co. make the right call this time around, because I’ve been disappointed with his recent drafts, especially 2012. This past year’s crop performed fairly well as rookies, but it’s still too soon to tell how they’ll pan out.
Hopefully the 2014 class won’t need much time before we see their impact on the field.