Allen Park — Open up any of the dozens upon dozens of mock drafts published in recent weeks and you're likely to find one of two things projected to the Detroit Lions.
Most have the team selecting Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah with the No. 3 pick. The alternative for many others involves a trade back and, well, taking Okudah.
Sure, there are a handful of varying predictions, involving Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown or maybe Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, but Okudah is the overwhelmingly popular choice.
But with a constant buzz about Matthew Stafford's future in Detroit, despite general manager Bob Quinn's denial the team has engaged in trade talks involving the quarterback, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. thinks there's fire to the smoke. That's why he's projecting the Lions will take Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in his latest mock draft, posted Tuesday.
"The Lions say they're not shopping quarterback Matthew Stafford, but there is some buzz that they like Tagovailoa, who might not work out for teams before April's draft because of his hip injury," Kiper writes. "Is that just a smoke screen? We're still two months away from the draft, of course.
"Stafford's contract is extremely tough to trade in 2020 — the team could have up to a $32 million dead-cap hit — but what if Detroit likes Tagovailoa so much that it keeps Stafford on the roster for another year?" Kiper continued. "This pick also seems like the perfect spot for a team to trade up to get a quarterback, whether that's Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or someone else. Could the Chargers or Raiders or Jaguars move up to jump the Dolphins at No. 5 and get their guy? Everything is in play here, and since I'm not going to project trades, I'll stick with Tagovailoa at No. 3."
OK, the explanation adds some layers to the conversation. More than anything, Kiper expects Tagovailoa to be the third player selected in the draft, whether that's by the Lions or another team. Still, he's not dismissing the chance the Lions could be the landing spot.
Also, the Stafford cap figure is misleading, as we corrected in our reporting earlier this week. The Lions would only be on the hook for $32 million in dead money if they outright released Stafford, which there's no way the team would do, even if they did select Tagovailoa. The dead money cap hit would be closer to $25 million if the team traded Stafford before exercising a $7.2 million option bonus on the contract.
The more realistic scenario within this otherwise unrealistic potential future is the Lions keep Stafford on the roster for another year. That makes the most sense, financially, and would give the team the best shot to win in 2020, which would be key to helping Quinn and coach Matt Patricia preserve their jobs. It would also provide Tagovailoa the time to fully heal from the hip injury he suffered in November.