The NFL Draft is finally finished, and new Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes has officially put together his first draft class in Detroit. No more mock drafts and no more speculation. The rebuild is underway.
I say it every year, and there will undoubtedly be plenty to bring up how pointless immediate draft grades are without seeing anybody perform on an NFL field. And, that is a fair point.
For me, grading the Lions' draft just allows me to express my general enthusiasm regarding each pick.
Obviously, I hope every selection far exceeds my expectations. Anyway, here are my 2021 draft grades for the Lions.
- A = Great
- B = Good
- C = Average
- D = Poor
- F = Horrible
Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
(First round, 7th overall)
- 331 pounds
- 5.09-second 40-yard dash
- 4.68-second short shuttle
The best non-quarterback in the draft and an elite talent at a premier position. He is the best prospect to come out at the position in a long time, according to many. This was my personal dream scenario for the Lions, and it actually played out.
Sewell won’t turn 21 until October this upcoming season. As a 19-year-old in 2019, he was a unanimous All-American, and won the Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the best O-lineman or defensive tackle in the FBS.
Per Pro Football Focus, Sewell didn’t surrender a single sack, and only allowed two quarterback hits that entire year. He decided to opt out in 2020 -- probably because he had nothing left to prove.
Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington
(Second round, 41st overall)
- 290 pounds
- 4.86-second 40-yard dash
- 29 bench reps
Onwuzurike has plenty of tape that screams first-round talent, but there was plenty of times where he would disappear, as well. The concern is which player is going to show up at the next level. The 23-year-old opted out of the 2020 season.
He lined up all over the defensive line, which gives him plenty of versatility. Despite being on the lighter end, he holds up well on the inside, due to an ultra-aggressive playing style. Sometimes, he can be overaggressive, and ends up on the ground and misses tackles. At least he is being disruptive, though.
Fortunately, Onwuzurike probably won’t be asked to line up at nose tackle as much as he did at Washington. It should bring out his best attributes, playing more toward the outside.
His burst off the line and ability to penetrate will be unique to the Lions' defensive front. Ultimately, that’s the reason he was drafted high in the second round. Onwuzurike has the potential to be a great gap-shooter, with the capability to beat one-on-one matchups on the way to the quarterback. That’s something the Lions desperately needed.
Overall, there were quite a few players still available I would have preferred, but understand the pick as long as Onwuzurike can play up to his potential on a more consistent basis.
Alim McNeill, DT, N.C. State
(Third round, 72nd overall)
- 317 pounds
- 4.96-second 40-yard dash
- 1.68-second 10-yard split
McNeill was on my annual pre-draft "wants" list for the Lions in the third round. I actually graded him higher on my big board than Onwuzurike. He is yet another defensive tackle with elite burst, but is also almost 320 pounds. Still just 20 years old, for a few more days, McNeill is a nose tackle who excels against the run, and still has enough juice to get pressure on the quarterback. That is hard to find.
His 2020 90.7 overall PFF grade was the second-highest of all interior defensive linemen in the draft. He also possessed the top-ranked run-defense grade.
In other years, I might scratch my head a little as to why Detroit went back-to-back at a position with so many other pressing needs. In year one of a rebuild, however, just draft the best player on the board, and McNeill was close to the top.
Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB, Syracuse
(Third round, 101st overall)
- 205 pounds
- 4.48-second 40-yard dash
- 42-inch vertical
Melifonwu was one of the best potential players still left on the board. He was the best corner left on my big board and the 93rd player overall. I wasn't super high on him relative to others, but plenty of draft analysts had Melifonwu as high as a second-round talent. Getting his high ceiling at pick No. 101 is once again solid value.
As a 6-foot-2 cornerback with insane explosion, Melifonwu also has some decent ball skills. His skill set is rare, and will match up best on the outside against bigger receivers or in the nickel against big slot options.
The reason I had him a little further down my board was due to his change of direction. Make no mistake, Melifonwu has some nice hip fluidity for his size, but his change of direction is below average for the position when compared to smaller players. That’s typically the case with larger corners, and it’s why a player with his profile usually does best in a cover-3 or in a man-press scheme, in which he can properly utilize his length.
In 2021, Melifonwu will likely be a backup who needs a little time to develop. Even though the Lions already have a couple of younger cornerbacks, Melifonwu has some high-end potential to be great.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC
(Fourth round, 112th overall)
- 197 pounds
- 4.59-second 40-yard dash
- 38.5-inch vertical
St. Brown was an overall good football player at the college level. Expectations for the junior were sky high last season, but he couldn’t live up to the hype. There are not really any weaknesses to his game, but he also doesn’t necessarily have a trump card trait, either. I will say his body control and ability to adjust to the ball are impressive. Still, this seems more like a Bob Quinn-type of move, drafting a player who has a high floor but low ceiling.
St. Brown should be able to compete for the Lions' slot spot in year one. He did his best work on the inside his sophomore season, and struggled once he moved more out wide. Despite not blowing away anyone with his speed, he can move well in and out of his breaks, and he has the ability to break tackles.
Sometimes, you just need guys who are good at football, and you overlook the measurements a little bit. On my draft board, St. Brown was the 116th-rated player. So, this is right around the spot I expected him to go.
Derrick Barnes, LB, Purdue
(Fourth round, 113th overall)
- 238 pounds
- 4.57-second 40-yard dash
- 37-inch vertical
The Lions traded up to grab Barnes. As a former hybrid EDGE defender, Barnes is just scratching the surface when it comes to what he can do as an off-ball linebacker.
In the run game, he is a very explosive downhill player. When he gets on track, he can be a missile, with some serious thumping ability. Barnes seems like a throwback-type that Detroit front-office special assistant Chris Spielman would love.
However, when in space, he still looks like an EDGE defender. Barnes struggled in the passing game in his only season as a linebacker, which should be expected. If he can get better there, this would be a steal of a pick. That’s a lot easier said than done, though.
Honestly, Lions fans may not want to hear this, but he is very similar to Jarrad Davis, in terms of style of play. However, unlike Davis, Barnes is a more reliable tackler, and wasn’t selected in the first round. When used properly, players like Barnes can look really good.
At this stage in the draft, Barnes' potential was well worth the risk, but the trade up might be a little rich for my blood. Barnes landed at 102nd overall on my big board, and the Lions got him 11 picks after.
Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State
(Seventh round, 257th overall)
- 206 pounds
- 4.56-second 40-yard dash
- 31-inch vertical
With the third-to-last pick in the NFL Draft, the Lions took a chance on a running back. Of all the Lions selections, Jefferson is relatively the most unathletic player of Holmes' first draft class.
At running back, that isn’t as big of a deal, if the individual has good vision -- which Jefferson has. Still, there are plenty of backs who can be productive due to natural instincts at the position.
With currently only three rostered running backs, depth in the backfield was a sneaky need for the team. You can never really have enough running backs. It is important to note that the 21-year-old dealt with his fair share of nagging injuries over his college career.
What Jefferson does well is finding a way to sneak through small holes, and he is reliable catching the football. He doesn’t have too much break-tackle ability, but you know he will get what is blocked for him, plus maybe a little more. Expectations are always low for late-rounders. If Jefferson can find a role at all, it should be considered a win.
Brad Holmes, Lions general manager
What a breath of fresh air. As someone who was not a fan of ex-Lions general manager Bob Quinn’s drafts, I just gave a higher grade to Holmes in his first draft than I ever gave to Quinn in his five years at the helm.
Unlike Quinn, Holmes drafted elite athletes with big potential, who showed plenty of high-end flashes at the college level. The Lions are devoid of playmakers, which is largely due to Quinn and ex-Detroit head coach Matt Patricia drafting scheme-specific players and running a few of their best players out of town.
I could care less that Holmes didn’t draft every need in order. When it was all said and done, the Lions addressed all the biggest holes at some point -- outside of safety. Holmes took who he thought was the best player available, and it was the right approach to take. Trying to fill holes in the first year of a rebuild is rather useless.
Now, the Lions weren’t afforded the luxury of having a bunch of picks to boost the rebuild. No matter the case, though, the upside of the players they did select could eventually pay off -- and in a big-time fashion.