Smokescreens and case studies, Lions gearing up for NFL Draft

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

For many sports fans, April means the return of baseball. But for those who prefer the NFL, this month is all about the draft. 

None of the experts projected Arkansas offensive guard Frank Ragnow going to the Lions at No. 20 in the first round of last year's NFL Draft.

Weeks and months of speculation figure to reach a dizzying frenzy of mocks and projections as we try to figure out where the next batch of future stars will call home. 

In Allen Park, the Detroit Lions are playing the game within the game. As teams scour for clues for what the competition's intentions are for the draft, the Lions scout and talk to just about everyone while keeping their cards close to the vest and maintaining an indecipherable poker face. 

Take last year for example.

Even with having a strong grasp on the team's needs, few connected the dots that would bring guard Frank Ragnow in Detroit. And it wasn't like the Lions reached with the selection. Plenty of top analysts had Ragnow going in the first round, including quite a few who projected him to the Cincinnati Bengals, one spot after Detroit. 

"There was teams all around us that were looking for guys in those situations and just kind of being silent helps," Lions coach Matt Patricia said last week at the league's winter meetings. "A lot of teams probably thought we were going in one direction and you wind up going in a different direction and you wind up getting someone that you think you can build off of. So you’ve just got to be careful a little bit with some of that."

On the morning of last year's first round, we rounded up 33 expert projections. Not one sent Ragnow to Detroit. The top-four most popular options were all defensive linemen, headed by Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry and Alabama defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne. 

Lions general manager Bob Quinn has always addressed a top need with his first pick. In 2016, it was offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Whether it was Decker or one of the other top tackles, such as Michigan State's Jack Conklin who went eight picks earlier, many prognosticators had that one pegged. Same with the next year, when Jarrad Davis was the top guy projected to Detroit and who the team ended up taking. 

Last year, you could have tossed a coin between offensive lineman and defensive lineman as Detroit's top need. This year, things feel even more open ended after the team successfully filled many of its more glaring needs in free agency. 

The Lions, who currently hold the eighth pick, would probably benefit from another guard, an edge rusher, a cornerback or a tight end. Rarely do you see a tight end or guard drafted that high, and the growing consensus is none of this year's cornerback class is worthy of that investment. 

So will the Lions further bolster their pass rush, whether it's Michigan's Rashan Gary, Mississippi State's Montez Sweat or Florida State's Brian Burns? Your guess is as good as any and best of luck seeing through the smoke screens the team tries to send out. 

"I would say it’s an interesting chess match at times to try to just — everybody does it, right, try to figure out what they do," Patricia said.

And that's exactly what the Lions will be working on the next few weeks, trying to decipher and predict what the teams around them intend to do. The front office will meet in Allen Park and conduct "case studies", a more professional way of saying mock drafts. 

Those studies will include evaluating coaching and front office changes and how that might impact draft strategies and targets. 

"That’s exactly what happened with Frank," Patricia said. "We just kept going over and over and over the scenarios and we just kept looking at the board and I’m like, 'Every scenario we came up with I’m like he’s still there. So are we good to go?'

And it happened exactly like that," Patricia said. "Obviously there are curveballs that come in and out of nowhere and things like that, that change, but that’s the fun part. You’re trying to figure out what everybody else is doing."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers