Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard would be a good fit with the Lions, who hold the No. 10 pick in the NFL draft. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Allen Park — One pick makes the most sense, and it has nothing to do with the jersey he wore. The Lions desperately need a cornerback, perhaps because they haven’t drafted one in the first round in 16 years. The best cornerback in college football should be available at No. 10.
Bingo. We’re done here. It’s Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. Good night, everybody!
(Pause.) (Pause.) (Right?)
So many people are over-thinking this, I’ve decided to under-think it. This is the safe route and the preferred route. Dennard isn’t as fast as Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or as big as Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, but he’s more physical. If you’re weary of watching Lions cornerbacks get manhandled, you might as well go get a manhandler.
The hitch is, Martin Mayhew often skips the obvious route, and the trade rumors about Sammy Watkins refuse to die an appropriate death. A leap up for the Clemson receiver only makes a little sense if the cost somehow drops. I’d rather move up for Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, a havoc-wreaking linebacker, another commodity the Lions have managed to avoid. But if they’re so desperate for a receiver, why not pay less and move up slightly for Texas A&M’s Mike Evans?
As the Lions prepare for a boom-or-bust season, Mayhew could be inclined to go boom. This will be his sixth draft as general manager since replacing the Name That Shall Not Be Uttered, and he’s made first-round choices that have been obvious (Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh), curious (Brandon Pettigrew), risky (Jahvid Best, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah) and surprising (Riley Reiff).
There’s unique pressure on Mayhew amid all the win-now chatter. The Lions at least should be expected to contend for a playoff spot, and need several immediate-impact players to do it, not just one offensive piece. Mayhew’s job is under increased scrutiny, but I don’t think it’s in jeopardy because he just hired a new coach, Jim Caldwell, and had a decent draft last spring.
The options are as varied as ever. Another safe pick might be Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, insurance in case Suh or Nick Fairley departs. The boom-or-bust pick is UCLA pass-rushing linebacker Anthony Barr. One of the most intriguing players is North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, a tight end with receiver qualities. The flashiest is Watkins, but the Lions just spent $31 million on Golden Tate, and I certainly wouldn’t give up three early-round picks for Watkins.
Dennard best corner option
If I’m Mayhew, any tie-breaker goes to the player that can instantly boost a position of need. Once again, it circles back to cornerback, although there’d be nothing funny about taking Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Experts are split on which corner is better — Dennard has jumped over Gilbert on several boards — and no prospect is as wow-worthy as Patrick Peterson three years ago.
Ideally, the Lions would trade down, get an extra pick or two and still land a top defensive back. One of these decades, they have to hit on a cornerback instead of trying to win games 38-35. Mayhew recognizes that, and the news that incumbent Chris Houston is battling a toe injury is especially troubling. If Houston needs surgery, are the Lions prepared to open the season with Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay as their starters?
Mayhew made a telling comment this week about the cornerbacks he drafted in 2012 — Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green — who have yet to make significant impacts. He said if a corner doesn’t “have it” in three years, he isn’t going to have it, and that third year is approaching.
The key for Mayhew and his staff is to find the balance between physical measurables and actual football traits. When asked before about cornerbacks, he mentioned the need for speed, but that’s not all.
“The most important thing to me is competitiveness,” Mayhew said. “You’ve got to have that guy that doesn’t want anybody catching any balls on him ever in practice, in walk-throughs, whatever.”
That sounds like Dennard to me. He aggressively blankets receivers and won the Thorpe Award on a relentlessly tough Michigan State defense. Gilbert runs 4.37 in the 40 and had six touchdown returns in college, but his willingness to tackle has been questioned.
It's time to fix it
The Lions haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since Terry Fair in 1998, and Mayhew often uses top picks on potential, more than impact. He took Reiff at No. 23 to basically serve as an offensive line apprentice. When Fairley fell to 13, he couldn’t pass on the upside. Pettigrew? Tight ends usually aren’t high-impact guys.
If the plan truly is to win now, the first-rounder has to play now, not next year, not contingent upon others. When I asked Mayhew if an increased urgency would affect who he drafts, he politely disputed it.
“I’m not so sure I agree with your first premise that there’s a need to win more this year than any other year,” he said. “There’s a need to win all the time, so that doesn’t at all affect who we’re going to try to draft. Again, the draft is not for the first game of the season. It’s not for the middle of the season. It’s for the future of the franchise.”
In the throw-happy NFL, the future dims if you can’t stop the pass. Cornerback is the ultimate boom-bust position, and it has been the prevailing weakness for the Lions for too long. It’s not easy to fix, but I have a novel suggestion: Try a little harder.