As we approach the draft, talk around which prospects our Lions should take is heating up. You know draft season is in full swing when Jeremy Reisman is okay with extensive draft talk.
For the most part, this talk is currently centred around our top three picks, and the edge, safety, and wide receiver positions. However, this article both looks a little later in the draft and the positions of tight end and linebacker. I have selected three prospects at these positions to highlight and watched one 2021 game of theirs in-depth to discuss (I have watched more on most of these prospects). Some sites might have these players ranked higher than pick 66, but given what I have seen on tape, I would be comfortable selecting in the third round or later.
Damone Clark, LSU
Game Watched: Alabama
Draft Rankings: PFF- 99th (LB12), PFN- 105th (LB9), TDN- 67th (LB6)
First off, the links between Clark and the Lions are well known. Clark was on the American team at this year's Senior Bowl, which was coached by the Lions. Furthermore, Clark was coached at LSU by Kelvin Sheppard, who joined the Lions coaching staff last season as the OLBs coach, and during the offseason was made ILBs coach with our move to more even fronts. Shep even spoke of Clark as a brother.
As for the game against Bama, the first thing that stood out to me was his versatility. LSU used him at edge, off-ball LB, and even flexed him out to outside CB on one rep. In one of his reps at edge, going against the RT, he showed an ability to convert speed to power. In another, he showed good bend to get around the tackle, creating pressure that forced a quick pass. Furthermore, LSU blitzed Clark a lot as part of their game plan to put Young under pressure. Clark showed good reps blitzing the A, B, and C gaps, creating pressure on numerous occasions that either resulted in throwaways, scrambles or sacks for other players, including a blitz on third down to end a drive.
Clark's play recognition is a mixed bag. There are times he shows great vision and closes the play down quickly. For instance, on a third down, he fits the run but then moves quickly to shut down a WR screen for no gain. Earlier in the game, he reads a jet screen pop pass and shuts that down too. However, he also shows some hesitation or poor decision making. On a PA pass, he moves from man coverage on the RB to the TE but then abandons his coverage on the TE on a scramble, leaving said TE open for a checkdown. On another play, he fakes a blitz before dropping into zone coverage but doesn't react quick enough to a QB scramble, leading to a big gain.
Against the run, this hesitation also shows up, as does a slight tendency to get caught up by second-level blockers or to get lost in the scrum. He also does have several good reps against the run that lead to TFLs or runs for no gain. One such play is a fit on third and one near the goalline that leads to minimal gain for the RB. In both zone and man coverage, Clark is proficient, especially against TEs. Aside from being half a second behind on a PA TE flat to open the game, Clark covered very well, registering a good PBU on a second down, and even flexing to the outside to cover a WR for one snap.
Overall, I would be very happy taking Clark at 66. I also would not be surprised if he was a starter at LB by the end of the season after learning the system under AA, if not after the bye whenever it falls. (Addendum: between the time of writing and publishing, it has come out that Clark has suffered a herniated disk, and will be undergoing spinal fusion surgery that will practically force him to redshirt his rookie season. This will drop him in the draft well into Day 3. If he was somehow still available at 177, I would take him, but this is unlikely.)
Leo Chenal, Wisconsin
Game Watched: Purdue
Draft Rankings: PFF- 35th (LB3), PFN- 128th (LB13), TDN- 89th (LB11)
At the time of writing this article, the only tangible connection between Chenal and the Lions is that the Lions attended the Wisconsin Pro Day, though we don't know which member(s) of staff did attend. PFF are very high on Chenal and I have seen mocks with Chenal going in the late first or early second. However, given what I have seen of Chenal on tape, I have to say I do not see why.
Chenal's best trait is said to be his blitzing, but I had the aforementioned Clark making more impressive plays in this aspect against a better Bama OL than I did Chenal. Not that Chenal did not make plays while blitzing. He made a couple of great blitzes through the A gap that led to 1.5 sacks for himself, including a half-sack on third down. He also made a good blitz on a flea-flicker that ended with a sack and had a great play down the C gap around the RT to sack the QB and end the game. While Chenal did rotate from his usual MIKE spot to WILL and SAM to blitz, he did not have any snaps I could spot lined up at true edge as Clark did.
Against Purdue, Chenal was good against the run. He made stops on several occasions, including a TFL on the RB while still being engaged with the center. On another rep, he blitzes and forces an early toss to the RB for minimal gain, leading to fourth down. He also had a couple of good reps making TFLs through the B gap, bending around inside of the LT for one and another coming through the gap to stop a QB run play. Chenal also covered the C gap on a QB run, forcing him outside into traffic. However, this game was not without mistakes. Early, he makes a good run fit going around the LT and makes a TFL on an outside zone, however in doing so he commits a facemask penalty. He also makes a couple of incorrect run reads throughout the game, guessing the wrong side.
Chenal's play recognition is mixed, but he does show an ability to learn from his mistakes. During the game, he bites on a fake handoff on a PA pass that eventually fails. Later in the game, Purdue runs a similar play and this time he doesn't bite on the fake handoff but instead follows the ball and nearly makes up space to tackle the QB on his run. Chenal has a good rep where he moves onto the LT to prevent the QB scrambling this way to escape pressure from a rusher. Throughout the game, Chenal frequently bites the cheese on PA passes and RPOs, including a rep where he bites on an RPO leaving the receiver open on their slant for a completion and a new set of downs.
In coverage, Chenal did mostly well, though there were a few miscues. On one play, both he and another LB cover an RB out the backfield, perhaps because of a miscommunication in the huddle. They additionally give him a big ten-yard cushion, allowing for an easy conversion and a new set of downs. He also concedes a TD from a TE seam through his zone. On the other hand, Chenal covers a TE seam well in man, forcing the QB to look elsewhere, leading to an interception for another defender. Chenal also had some good plays in zone. On a series of back-to-back plays, he covers a TE hitch and then a TE drag on a third and long, making a great open-field tackle to prevent a conversion. He has another good rep where he moves from covering grass to ass, leading to a near pick-six for another player. On one play, he fakes an A-gap blitz and reads the QB's eyes, nearly covering ground to make a PBU. He also has a good rep where he hands off a seam route and tackles the flat for no YAC. He even covers two players in one zone on a rep.
Overall, I like Chenal as a player, but a pick above the top of the third round is too rich for me. Chenal has athleticism as his RAS score shows, but he is not as polished as Dean and Lloyd are, and is firmly in the group of decent LBs who could start by the end of the season that I would be comfortable taking at 66.
Brandon Smith, Penn State
Game Watched: Ohio State
Draft Rankings: PFF- 63rd (LB8), PFN- 58th (LB5), TDN- 137th (LB14)
Smith did not attend the Senior Bowl but the Lions were in attendance at the Penn State Pro Day. The thing that stands out about Smith is his athleticism, which is backed up by his near-perfect RAS score. Penn State used this athleticism at both off-ball linebacker and big slot.
Smith, like Chenal, had no snaps at true edge that I could spot against Ohio State. However, unlike Chenal, Smith's blitzing skills did not stand out. This is not to say Smith is unable to blitz effectively, but the reps against Ohio State were standard with no major big plays, either positive or negative. He did get close to forcing pressure, but these were on plays designed to absorb pressure and allow the QB to get the ball out quickly. Likewise, Smith's reps in zone coverage were standard with no big splash plays either way. He does show a good ability to hand off receivers to other defenders well, especially on crossing routes.
In man coverage, Smith's athletic talent stands out. He has a great rep where he is covering the slot receiver, but then moves and makes a recovery tackle after the other linebacker leaves a WR drag open. On another rep, he makes up space and makes an open-field tackle on a quick out pass/screen. He also has a good rep as a big slot covering a slant route. While he allows a completion, he tackles the receiver to allow no YAC. Against the run, Smith sometimes can get caught up in engagement against his blocker, but there is a rep where he easily shrugs off a lead blocker. He also has a rep where he sorts through traffic to tackle the runner for a short gain and another where he tackles the RB while still engaged with his blocker. On one play, he makes a good read and fills the hole to tackle the carrier for a minimal gain.
Smith's play recognition is mixed. He has some good plays and some bad in this respect. On one hand, he is able to read an outside zone and is close to tackling the RB but is just knocked off by a blocker. He also has a rep where he reads run despite being in man coverage on the slot, makes up space but just concedes a touchdown. On the other hand, he bites the cheese on a PA boot, and there is a play where he (along with most of the defence) is caught looking at the sideline, allowing a quick snap.
Overall, Smith is very athletically talented but is still raw in some aspects. While he is steady in some aspects, he still needs to learn to recognise plays and how to use his gifts to make big plays. This is something he could learn under Anzalone, before taking over.
In summary on this group of three linebackers, I would be happy if the Lions take any of them from 66 onwards. We can all agree that the off-ball linebacker room needs improvement, and any of these prospects would upgrade our team. Other players I would consider in this range are Troy Andersen (Montana State), Christian Harris (Alabama), and the Georgia duo Channing Tindall and Quay Walker.
Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State
Game Watched: Penn State
Draft Rankings: PFF- 120th (TE5), PFN- 92nd (TE5), TDN- 69th (TE3)
Ruckert attended the Senior Bowl where he was part of the National team coached by the Jets. The Lions also attended the Ohio State Pro Day. In the game against Penn State, Ruckert lined up at both in-line, in the slot, and as an H-back.
In pass protection, Ruckert made a couple of good plays. He made a couple of good blocks on the blindside of the line, another on the right-hand side of the formation for a QB boot in the other direction, and another while lined up in the backfield as an H-back. As for run blocking, he made several positive plays, especially when being brought in motion. On one such play, he is brought in motion from the slot to seal the backend of a run. There are also reps coming from the right-hand side of the line to act as the lead blocker of an inside zone, and also a rep of the inverse. He also motions in from the left to the right-hand side of the line for a rep to seal the edge of a run to that side.
In the receiving game, he can also make plays. On one rep, he takes a screen from the H-back spot and turns upfield to convert on a third-down, making sure not to go out of bounds before he reaches the sticks. He also does a good check-and-release that doesn't end in a target on one snap. He also runs a good corner route on one rep, making a good catch near the sideline. He also had a nice catch on a seam route from the slot.
Overall, I know Ruckert might not be popular given the college he went to, both in terms of its rivalry with Michigan and our recent history with prospects from Ohio State (though I argue while Okudah hasn't panned out as we were hoping so far, Jonah Jackson has turned out pretty well). However, he has the blocking skills we are looking for, can also make plays in the receiving game if called upon, and does not cost the draft capital that more well known TEs like McBride, Dulcich or Woods will.
Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin
Game Watched: Michigan
Draft Rankings: PFF- 204th (TE13), PFN- 103rd (TE6), TDN- 119th (TE7)
Jake Ferguson was also coached at the Senior Bowl by the Jets, and the Lions attended the Wisconsin Pro Day. While in the game against Michigan, he was primarily only lined up in-line or in the slot, I chose to watch this game in particular as for a lot of his run and pass blocking reps, he was going against presumptive top-two draft pick Aiden Hutchinson. Therefore, it would follow that this game would be a good show of what Ferguson could perform like against NFL calibre talent.
In run blocking, he had many good reps, showing an ability to engage with the rusher well. In particular, he had two good reps against Hutchinson, including one where he comes back across the formation to seal the backend of a run play against Hutch. In pass protection, his reps were more mixed, but he still had good ones. On one rep, he works well and protects the right-hand side. On another, he does just enough to delay Hutchinson for a second to allow the QB to get his pass off. On his best rep, he forces Hutchinson outside while the QB moves right on a boot.
In the receiving game, he is also able to make plays. On a check and release, he gets separation and tries to make a catch near the sideline on a high-pointed ball, but it was too high and led to a drop. He also ran nice routes. One was a ten-and-in from the slot, and another was a five-and-in from an inline position, but neither led to a target. His best two plays in the receiving game were nothing short of beautiful. On one play, he runs a lovely out route, gaining a lot of separation and catches the ball well. His best play came when his team really needed him. When they were backed up near their own endzone, he runs a lovely route and makes a great catch to convert to a new set of downs and to get his team out of sight of their own endzone.
Overall, I would happily say that Jake Ferguson is my favourite of the second tier of tight ends. While he might not be as athletically gifted as the members of the first tier, Ferguson possesses all the skills that the Lions will be looking for in a prospect, and will likely be available at 97. If he is, I'd run the card in personally.
Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
Game Watched: Oklahoma State
Draft Rankings: PFF- 206 (TE14), PFN- 161st (TE12), TDN- 198th (TE12)
As with Ruckert and Ferguson, Kolar was coached at the Senior Bowl. His Pro Day at Iowa State was also attended by an offensive scout, suggesting that the Lions are interested in Kolar.
The disappointing thing about Kolar's game against Oklahoma State is that he had no clear pass sets, with him being run on routes on a lot of passing downs. In the game, he shows the ability to line up in-line, at H-back, in the slot, and out wide. When run blocking, he plays to the whistle. He has a good rep where he acts as a lead blocker for a QB run. When receiving, he has good hands and can use his body to box out defenders. He shows this on the opening play of the game for Iowa State, where he makes a good catch on a seam from the slot and creates YAC.
In short, Kolar is not what I would be looking for in a tight end if I were part of the Lions front office. If you were in on Kyle Pitts last year, then Kolar might be the prospect for you this year, as he demonstrates many of the traits that were attributed to Pitts last draft cycle. Given the presence of an offensive-minded scout at his pro day, it seems that maybe the front office could see Brock Wright or recent signing Garrett Griffin as the top blocker and are looking for more of an offensive weapon kind of player to give Hockenson some respite on passing downs. However, given how little blocking Kolar did, I would not begin considering Kolar before Day 3.
To summarise this group of tight ends, Ruckert and Ferguson fit the bill for what most people (myself included) believe that the Lions are looking for in a potential prospect. Given their combination of blocking and receiving skills, both would be in play for me at 97. Kolar, as he did not show as much ability blocking wise, is more of a Day 3 pick, or maybe better suited to a different team who needs a receiving option at the tight end position. Other tight ends that could be in consideration in this range are Daniel Bellinger (San Diego State), Chigoziem Okonkwo (Maryland), and Cole Turner (Nevada).
I appreciate my first article was a little decisive, to say the least, so I hope you have found this one less controversial. This is of course my own analysis, and if you believe differently given what you have seen and heard, I respect your opinion. What do you think of these prospects, which do you prefer, and what other prospects do you like in this range?
Pod Links: linktr.ee/roarofthelionsuk