Traverse City Record-Eagle

Sports Columnists

April 21, 2011

Mike Eckert: Will Lions draft a Prince?

With a week to go before the NFL draft, it might be easier to pick the date the NFL will settle its labor issue than lock in who the Detroit Lions will select with the 13th overall pick.

Maybe this is what happens when you don’t have one of the top three picks, like the Lions have frequently had in the past. Or maybe this is what happens when you don’t have needs at virtually every position on the field.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. spoke with reporters on a conference call Wednesday. In his latest mock draft, he has the Lions selecting Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara.

But, he added, Detroit could go in a another direction.

“To me, cornerback is a big need, outside linebacker is a big need, keeping (quarterback Matthew) Stafford healthy is a key thing,” Kiper said of the Lions’ needs.

With the exception of Texas A&M’s Von Miller — who is projected to go off the board in the first few picks — there doesn’t seem to be a linebacker that makes sense with the 13th pick.

So that leaves the Lions with two options: cornerback or offensive line.

If Detroit goes for a big lineman, it may be a bit of a reach.

“In terms of this offensive line group, they were all expected to be (picked) in the 20s, but they’ve gotten forced up a bit because you need these guys,” Kiper said. “Some of them have tested out pretty well. (USC’s Tyron) Smith’s a great athlete. (Boston College’s Anthony) Castonzo’s a veteran. There’s a reason to move guys up because you have to.”

Kiper believes those would be the two guys Detroit would look at if they go offensive line.

“If you ask me, they have options,” Kiper said. “You have (Jeff) Backus, you have (Gosder) Cherilus. You’ve got the ability to kick somebody in at guard. You can start out and move one of these guys inside. That’s what’s happened with a lot of them.”

A more viable option for Detroit may be cornerback, but it will depend on who is available. LSU’s Patrick Peterson is considered the top corner and should go early. That leaves Amukamara, who Kiper ranks right behind Peterson.

“There’s not much of a gap,” Kiper said. “Amukamara’s an outstanding player. I think there’s four outstanding cornerbacks this year — and then there’s a drop-off. I’d say Peterson, then Amukamara, (Colorado’s Jimmy) Smith would be right there, and then (Texas’ Aaron) Williams.”

Amukamara is not expected to last too long in the first round.

“I’m sure there’s a team that thinks he’s the best cornerback in this draft,” Kiper said. “He’s played to a high level, he’s played press and off coverage. He can do a lot. In terms of the NFL, he fits any coverage scheme and I think he’s going to go no later than where the Lions pick at 13. That’s the furthest I can see him dropping.”

The biggest threat to grab Amukamara before the Lions seems to be the Texans at No. 11.

“The team to worry about is Houston,” Kiper said. “Houston allowed 33 touchdown passes last season. They were torched. They drafted a cornerback in the first round (last year) in Kareem Jackson out of Alabama. Will they go corner again? They certainly could.”

If Amukamara is gone, Kiper said Detroit could still go cornerback with the 13th pick. Smith was previously considered a late first-round pick because of off-the field issues. Kiper said those issues didn’t seem to be as big of a deal once teams met with him.

“Let’s face it, it’s about talent,” Kiper said. “Is (Smith) worthy of being a top 10-15 pick? Yes he is. You go back, he went up against A.J. Green. I think A.J. Green’s one of the best players in this draft. And he matched up against him. He’s 6-2, 210 pounds and he runs a 4.4. The kid’s an outstanding player. Once (teams) got to know this kid and they looked into everything, the teams I’ve spoken to feel very comfortable about Jimmy Smith, about bringing him in.”

When asked if taking Smith at 13 would be a reach for the Lions, Kiper was quick to shoot that down.

“Let me say this, if the top teams in the league are going to take a player, it wouldn’t be a stretch,” Kiper said. “If Philadelphia’s looking at Jimmy Smith, and Baltimore’s looking at Jimmy Smith, then why shouldn’t Detroit look at Jimmy Smith?”

Nothing, including Carolina’s selection with the No. 1 pick, seems to be locked in with only a week to go before the first round.

And if things get crazy and Detroit can’t get a good option at cornerback or offensive line, don’t be surprised if they beef up their defensive line for the second straight year, especially if Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers or North Carolina’s Robert Quinn are still out there. Bowers is coming off of a knee injury while Quinn didn’t play a game last fall because he was ineligible.

“Defensive line is the strength of the draft,” Kiper said. “And two of the top guys expected to be taken at this position are not there for different reasons.”

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