Mobile, Ala. — Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn has a knack for addressing his team’s biggest need early in the draft. His three first-round picks — offensive tackle Taylor Decker, middle linebacker Jarrad Davis and guard Frank Ragnow, each crossed off the top item on the offseason shopping list.
This year’s biggest need isn’t as clear as it has been in past years. Depending on what the team does in free agency, the Lions could enter the draft in serious need for an upgrade at guard, slot receiver, tight end, cornerback and defensive end. But few positions can impact a game on a down-to-down basis like an edge rusher.
Don’t let the Lions’ sack total from last season fool you. The defense managed to get to opposing quarterbacks 43 times, an impressive mark, but the team leader was Romeo Okwara. The early-season waiver claim finished the year with 7.5.
And more than sacks, it’s about pressure. The ability to consistently get a quarterback off his spot and make them feel uncomfortable in the pocket leads to mistakes. Those were areas the Lions struggled, finishing 26th in pressure rate and 29th in interceptions.
The Lions currently hold the No. 8 pick in the draft, and after Kentucky’s Josh Allen pulled out of the Senior Bowl last week, there isn’t a pass-rusher in Mobile worthy of that choice. In fact, there isn’t a player at any position participating this week likely to interest Detroit at that spot.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling options on the annual all-star game's roster who could appeal to Detroit starting in the second round, or even later in the first if Quinn opts to trade down from No. 8.
The group is highlighted by a pair of small school standouts and a first-team All-SEC standout.
Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson checks all the boxes. With 2.5 sacks in his final college game, a 31-14 bowl victory over Hawaii, he became the FCS’s all-time sack leader, passing Terrell Suggs.
The biggest question about Ferguson is how his production translates against a higher level of competition, something he’s looking to prove this week.
“There’s a lot of big-time rushers and big pass rushers from bigger schools, but at the same time I feel like I had the same or even better production against the same competition, but I don’t get recognized for it as much as I should,” Ferguson said. “I’m using this week to prove I can go up against the better competition and dominate.”
Ferguson has an NFL build, standing at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds with adequately long arms — a critical component to playing in Detroit’s gap-control front. He would be a logical fit to replace Ziggy Ansah, assuming the Lions part ways with the oft-injured former first-round pick this offseason.
Despite Ferguson’s imposing frame, he’s soft-spoken, talking barely above a whisper during multiple interviews.
That flips when he steps between the lines.
“I live my life slow so I can play fast,” Ferguson said. “Really before the game, I’ll just be in my own world, just chilling and quiet. And then right before we go on the field, I turn it up, I turn it on, get ready to go because on the field you can’t be cool and laid back. You’ve got to be up. People are looking up to you. People are depending on you. So you’ve got to get up and go.”
On the opposite end of the physical spectrum for an edge rusher is Old Dominion’s Oshane Ximines, who after recently ditching his Taco Bell-heavy college diet for a nutrition plan better tailored to a professional athlete at the start of the year, has dipped down to 241 pounds as he loses the fat and adds back on lean muscle.
Ximines finished with a personal-best 11.5 sacks last season, while also tallying up 18 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles. Self-described as playing with relentless effort, he’s eager to show NFL teams he’s not a one-trick pony.
“I want to have rushes from the inside, rushes from the outside,” Ximines said. “I want to stand on my feet. I just want to show everybody I’m not one-dimensional. I don’t have to be just a single-edge rusher. I can do other things, as well.”
As for concerns about his frame, Ximines anticipates weighing 250 pounds for the scouting combine next month and doesn’t believe his size prohibits him from being an effective run defender.
“The run, no matter whether you’re 250, 260, 270, the run is always technique,” he said. “You don’t have to be the strongest guy. I feel if you have a competitive edge and you want to stick your nose in there, put your foot in the ground and be strong at the point of attack, anybody can set the edge. You just have to stay true to your technique.”
Another name to watch in the early rounds is Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat. A Michigan State transfer, he played a year at a junior college, before taking the SEC by storm, racking up 22.5 sacks the past two seasons.
Sweat stands 6-foot-6 and weighed in at a lean 252 pounds. Strength didn’t appear a problem for the lanky prospect. On the first day of practices, he regularly overpowered his assignments in one-on-one action.
And while Ferguson, Ximines and Sweat carry the most intrigue, there are a number of other pass rushers of interest at the Senior Bowl from Boston College’s Zach Allen to Oregon’s Jalen Jelks to Wyoming’s Carl Granderson, just to name a few.