Justin Rogers' final thoughts on Detroit Lions' 2020 draft class
The NFL Draft is a grind. After weeks filled with late nights, long hours and a few dozen stories, I took Sunday to recharge and focus on the family. It also provided a welcomed opportunity to allow my thoughts on the Detroit Lions' draft class to marinate and clarify.
As you know, instantly grading a draft class isn't for me. If I'm fortunate enough to be doing this three years from now, we'll take a closer look at how well the Lions did with their 2020 evaluations.
Still, there were a handful of thoughts I wanted to share as we put a bow on the event.
Exploring Huntley's role
Last year, the Lions caught me off guard when they drafted linebacker Jahlani Tavai out of Hawaii. Unless you dedicate your life to the draft, you're probably not going to know every prospect. But as a beat reporter, there's a responsibility to have a pretty good idea of the players the team you cover could potentially select in the first three rounds.
Overlooking Tavai during last year's pre-draft research was an embarrassing oversight and a continued reminder to not lose sight of traits-specific prospects.
What does Tavai have to do with this year? Well, at the very least, the Lions didn't do anything the first two days that came as a surprise. I had previously written about all four selections, with Jeff Okudah, D'Andre Swift and Julian Okwara each appearing on our Lions-centric, top-50 big board earlier in the week.
But on Day 3, unknowns understandably enter the equation. Such was the case with New Mexico State running back Jason Huntley, the No. 172 overall pick in the fifth round. I can't lie, not only was he not on my radar, I had never even heard of him.
So the research began — looking at stats, reading articles from the local papers and checking out some film. His story is the speed. Huntley has it in spades. While pro days are less official than the combine, his 40 was hand-timed at 4.37 seconds, which would have been the position's best mark in Indianapolis.
On film, Huntley's speed translates. At 5-foot-9 and 193 pounds, he's not going to power through many tackle attempts, but in space, he's lethal. That's why the Aggies did everything they could to get him the ball in space, with zone-read runs, routes out of the backfield and the slot, and as a return man. In total, he tallied more than 1,500 all-purpose yards on 209 touches.
Some will see he averaged more than 40 catches the past three seasons and assume the Lions might have a full-time position change to receiver in mind. That's not the case, according to Lions general manager Bob Quinn, who definitively stated the team views Huntley as a running back.
In terms of projecting Huntley's usage, I'm drawn back to a conversation with coach Matt Patricia about the first time he saw Danny Woodhead, when he was a member of the New York Jets, and how problematic is was to account for the diminutive, shifty and versatile backfield option. A quick Google search will tell you that Woodhead also ran a blazing 40 coming out of college.
Patricia likes the idea of having a Woodhead-esque player on the roster. The Lions swung for that when claiming J.D. McKissic off waivers last year, and although there were occasional flashes, it didn't quite come together as hoped.
The initial assessment suggests the team will try again with Huntley.
Agnew on the bubble
Speaking of Huntley, he's a dynamic return man. In the first game I watched of his, he brought a kickoff back 71 yards before being brought down. Overall, his average wasn't great last season, but for his college career, he brought back five kickoffs for touchdowns.
Realistically, that puts Jamal Agnew on the roster bubble.
Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Agnew hasn't been able to replicate his incredible rookie season, when he earned first-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner. His production plummeted in Year 2, thanks to a combination of special teams penalties and a knee injury that sidelined him 10 games.
Last year, it was ball security issues that were problematic in the early going. Agnew responded well to his struggles, bringing back a kickoff for a touchdown when he returned from a brief benching. That buoyed a strong 26.7-yard average. As for punts, his bread and butter, he averaged a respectable 9.2 yards. Both ranked in the top 10.
But after a stellar college career as a defensive back at the University of San Diego, Agnew hasn't been able to port his playmaking ability to the pro level. He struggled mightily in coverage during a trial run in 2018. Last offseason, the Lions paid big money to Justin Coleman in free agency, all but eliminating Agnew's defensive role (21 snaps).
If Huntley proves to be a quick study on special teams, he has the potential to displace Agnew as a return man, while also replacing and expanding on the small offensive role the young veteran has had on offense the past three years.
If speed is the story with Huntley, it is also, in a way, the same for Quintez Cephus. When digging into the evaluation of the Wisconsin receiver, his 4.73-second 40-yard dash at the combine is jarring. It was the slowest among those timed at the position.
Whether it was unknown or forgotten, Cephus vastly improved on his time at Wisconsin's pro day in March, trimming it down to 4.56 seconds. That's far closer to the middle of the pack.
Moving beyond the speed concerns, Cephus' playing style and skill set has led to lofty comparisons to Anquan Boldin and, more recently, Michael Irvin. Here's what NFL Radio host and Hall of Fame NFL executive Gil Brandt had to say on Twitter.
"I said before he reminded me of a young Michael Irvin in terms of size/speed," Brandt wrote about Cephus. "Top Big Ten CBs said he was toughest to defend. Would have been drafted much higher if he had run better at combine."
Jeff Okudah, Detroit's first-round pick, was one of those cornerbacks.
Go back and watch Cephus' performance against Oregon in the Rose Bowl and you'll quickly get a sense for his strengths. He can't be bullied at the line of scrimmage or down the field. That's hardly surprising for a receiver who finished with the most bench reps at the combine.
Cephus plays through contact very well, making a catch on a deep ball despite defensive interference and holding on to a touchdown across the middle after absorbing a big hit. He can work from the slot or the outside and will win contested balls more often than not.
Quinn was reluctant to project roles for rookies immediately after the draft, but Cephus should push Geronimo Allison and Marvin Hall to be the fourth receiver in his first season, with a shot for a much bigger role in Year 2 and beyond.
Lions right to grab RB early
Leading up to the draft, I found myself tinkering with different projection-based mock draft tools, and the more simulations I ran, the more convinced I became there would be good value at running back well into Day 3.
But that's not how things played out.
After the Lions drafted D'Andre Swift with the No. 35 pick, four more backs were selected in the second round, including Boston College's AJ Dillon. Admittedly, if there was a quality prospect I was convinced could be had on Day 3, it was him.
And here's the thing about running backs. Even though the position has been devalued in recent years, the top producers have largely been early-round draft picks. In 2019, seven of the league's top eight rushers, and 12 of the top 15, were selected in the first two rounds of their respective drafts.
Personally, I liked Jonathan Taylor a little bit more for Detroit's scheme. I thought his size and running style better fit Darrell Bevell's offense. But Swift, viewed as the consensus best back in the draft, is unquestionably more well-rounded than the Wisconsin standout. On top of being a high-level runner, Swift offers more in the passing game, as both a receiver and a blocker. He also does a better job taking care of the football.
Double the beef
It was hardly a surprise the Lions drafted a guard in the first three rounds, but it raised some eyebrows when they went back to that well with their first pick on Day 3. There's an interesting contrast in the playing styles of those two selections, Ohio State's Jonah Jackson and Kentucky's Logan Stenberg.
Jackson is arguably the best pass protector among interior linemen in this draft class. In large part due to his polished technique, he kept defenders away from his quarterbacks at both Rutgers and Ohio State, allowing 10 or fewer pressures each of the past three seasons. More importantly, he surrendered physical contact with the quarterback just once, a sack, in 2019.
If his combine bench press showing suggests anything, strength isn't an issue. He hoisted the bar 28 times, but that hasn't translated to his run blocking. There's plenty of room for development with that aspect of his game.
Stenberg, on the other hand, is first and foremost a mauler. He plays mean. The very first play I watched of his tape, he drove the defender back three yards and put him on his back. Not surprisingly, that physicality has led to him being penalized far more than the average lineman. He drew an unsustainable 14 flags in 2019 and will need to learn to better walk the line of aggressive and illegal, otherwise he's going to do more damage than good.
As a pass protector, Quinn noted Stenberg is a little bit behind in his development, in part because of the option-based offense the Wildcats ran behind him.
The Lions have a ton of veteran depth at guard, and with the virtual offseason trending toward robbing rookies of valuable reps, it wouldn't be surprising if neither pick starts immediately. But given his versatility, and the fact the Lions traded up in the third round to get him, Jackson clearly has the leg up in the race.
Stenberg could conceivably push for the starting left guard job in 2021, especially if the back injury that sent Joe Dahl to injured reserve last season ends up being a recurring problem.
Something that could be nice to see in 2020, given Stenberg's resume, is some reps as a tight end/sixth lineman in obvious running situations.
Lingering concerns up front
After last season, the Lions have been on a mission to upgrade their defense, and they've made some commendable improvements at spots.
Despite trading away Darius Slay, one of the game's best cornerbacks, Detroit's secondary looks better on paper following the draft and free agency. The tandem of Okudah and Desmond Trufant is better than the tandem of Slay and Rashaan Melvin that started Week 1 last season. And at safety, Duron Harmon is a significant upgrade over Will Harris, particularly from a coverage standpoint.
The Lions also bolstered their underneath coverage with versatile, athletic linebacker Jamie Collins, who has 10 interceptions and 30 pass defenses in 96 career games.
Improving the coverage is critical in this pass-happy era of football, but what fans know all too well is it doesn't matter how good your coverage is if the defense can't get to the quarterback. Given extra time, receivers will find breathing room and modern-day passers will locate the open man.
Detroit's defense has been among the league's worst at generating pass-rush pressure the past two years. Collins helps, a little. He won't be on the line of scrimmage as often as Devon Kennard was the past two seasons, but when Collins rushes the passer, he's proven to be far more efficient.
In the draft, the Lions waited until the third round to further bolster their rush. Julian Okwara is a natural fit for the scheme, with long levers and a style predicated on power. Before he suffered a broken leg last season, he was highly productive disrupting the pocket, generating a pressure every 6.3 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That's similar production to Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett and sack leader Shaquil Barrett in 2019.
No one is suggesting Okwara is going to step in and immediately produce at that level as a professional, but the college numbers show you the type of potential he has coming off the edge. If he can generate a pressure once every nine pass-rushing snaps as a rookie, it would be an improvement for the Lions.
Interior pressure continues to be a concern. The Lions are banking on several unknowns. Can Da'Shawn Hand stay healthy? Was Nick Williams breakout last season legit? And can seventh-round pick Jashon Cornell add anything to that mix?
Finally, a personal note.
Before the draft started, a reader reached out via Twitter about sending me some money as a thank you for my coverage. Nothing like that has ever happened, and while the generous offer was flattering, it's not why I write.
Instead, I suggested he make a donation to a local charity that supports domestic violence victims, a cause that has become more important to me in recent years after covering a handful of incidents involving NFL players.
A Detroit News report this week showed domestic violence cases are on the rise during the stay-at-home order in Michigan.
Ultimately, the exchange between myself and the reader sparked an impromptu fundraiser where we managed to generate more than $1,200 for three local charities: HAVEN, Every Woman's Place and COTS Detroit.