During the 2016 NFL draft, smart teams will capitalize by taking the gifts they are given as the process unfolds and picks are made. There is potential for a gift to fall into the lap of the Detroit Lions in the 2016 version of the “Lions Super Bowl”. In accepting the gift, teams maximize the value they get out of the picks they make and the Lions are not in a situation to pass on maximizing value.
I fully understand the scenario I will lay out will most likely not happen because of needs that are more pressing (offensive tackle and the defensive interior), but there is a scenario where four offensive tackles are gone in the first 15 picks. Those players are Laremy Tunsil out of Ole Miss, Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, Michigan State’s Jack Conklin and Taylor Decker out of Ohio State. I expect at least three offensive tackles to be gone and I’d be surprised if it weren’t four. What are the odds the Lions like the one tackle that falls to them?
That’s a nightmare for the Lions, but it could get worse if a few of the first-round defensive tackles are off the board too. I’ll presume that Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is gone before the Lions pick, and as much as I like Baylor’s Andrew Billings and would be happy with him, I’m not sure how much the Lions value a defensive tackle like Billings at No. 16 overall.
The Lions might be very unhappy given this scenario, but may I present Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. He is the gift the draft has given, and I’ll make the argument as to how the Lions can turn what seems like a bad outcome into a huge positive for their offense. I’ll present it to you as I would if I were arguing for him in a pre-draft meeting.
The first thing I’ll point out is that if Treadwell becomes the guy, I want him playing where he is playing at his strengths. To maximize Treadwell as a player, the Lions must play him out of the slot where he can win with his natural tools. I’m not saying he shouldn’t play outside at times, but he’d be a nasty matchup for defenses if deployed out of the slot.
Playing out of the slot suits Treadwell’s physical style perfectly. He is a very savvy route runner, consistently showing the precise footwork needed to separate from defenders quickly. He also possesses the suddenness to gather and stop quickly without giving away tells by chopping his feet to slow down.
Another trait that shows advanced skills and the nuance to succeed in gaining separation as a route runner is the amount of depth Treadwell gets into the body of the defender before he snaps off his route. Treadwell takes away the space the defender needs for his own feet before he breaks and that allows him to separate better that other quicker, faster receivers that don’t get much body depth in their route running.
As an example, we need to look at Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s usage in the 2015 season. Fitzgerald was definitely on the decline but resurrected his career by playing out of the slot last year. Smart teams are on the cutting edge of a trend, and the Lions would be smart to take advantage of the small slot cornerbacks that teams use to cover slot receivers. Fitzgerald had a huge amount of success last year because he could use his route running ability and combine it with the physicality to overpower smaller players trying to defend him. Treadwell can do exactly that.
There are a few other factors that need to be mentioned here. First, playing Treadwell out of the slot puts him closer to the action and it allows him to help an offense as a blocker. Treadwell is a devastating blocker and would be a huge asset in both the running game and the short passing game. Again, playing him as a slot receiver just suits his game very naturally.
Another of Treadwell’s greatest traits is his ability to get the ball going up the field in the short passing game. It happens very quickly, and Treadwell has enough subtlety and wiggle to make the first man miss, and when that happens he becomes an absolute monster to get to the ground. Tackling Treadwell is akin to bringing down a moose and it as another trait where he fits naturally out of the slot, certainly in the shorter passing game.
At this point I have to bring up a thought about the Lions offense without retired star Calvin Johnson. Looking at the offensive line, and considering what quarterback Matt Stafford’s strengths are, I envision an offense that has the quarterback getting the ball out quickly and allowing players like receiver Golden Tate to use his lateral quickness to move the chains. I’m not expecting huge chunk plays from the Lions this season and that’s why I’m not concerned about Treadwell’s long speed.
Treadwell is a much faster player on the field than he timed running in underwear at the combine due to his footwork, aggressiveness and physicality as a route runner. Also, he was just a year removed from a horrifying lower leg injury and I do expect him to recover a little more speed/explosiveness as time passes, but the reality is that Treadwell never won because of his long speed.
Treadwell is young as he’s only 20 years old and that means that Treadwell will reach free agency as a 25-year old (assuming he’s a first-round pick because of the fifth-year option). That’s significant as some prospects can be much older at this point in the process, making them risky for second contract scenarios. By comparison, Ohio State’s Michael Thomas just turned 23 years old and would be 28 years old when signing his second deal. TCU’s Josh Doctson will turn 24 at the end of his rookie season in the NFL also making a 28-year old when he signs a second-deal.
In summary, I see all of Treadwell’s strengths as a player maximized by playing him out of the slot and if the Lions utilize him in this way, he’ll far exceed to price they paid in draft capital to get his services.