Lions could find impact pass rusher after first round

By Kent Lee Platte
Special to The Detroit News
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

The Relative Athletic Score (RAS) system was developed by Kent Lee Platte in 2012 to provide fans with a contextualized score on a 0-10 scale, making it easier to understand how athletic draft prospects are when compared to their position dating back to 1987.

It’s no secret the Detroit Lions need to add some juice to their pass rush in the 2018 draft. It was a hot topic coming into the 2017 draft, but it was one left largely unaddressed, with only a couple of late-round, athletic, developmental picks, not prospects expected to step in immediately. The 2018 class is not considered an edge heavy class, but if the Lions are to address their pass rush, there are a few clear targets to watch.

There is a distinct connection between relative athleticism and pass-rushing success in the NFL. Some of the best athletes, from a pure measurables standpoint, were pass rushers, including two separate players nicknamed “The Freak.” Mario Williams (a perfect 10.0 RAS in 2006) and Jevon Kearse (also 10.0, but in 1999) were premiere talents entering the league and found immediate success planting quarterbacks in the turf.

Few statistics show such a clear line between elite athleticism and high-level pro success than sack production. There are 140 players who qualified for Relative Athletic Scores who posted at least one double-digit sack season at DE, DT or LB. Of those, an astounding 56 percent scored 8.0 or higher for RAS, with 83 percent above 5.0.

Recently, players like Von Miller (9.97 RAS) and Vic Beasley (9.87) were drafted highly in part due to their other-worldly athleticism as much as their excellent tape. Even the Lions drafted Ezekiel Ansah (9.80) fifth overall due to those traits.

This draft class has three possible first-round talents on the edge who could have a similar impact. Bradley Chubb (9.47) is likely out of reach for the Lions, while Harold Landry (9.43) and Marcus Davenport (9.59) could make it to the team’s No. 20 pick, and both have ties to the Lions’ coaching staff.

The Lions could also target someone like Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (8.58 RAS) or Florida State’s Josh Sweat (9.69) in the second round. That is similar value of two former Michigan products, Frank Clark (8.14) and LaMarr Woodley (8.76), who were also drafted in that range.

Lorenzo Carter (10.0) could hear his name called for the Lions with the 51st pick, as well. He’s listed as a linebacker, but has the upside to rush the passer in Detroit’s new defensive scheme.

The third round has been a hot spot for elite athletic talent that often needs time to develop. The likes of Danielle Hunter (9.89), Joey Porter (9.71), and Justin Houston (9.25) were all drafted here. While it’s not easy to find impact players of that caliber that in the round, it’s not impossible if they have the tools. Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis (9.62) and Memphis pass rusher Genard Avery (9.27) have been talked about in this range and are possible fits for the Lions.

Having a great overall athletic profile is a great start, but even if a player doesn’t measure well overall, pass rushers have a more specific drill that’s valued above all others. Derek Barnett (4.89 RAS) was selected in the first round by the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles last year despite an underwhelming overall profile, but his 6.96-second 3-cone was more than enough to supplement his exceptional tape.

The success rate for edge rushers with a sub-7.0 second 3-cone is incredibly high. Fourteen of the 39 players who posted times in that range have gone on to produce double-digit sacks in a season.

Landry, Sweat, and Avery all fall into this category, making them players to watch. Another option, a bit closer to home, nearly hit that mark. Central Michigan’s Joe Ostman (8.11 RAS) posted a 7.02 time in the cone drill. He met with Lions linebacker coach Al Golden at CMU’s pro day.

Unlike previous years, there aren’t any pass rushers with below-average athleticism still being talked about as possible early-round picks. The closest, LSU’s Arden Key, currently has an unofficial RAS of 6.70. That’s not elite, but is still acceptable.

The Lions have a lot of needs, but it would be troubling to see them miss out on a pass rusher who can provide an early impact. With options in each of the first four rounds, who meet or exceed athletic benchmarks, it’s up to the team to weigh that potential with the countless hours of film study both general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia have built their reputations. Nothing is ever certain, but you have to like the Lions’ odds of coming out of this draft with a playmaker on the edge.

Kent Lee Platte is a freelance writer.