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The Lions Have Two Very Different Options For Fucking Up This Year’s Draft

Penei Sewell and Devonta Smith
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images; Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

I wouldn’t say it’s totally rational to be terrified that the Detroit Lions will take a wide receiver with their seventh overall pick in this week’s NFL Draft. The last pure wideout that the Lions took with their first draft pick was a fella named Calvin Johnson, and though the jury’s still out on the pass-catcher they took in 2019, tight end T.J. Hockenson, the early returns have been promising. And anyway, there’s a new coach, and a new GM, and whatever your opinion of those hires may be, a logical thinker wouldn’t lay the blame for old wrongs at their feet.

But the legacy of Matt Millen and beyond stains this franchise so deeply that it supersedes all rationality, and overshadows even the greatest receiver of his generation. It would take many, many years of outstanding personnel choices to even begin to erase the lingering impact of the team’s misfires in the draft on their fans’ psyche, especially when they’ve focused on the passing game in the early rounds. Here’s a quick refresher: Charles Rogers, who played in 15 career games, was taken immediately before Andre Johnson; Mike Williams, who caught two touchdowns for the Lions, was taken right before DeMarcus Ware; Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, picked in the second rounds of 2011 and 2012, respectively, both washed out within a couple of years (Young spectacularly so); 2014 top pick and tight end Eric Ebron only became a Pro Bowler after he left the team, and got picked right before a stellar run of players, including but not limited to Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham, and Aaron frickin’ Donald, who were drafted in that exact order after Detroit went off the clock. (Roy Williams, taken seventh overall by the Lions in 2004, was OK, I guess.)

It’s been 18 years since Rogers posed with Paul Tagliabue, and the Lions once again need a receiver. They’ve refreshed their quarterback position for the first time in over a decade, swapping Matt Stafford for Jared Goff in the hopes that the younger QB will be able to reverse his recent decline with a change of scenery. But aside from the aforementioned Hockenson, Goff currently has few if any appealing targets to throw to. Danny Amendola is no longer around, Marvin Jones went to Jacksonville, and Kenny Golladay got a fat check from the Giants. Tyrell Williams, who missed last year with the Raiders due to injury, and Breshad Perriman, who was maybe the third-best receiver on the damn Jets, aren’t the most thrilling replacements.

So, yes, the Lions need some better pass catchers, and many of the mock drafts that don’t have them trading down have the team taking one of the top three receivers out there: Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, or LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. All of them point out what I also did above—that Jared Goff is poised to command a unit that could be completely disarmed, and that the Lions will be doing their new acquisition an enormous favor if they grab a target with the kind of otherworldly upside that all three of those men possess. Waddle is faster than a speeding bullet; Smith is notoriously small but leaves Alabama with a legacy of consistent excellence, and Chase, despite sitting out 2020, brings physicality and hands that dominated the SEC. Any one of them, you would hope, could score plenty of spectacular Lions touchdowns and sell jerseys by the thousand.

But as this was a 5-11 team last year, and there’s a decent chance they’ll be worse this year, the Lions also have plenty of other needs, including most defensive positions, right tackle, and (unless you’re an optimist) quarterback. It’s that middle one, the offensive line, that’s providing the loudest counterpoint to the mocks that favor receivers, with at least some experts predicting that if Oregon’s Penei Sewell falls to seventh, he’ll be the obvious choice for rookie GM Brad Holmes. Pro Football Focus’s Austin Gayle pretty bluntly explained the logic there in his draft article, proclaiming that the Lions look to be so bad that they should just pick up the strongest long-term piece they can and hope for a generational quarterback next year.

“Detroit’s offense is well on its way to being a bottom-five unit in the NFL this season,” he wrote. “Give Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell, Kedon Slovis or the field a fighting chance in 2022 and add the best non-quarterback in this class.”

The two most prominent options (again barring a trade) aren’t just aesthetic opposites—the mostly anonymous building block vs. the human highlight reel—but they will also each say plenty about where the Lions believe they can be in the near future. If Detroit adds a top-tier receiver to partner with Goff, they’re banking on recreating at least a junior-sized version of the mind-blowing firepower that the LA Rams had in 2018, when the QB was hitting Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks for huge gains with ease every weekend. If they go with Sewell, they are dreaming much smaller, adding probably the lowest-risk player on the board in the hopes that, five years down the line, they can feel some quiet satisfaction as they enjoy the team’s steady improvement.

It’s really a fascinating strategic choice! Until you remember that this is the Lions, the team that holds the all-time NFL record for screwing it up. They screwed it up in the early 2000s, and they screwed it up in the early 2010s, and now in the early 2020s, even with a new front office (again) and a new coach (again) and a new principal owner, I’ll be damned if I can find a single person in Detroit who trusts the franchise to do the right thing, whatever that may be. Rightly or wrongly, all of the folks in the Detroit war room bear the burden of endless failures and consistently poor choices, at all times of the year but most often in April. It adds up to make Thursday for the Lions feel less like an exciting new beginning and more like a trolley problem. Maybe they should just say fuck it and take Justin Fields instead.