On Wednesday, the NFL released the names of more than 300 NFL hopefuls set to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine. The combine, which takes place in Indianapolis, begins on Tuesday, Feb. 28 and runs through Sunday, March 6.
While the Detroit Lions have plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, I would argue that the defensive needs are more pressing.
With that in mind, let’s briefly highlight one prospect from each position group on the defensive side of the ball. These are the players the Lions may want to pay special attention to at the combine. This list includes projected first-rounders, and possible diamonds in the rough.
Defensive end: Solomon Thomas, Stanford.
A defensive end/pass rusher is arguably Detroit’s most pressing need. Thomas is a projected first-round pick and many analysts project the Lions to nab him if available. He registered 12 sacks and 24 tackles for loss during his two seasons at Stanford.
Thomas has a great motor. Scouts love his angular frame and skilled hands, but worry about his ability to keep weight on and play on the defensive line throughout his career. A good showing at the combine could do wonders for his draft stock.
Other targets: Taco Charlton (Michigan), Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Charles Harris (Missouri)
Defensive tackle: Malik McDowell, Michigan State
As a Michigan State fan, I would love to see the Lions draft the local Detroit product. Many project McDowell to be selected in the first round; however, he fell out of the first round in Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft. McDowell struggled to stay healthy in 2016, but was a force in the interior during his three-year stint.
McDowell is a physical specimen at 6-foot-6-inches and 276 pounds, but is freakishly athletic for his size. He can beat blockers with pure strength as well. He has the ability to play as an end or on the interior of the line. With that said, his footwork has always been a problem and he tends to keep his pad level too high. The combine may be make or break for him.
Other targets: Jonathan Allen (Alabama), Caleb Brantley (Florida), Chris Wormley (Michigan)
Middle linebacker: Anthony Walker, Jr. Northwestern
The linebacking corps for Detroit was in shambles in 2016. While the Lions must add depth or a potential starter here, I don’t think it is a top priority. I don’t see Detroit using its first pick on a linebacker. Walker, Jr. is projected to go between rounds three and four. That could be a great time to snag a linebacker with great upside.
Walker, Jr. has a thick frame and was quite productive for the Wildcats. He had 276 total tackles, 38 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and four interceptions in his college career. He also has great instincts. The knock on him is that his playing weight is too high and he misses too many tackles. Could he be worth a mid-round selection?
Other targets: Reuben Foster (Alabama), Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State), Jarrad Davis (Florida)
Outside linebacker: TJ Watt, Wisconsin
Again, linebacker is not a grave concern, but if you have a chance to draft a member of the Watt family, you should consider it. Watt is currently projected as a second-rounder, but a good combine could catapult him to round one. If he is somehow still hanging out at pick No. 53, the Lions should not hesitate.
Watt is versatile. He could play outside linebacker or defensive end. He has the desired length and motor to get to the edge. He has good agility and pursuit to the ball as well. But he only had one season as a full-time starter. Is he experienced enough for the NFL? Time will tell.
Other targets: Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt), Takkarist McKinley (UCLA), Tim Williams (Alabama)
Cornerback: Teez Tabor, Florida
While I don’t expect the Lions to draft a cornerback in the first round, they certainly may. This is a deep cornerback class. Tabor is arguably the best of the bunch, along with Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore. Tabor more than likely won’t be there at pick No. 21, but if so, the Lions should pull the trigger.
Tabor has good size, as he stands at an even 6-foot and weights 201 pounds. He recorded 104 total tackles, eight interceptions and four sacks in his career. He also scored three defensive touchdowns. He has great acceleration and recovery speed if he does get beat. However, his discipline, instincts and physicality have been questioned.
Other targets: Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State), Sidney Jones (Washington), Marlon Humphrey (Alabama)
Free safety: John Johnson, Boston College
The Lions are pretty set at free safety with Glover Quin, but perhaps the Lions will use later rounds to add depth. Johnson has a nose for the ball. He had three interceptions in 2016, and six in his career. He had 12 tackles in his final game against Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl.
He also has starting experience at both cornerback and safety, which is invaluable to Detroit’s underwhelming secondary. Johnson has smooth hips and covers well. Scouts would like to see his pursuit to the ball and physicality improve.
Other targets: Malik Hooker (Ohio State), Budda Baker (Washington), Rayshawn Jenkins (Miami)
Strong safety: Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
If the Lions do draft a safety, it is more than likely a strong safety over a free safety. Tavon Wilson played decently for the Lions, but the secondary gave up too many big plays. There could be an upgrade there. Melifonwu is a huge safety. He’s 6-foot-4-inches, 219 pounds.
Melifonwu is extremely athletic. He was also a four-year starter and has laser focus when the ball is in the air. He has played the cornerback position, too. Knocks on him include his lack of instincts and inconsistencies in his coverage skills.
Other targets: Jamal Adams (LSU), Jabrill Peppers (Michigan), Justin Evans (Texas A&M)
Who would you like to see the Lions target at the scouting combine?