Count the Lions As a Team That Listens to Nick Saban

Detroit has selected the former Alabama coach’s favorite player in the NFL draft two consecutive years. Plus, more on Travis Kelce’s new contract, and the fifth-year option deadline.
Arnold joins Branch an another of Nick Saban's favorite players drafted by the Lions.
Arnold joins Branch an another of Nick Saban's favorite players drafted by the Lions. / Mandi Wright / USA TODAY NETWORK

Five years ago, in “The Art of Coaching” documentary that highlighted the bond between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, the then-Alabama coach ripped off a rant on NFL teams, and how they handled evaluating his players ahead of the draft.


“One thing that you do, that a lot of the NFL guys don’t do, I don’t know that you’ve ever picked one of our guys if you never talked to me before picking him,” Saban said to Belichick. “And there’s a few other guys in the league that do that. But then there’s another 30 teams that I never hear from, and then they pick somebody and I’m saying, ‘They picked that guy?’ And then they say, ‘Well, we didn’t know this.’ Well, all you had to do is call and I would have told you the good stuff and I would’ve told you any issue.”


Count the Detroit Lions as a team that listens to Saban.


Two consecutive years, they’ve come away from the NFL draft with the guy NFL folks had tabbed as the legendary coach’s favorite in the class. Last year, it was Brian Branch, who became an integral part of the Detroit defense, and a Swiss Army knife for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. This year, it’s Terrion Arnold, a corner the Lions never thought would be there in the 20s.


Detroit had actually laid groundwork for a trade up—I believe Missouri DE Darius Robinson was the target—which made it easy to pivot and get aggressive in going up from No. 29 to No. 24 to land a falling Arnold.


For his part, Saban loved how Arnold took hard coaching, and attacked the challenge the coaches put in front of him, in sticking with him at corner rather than projecting him to safety like other schools had in recruiting him. Also, Detroit took note of how Saban played him at the “star” position (nickel corner), as well as outside corner. As the Lions see it, being deployed as the star at Alabama is a huge sign of trust and respect from Saban, because of the mental and physical burden he puts on that spot, and the versatility he demands from it.


Branch, for what it’s worth, played a lot there, too.


In this case, it wasn’t like it had been the year before, where GM Brad Holmes personally connected with Saban (they’d talked about Branch and Jahmyr Gibbs last year). But Detroit did have a couple of high-level staffers get to Saban on Arnold, confirming what they’d seen. Which, in the end, made going after Arnold a no-brainer when he slipped.


• There are a lot of stories where a fortunate twist can play into a team drafting a certain player—and the Chargers will have one of those from 2024 if, years from now, OT Joe Alt becomes the sort of franchise cornerstone Joe Hortiz and Jim Harbaugh think he can be.


The fact that the GM and coach were new did limit, to a degree, what they were personally able to do during this draft cycle. But the Chargers were able to get guys out on the road enough, both on the coaching and scouting side. And one such lieutenant that traveled around was veteran line coach Mike Devlin.


As luck would have it, he was assigned to run drills for the offensive line prospects at Notre Dame’s pro day in March. That allowed Devlin to challenge Alt, and to also get to know him better with the extra time he’d get with the Irish captain. Now, it’s not like there were too many revelations on the visit. Everyone knew what sort of player he was. But with the Chargers also liking Alabama RT JC Latham, the little things did make a difference.


The biggest question now is where Alt will fit on the line. All 33 of his starts at Notre Dame came at left tackle, the position Rashawn Slater plays for the Chargers. The plan is to let Alt compete for the starting right tackle spot. That said, he played tight end in high school, and wound up starting at left tackle as a true freshman at Notre Dame. So the lift might not be as heavy for Alt as it would be for others.


And that’s what made this pick so easy for the Chargers. Alt will figure it out, and at a baseline be a really good pro with a chance to be much better, making him the rare high floor-high ceiling prospect. He has some stuff to work on such as his ability to anchor (though the Chargers would tell you to watch how, in those spots, he bends and recovers). But with the presence and intelligence he showed the Chargers in meetings, it’s a good bet that Alt will keep ascending.


Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce
The Chiefs guaranteed all $17 million of Kelce's salary for 2024. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

• The Chiefs did right by Travis Kelce, giving the future Hall of Famer what amounts to a plain-old raise Monday—usually teams will require adding years to a player’s contract in exchange, or moving money away from a future year, for giving them this sort of pay bump.


Kelce’s existing contract had a $12 million base salary for this year, with another $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses, and a $250,000 roster bonus. The Chiefs gave him another $4 million, guaranteeing all $17 million for 2023. They left his $17.25 million for 2025 intact, added a trigger that’ll guarantee most of it in March (in the form of an $11.5 million roster bonus due on the third day of the league year), and force the team to make a decision on whether to keep him at the start of free agency.


The two-year deal makes Kelce the highest paid tight end in the NFL heading into a season in which he’ll turn 35. It’s also, truth be told, not that big of a number. He’s making less, in fact, on an APY (average per year) basis than Cleveland Browns WR Jerry Jeudy. Which is to say everything is relative, and in that sense a great tight end is a much better deal in today’s NFL than is a good receiver.


• As happy as the Minnesota Vikings were to get J.J. McCarthy where they did with the 10th pick, I’d say they were more surprised that pass rusher Dallas Turner slipped as deep into the teens as he did, which prompted the reaction from Kevin O’Connell that the team’s in-house crew captured.


In the end, they got two guys who were projected in the top 10 in a series of trade-ups without giving up an additional first-round pick to do it. The downside? It comes in volume. They wound up with seven picks after coming in with nine, and none of those picks came on Day 2 (they had one pick between 17 and 177, and that was at 108). As it stands now, they will have only four picks next year—their own first-rounder, a third-round compensatory pick for Kirk Cousins, their own fifth-rounder, and another fifth-rounder they acquired in the Za’Darius Smith trade.


• With the deadline Thursday, we know that nine of the top 12 picks in the 2021 draft have had their fifth-year option picked up. The three that haven’t, and won’t, are all quarterbacks who have been traded—Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields.


The teams that took those three certainly felt the pain of the misses, but each has recovered nicely. And throw Mac Jones in there, and you have four of five first-round quarterbacks from that year’s class dealt, without a single Day 1 or Day 2 pick included in any of the four trades.


• Interestingly enough, only six of the remaining 22 first-rounders from that year have had their fifth-year options picked up.


• Ezekiel Elliott showed last year with the New England Patriots that he can still play. That said, the Dallas Cowboys can’t run him the way they did in Elliott’s previous stint. I was pretty surprised, as such, that the Cowboys didn’t use one of their eight picks on the position, though they do think highly of Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn.


• It wasn’t a huge surprise that the New York Giants punted on quarterback with Drake Maye three picks before their first-round selection at No. 6—word circulated around the NFL that New York had become a Maye-or-no-QB team over the couple of weeks leading up to the draft. And since they did offer their 2025 first-rounder to get to No. 3, you can see New York saw a gap between the top three and the next three in the class.


• As for how the teams had the guys ranked, the Vikings really dove in on the guys after the top two, and had Maye (for whom they offered 11, 23 and a 2025 first-rounder, with pick swaps favoring them bringing some value back), then McCarthy. The Falcons had Michael Penix Jr. behind Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels (with a few folks in their building personally having Penix second). And Denver had Nix behind only Williams and Daniels.


Indianapolis Colts defensive end Laiatu Latu
Latu could be a huge get for the Colts if his neck in healthy. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

• I can appreciate the video of Colts GM Chris Ballard saying the Indianapolis Colts got the draft’s best pass rusher in Laiatu Latu. Most people, maybe all, I talked to about the UCLA star before the draft told me his tape was the best among the pass rushers. But that’s not the question with Latu; it’s the condition of his nick. But if he’s healthy? Paired with DeForest Buckner in that front, look out.

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Albert Breer