Senior Bowl proves to be fertile ground for Lions in evaluating NFL Draft prospects
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have drafted at least one player from the Senior Bowl each of the past nine years and multiple players six of the past seven. General manager Bob Quinn, in his four seasons in his role, has selected 11 participating prospects.
So you can understand why the event merited attention, even before the Lions coaching staff was selected to lead the game's North Squad.
In preparation for this year's Senior Bowl, we reviewed the past 10 games, noting the players the Lions eventually drafted, the best player they didn't draft, and the best overall player to play in the game each season.
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Running back Joique Bell
Best player to play in event: Defensive tackle Geno Atkins
Analysis: The Lions only held six draft picks in 2011 and went heavy on underclassmen early, taking Ndamukong Suh, Jahvid Best and Amari Spievey in the first three rounds. Defensive end Willie Young, a seventh-rounder, wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl, but played in the East-West Shrine game.
Wayne State's Bell was the only Division II invitee that year. A solid week of practice contributed to him getting his shot in the NFL, and after bouncing around five practice squads as a rookie, he found a long-term home with the Lions, rushing for 2,235 and 22 touchdowns over parts of five seasons with the franchise.
Atkins, a fourth-round draft choice, shifted opinions about what an undersized defensive tackle could do in the NFL, earning eight Pro Bowl selections.
Drafted: Wide receiver Titus Young
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Linebacker Josh Bynes
Best player to play in event: Linebacker Von Miller
Analysis: It's fair to say Young's stellar week in Mobile helped lead him to Detroit. Whatever off-field concerns the team might have had were drowned out by his exceptional talent. And that ability showed up his rookie season, when he caught 48 balls for 607 yards and six touchdowns, before his mental health led to his exit, not just from the team, but the league.
The 2012 game had some serious future star power, led by Miller, the eventual No. 2 pick in that year's draft. He's gone on to earn eight Pro Bowl selections, three first-team All-Pro honors and a Super Bowl MVP.
Richard Sherman, Colin Kaepernick, DeMarco Murray and Ryan Kerrigan also participated in 2011.
Drafted: Cornerback Bill Bentley
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Wide receiver Marvin Jones
Best player to play in event: Quarterback Russell Wilson
Analysis: After taking four players (Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, Derrick Williams and Zack Follett) from his first Senior Bowl as Detroit's general manager in 2009, Martin Mayhew only added two the next three years, capped by Bentley's selection in 2012.
A small school corner, Bentley played four years in Detroit, but barely contributed the final two and wasn't picked up by anyone else following his release in 2015.
As for Jones, he impressed scouts with his ability to get open on vertical routes and was eventually selected by the Bengals in the fifth round. He came to Detroit as a free agent in 2016, as the key piece to replace the recently retired Calvin Johnson. In four seasons with the Lions, Jones has caught 213 passes and 27 touchdowns.
As for the best player in 2012, Wilson edges out Harrison Smith, the five-time Pro Bowl safety for the Vikings. Wilson, a second-team All-Pro this year, and seven-time Pro Bowl selection led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in 2014.
Drafted: Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, guard Larry Warford, tight end Michael Williams
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Offensive tackle Rick Wagner
Best player to play in event: Offensive tackle Lane Johnson
Analysis: The Lions coached at the Senior Bowl Jim Schwartz's last year at the helm. Taking advantage of the hands-on experience, they selected three players from the event, including Ansah with the No. 5 overall pick.
When they were on the field for the Lions, both Ansah and Warford were solid contributors, with the former nearly setting the franchise record for sacks in a season in 2015. But neither player signed a multi-year second contract with Detroit. Warford eventually landed in New Orleans, where he's set to play in his third straight Pro Bowl.
Warford was part of an excellent group of offensive linemen that were in Mobile that year, led by 2017 All-Pro Lane Johnson. Also participating were three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long, No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher and Wagner, who signed with the Lions as a free agent in 2017,
Drafted: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, center Travis Swanson, cornerback Nevin Lawson, defensive tackle Caraun Reid
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Linebacker Christian Jones
Best player to play in event: Defensive tackle Aaron Donald
Analysis: After getting a good return on investment in 2013, Mayhew went all in on the Senior Bowl a second straight year, using four picks on participants. Swanson and Lawson ended up being multi-year starters, with the latter spending five seasons in Detroit.
Van Noy, a second-round pick, never panned out for the Lions and was dealt to the Patriots in the middle of his third season. There, in a system better suited to his skill set, he's thrived in a starting role and won two Super Bowls.
But the best player that year, far and away, was one of Detroit's biggest draft whiffs. Ignoring a brewing long-term need at defensive tackle, the Lions selected tight end Eric Ebron over Donald, who has been named a first-team All-Pro five straight years.
Drafted: Guard Laken Tomlinson, running back Ameer Abdullah, defensive tackle Gabe Wright, defensive back Quandre Diggs
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Trey Flowers
Best player to play in event: Za'Darius Smith
Analysis: Again, Mayhew went aggressive with Senior Bowl players, taking four in the 2015 draft. Only the final selection from that group, Diggs in the sixth-round, met or exceeded expectations. Tomlinson was traded to San Francisco after two seasons. And Abdullah was cut midway into his fourth year with the Lions, having never rushed for more than 600 yards in a season.
Flowers, who signed with Detroit last offseason, was selected in the fourth round by the Patriots after participating in Mobile. After missing most of his rookie year with an injury, he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning rosters.
With an admitted recency bias, Smith is our vote for best player to come out of the event. Snubbed by the Pro Bowl this season, the rising star edge rusher recorded 13.5 sacks in his first season with the Packers. He edges out Flowers, guard Shaq Mason, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, wide receiver Tyler Lockett and safety Adrian Amos.
Drafted: Offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, safety Miles Killebrew, offensive lineman Joe Dahl, long snapper Jimmy Landes
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Quarterback Jeff Driskel
Best player to play in event: Quarterback Dak Prescott
Analysis: New general manager Bob Quinn picked up where his predecessor left off, taking four Senior Bowl players his first draft. In hindsight, the Landes pick was a rookie mistake for Quinn, who likely didn't fully realize what he had in long snapper Don Muhlbach. But the other three picks all provided good value where they were taken, including Killebrew, who has been a special teams standout the past few seasons.
As for the best player from that class, it's an open debate between Prescott and fellow NFC East quarterback Carson Wentz. In part because he's stayed healthy, Prescott maintains an early lead.
Drafted: Tight end Michael Roberts
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: None
Best player to play in event: Cornerback Tre'Davious White
Analysis: For the first time in five years, the Lions drafted just one player out of the Senior Bowl. Not only that, they didn't really add any players from that year to the roster down the road.
Roberts was OK during his time with the Lions, but was never able to take the next step when provided a bigger opportunity. The team tried to trade him this past offseason, but after a failed physical, just ended up cutting him.
White, a first-team All-Pro this past season, was a first-round pick, but the fifth cornerback selected in 2017.
Drafted: Defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand, offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby, fullback Nick Bawden
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Offensive tackle Jamil Demby
Best player to play in event: Wide receiver Michael Gallup
Analysis: The Lions still don't really know what they have from the trio of Senior Bowlers they drafted in 2018. It looked as if the team had unearthed a gem in Hand, but his inability to stay healthy has limited his contributions. Crosby, meanwhile, might end up a starter in 2020, after playing decently as an injury replacement the past two seasons.
It's obviously far too early to declare a best player from that year's event, but Gallup pushed to the front of the pack with a stellar sophomore season in Dallas. In 14 games in 2019, he topped 1,100 receiving yards.
Drafted: Safety Will Harris, cornerback Amani Oruwariye, wide receiver Travis Fulgham
Best Lions player the team didn't draft: Offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel
Best player to play in event: Wide receiver Terry McLaurin
Analysis: Harris and Oruwariye got extensive playing time down the stretch as rookies and the Lions liked Harris enough to feel comfortable trading Diggs to Seattle at the deadline. Oruwariye, meanwhile, played only 215 snaps, but finished the year tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Depending on how aggressively Quinn addresses the secondary this offseason, the Penn State product in line to compete for a starting job in 2020.
McLaurin, a third-round pick out of Ohio State, was second among first-year players with 919 receiving yards and third with seven touchdown catches. In five years, it will be interesting to see how his career stacks up to some of the other participants, including quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Gardner Minshew.