Kiper's latest mock has Lions focusing on defense, grabbing corner at No. 2

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Just when you think you've seen every possible mock draft scenario for the Detroit Lions this year, ESPN's Mel Kiper has offered a new vision for how the team could use its first three picks later this month. 

While most projections have the Lions selecting one of the top-three edge rushers, or rolling the dice on quarterback Malik Willis, Kiper sees a scenario where the Lions take an alternative path and address the cornerback position with the No. 2 pick, slotting Cincinnati's Sauce Gardner at that spot. 

Cincinnati defensive back Sauce Gardner participates in a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

"Can I interest you in a 6-foot-3 corner with long arms and 4.41 40-yard dash speed who didn't allow a single touchdown in coverage in college? That's Gardner," Kiper writes. "The Lions have several needs and would likely jump at Aidan Hutchinson if he somehow fell here.

"But if they select Gardner and get something out of Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft who has played just 10 games in two seasons, they could have a much-improved secondary."

Gardner, the Detroit native, has established himself as a top-10 prospect after a stellar collegiate career. As Kiper notes, he didn't surrender a touchdown in coverage across three seasons, all while trimming the yardage allowed when targeted from 360 yards as a freshman in 2019 to 131 yards on 40 throws his direction last season. 

Curiously, Kiper doesn't mention Amani Oruwariye in his analysis. Entering his fourth year with the Lions, the young veteran has been more reliable than Okudah and is coming off a season where he recorded six interceptions, good for third in the NFL. 

As for Okudah, he'll be returning from a torn Achilles, and while the team remains optimistic, there's little assurance he'll be able to get his development back on track after such a devastating injury. 

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If the Lions were to select Gardner, they'd likely face plenty of questions about positional value that early in the draft. Remember, when the team took Okudah No. 3 overall three years ago, it was the earliest a cornerback had been drafted in three decades. 

But coach Dan Campbell broadly dismissed concerns about positional value in a media session last week. 

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"We're looking at every scenario because there's some guys that are ultimately some might say, well, is the value worth it at two? No, we don't care," Campbell said. "All that matters is this dude is going to come in and play and he's going to help us and he's going to be a productive player for a long time in this league for us. That's what matters to us."

Following the Gardner selection, Kiper has the Lions further addressing the defense with both the No. 32 and No. 34 picks.

At the end of the first round, Mel Kiper has the Lions taking Georgia safety Lewis Cine.

At the end of the first round, he gave the team Georgia safety Lewis Cine. That's a shift for the analyst, who has been projecting a quarterback to the Lions at that spot for months. 

"The more I talk to people in the league, the more I think the Lions will stand pat on a quarterback with their three picks in the top 34," Kiper writes. "Jared Goff can be the starter in 2022, and if he struggles, chances are Detroit will be right back in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick, which it can use on a signal-caller.

"Cine is the fifth Georgia defender in the top 32 picks here. He's a good cover safety who is rising after he ran a 4.37 40 at the combine."

Detroit could certainly stand to add a safety early in the draft. The team re-signed Tracy Walker this offseason, but allowed veteran Dean Marlowe, who played 700 snaps in 2021, to depart. Cine could be immediately plugged into the starting lineup. 

And after missing out on Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, who Kiper projects to be the No. 1 overall pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the analyst is giving the Lions the other half of the Wolverines' pass-rushing tandem, David Ojabo, with the second pick of the second round.

Mel Kiper has the Lions drafting Michigan linebacker David Ojabo with the second pick of the second round.

"Ojabo is my top-ranked outside linebacker, even after he tore his Achilles last month and could miss most of the season," Kiper writes. "If the Lions are thinking long-term, they could get a steal with a high-ceiling edge rusher."

The logic here is sound. The Lions are in clear need of edge-rushing help after finishing bottom-five in pass-rush pressure for the third consecutive year in 2021. And given where the team is with their rebuild, they can afford to be patient through Ojabo's rehab. 

Beyond taking a cornerback at No. 2, the obvious criticism with this mock is the Lions ignore the receiver position once again, but Kiper has seven being selected before Detroit is back on the clock at the end of the first round.

That left Kiper to focus on the Lions' defense, which finished 31st in points allowed last season. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers