Forget about the so-called drama of Heisman Trophy winner and celebrated national champion Joe Burrow possessing ‘leverage’ over the Bengals in this year’s NFL draft, even though Cincinnati owns the No. 1 overall choice and has a long-term need at quarterback.
Unless Burrow wants to sit out a full year, thus re-entering the draft in 2021 (while likely competing for top-pick supremacy with Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields), or plans to force an awkward Eli Manning-style trade away from the Bengals — while simultaneously denouncing his hometown team (Burrow hails from nearby Athens, Ohio) — the whole leverage argument doesn’t hold much water.
That mini-soap opera aside, the real intrigue lies with the No. 3 overall pick, currently the property of the Detroit Lions, but easily the most accessible path to landing Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, via trade.
This year’s crop of quarterbacking prospects boasts five potential first-rounders (Burrow, Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, Jacob Eason) and four probable candidates for Rounds 2 and 3 (Jake Fromm, Jalen Hurts, Anthony Gordon, Steven Montez).
And yet, it seemingly hasn’t diluted the exquisite interest in Tagovailoa, the pinpoint, big-armed passer with great scrambling ability, who might have been the consensus choice for the Bengals at 1.1 — if he hadn’t suffered a substantial hip injury back in November (vs. Arkansas).
Recently, BATSBY Sports ran through the litany of reasons why the Lions won’t be trading franchise pillar Matthew Stafford this offseason, despite having the requisite draft capital to replenish the QB spot for another 10-12 years.
And today, we’ll perform a similar deep dive into why … the Lions absolutely must explore every avenue of a No. 3-pick trade in the coming weeks:
REASON #1 — The prodigious cases of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson should oblige nearly every bottom-feeding club to pursue Tagovailoa with full gusto
For his final two seasons with Alabama, Tagovailoa enjoyed a cumulative touchdown-to-interception rate of more than 9-to-1 (including rushing scores), while completing passes at a staggering 70-percent clip.
By comparison, that’s more efficient production than Kyler Murray (2018), Baker Mayfield (2016-17), Lamar Jackson (2016-17) or Patrick Mahomes (2015-16) experienced during their college heydays; and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, when healthy, Tagovailoa offers similarly stellar athletic gifts to the above names.
Does that make Tua a lock for NFL greatness? Not necessarily.
However, good luck finding an embedded draft pundit or league executive who wasn’t high on Tagovailoa’s potential before last November’s rough injury (fractured hip).
Which brings us to this hypothetical: If Mahomes, Jackson, Mayfield, Murray and Tagovailoa were all placed into the same draft pool this spring … would Tua go any lower than third overall, perhaps after Mahomes and Jackson — the NFL’s last two reigning MVPs?
We’re guessing no. His long-term projections are that prolific.
And yet, the Lions are eminently strong bets to select Tagovailoa at No. 3 or shop Tua’s rights to the highest bidder, while presuming that Burrow (Bengals) and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young (Redskins) go 1-2 on the draft’s opening night.
REASON #2 — The Lions can easily lure the Dolphins, Chargers and another have-not into a bidding war, without incurring any drop-off from their original plans at No. 3
The Giants are apparently set at quarterback, thanks to the stealth arrival of Daniel Jones (3,027 yards passing, 26 TDs in 13 games).
However, at this time, the Giants aren’t possessing much tangible leverage for the No. 4 selection, aside from those who quietly covet Herbert, Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okduah (more on him later), Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons or maybe Love or Eason over Tagovailoa.
This essentially puts the onus on the Dolphins (5th), Chargers (6th) and Jaguars (9th) — for those who are skeptical of Gardner Minshew II’s long-term potential — to leapfrog the other competing clubs and exclusively deal with the Lions’ brass, when discussing a major trade.
So for Detroit, there’s a strong chance that whomever the team covets at No. 3 … would also be available at either 5, 6 or 9 — due to the overwhelming need for highly touted rookie quarterbacks.
Here’s the current pick allotment for each club:
L.A. CHARGERS — One pick for Rounds 1-3 in 2020 (6th, 37th, 69th overall).
JACKSONVILLE — Two picks for Round 1 (9th, 20th), early choice in Round 2 (42nd) and one selection in Round 3 (73rd).
Bottom line: The Dolphins empirically possess the most draft capital among the teams possibly currying the Lions’ favor at No. 3. In that sense, perhaps the Chargers are already waving the white flag on the Tua project.
However, the Jaguars certainly have enough capital to make things interesting for the Lions, while making the Dolphins sweat all the way to April 23.
Here are two similar packages from the past, which might serve as a model for the Lions in trade talks:
2004: The Giants and Chargers swapped the rights to Eli Manning (No. 1 overall) and Philip Rivers (No. 4) in Round 1. In addition, San Diego (now Los Angeles) received a 3rd in 2004, along with a 1st and 5th in 2005.
2012: The Redskins moved up to No. 2 overall, as a means of landing Robert Griffin III (just behind Andrew Luck).
For their generosity, the Rams swapped first-rounders in 2012 (four-slot difference), added a second-rounder for that year … and then corralled first-round selections in 2013 and 2014.
REASON #3 — Detroit’s talent-hoarding tandem of GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia don’t have extra time to wait on Tua’s long-term development
Quinn and Patricia (two-year record together: 9-21-1) cannot afford to spend the Lions’ first pick (No. 3) on a heralded rookie quarterback, namely Tagovailoa or Herbert, and still be viable contenders for a postseason berth next fall.
Given how Detroit finished in the bottom 10 for rushing and passing touchdowns allowed last season, while also ranking 26th in defensive scoring, the Lions absolutely need to nail the upcoming draft, which currently includes four choices in the first 85 picks.
(The offensive line could use a talent upgrade, along with the running back and cornerback slots.)
And make no mistake, Matthew Stafford’s presence serves as Detroit’s greatest hope for reaching the postseason in 2020.
(He was a candidate for 5,000 yards passing, before incurring a midseason back injury against the Raiders.)
Without Stafford last year, the Lions dropped their final eight games, while free-falling to a 3-12-1 record.
REASON #4 — Next year’s draft might feature more celebrated passers at the top
This year’s quarterback crop has the numbers; but it’s hard to argue against the down-the-road potential of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — a pair of strong-armed, fleet-footed pocket passers, who draw favorable comparisons to Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, respectively.
And as mentioned last week, among the teams desperate for new quarterbacking blood this year, the Dolphins likely possess the best odds of finishing with a bottom-5 record in 2020; and by proxy, Miami would be best positioned for either Lawrence or Fields.
Why should this matter to the Lions?
If they’re genuinely pondering a new direction at quarterback this time next year, knowing Stafford’s dead-cap hit would be more palatable in 12 months (around $19 million), then why not secure another possible shot at a high-end draft pick in 2021 … namely the Dolphins’ primary first-rounder next year (as part of the Tua trade)?
REASON #5 — The Lions have no incentive to prioritize Jeff Okudah’s talents at the 3-spot
In a recent mock draft, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. confidently reasoned that Okduah — an All-Big Ten performer with the Buckeyes last year (three interceptions, nine deflections) — won’t fall any further than No. 4 in Round 1.
Whether intentional or not, Kiper’s essentially sending a warning shot to the Lions, should they trade out of the 3-spot with the Dolphins, Jaguars or Chargers.
The ominous message: You’ll have just one chance at getting Okudah.
My response: As someone who obsessively listens to the Kiper/McShay podcasts from January-April and has the highest respect for Kiper’s draft contributions in the cable-TV age … who cares?
Charting 30 years of drafts (1990-2019), the NFL has merely produced 11 pure cornerbacks taken in the top five (Shawn Springs, Bruce Pickens, Denzel Ward, Charles Woodson, Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson, Terence Newman, Quentin Jammer, Bryant Westbrook, Terrell Buckley, Todd Lyght) — with none of these players going higher than third overall.
What’s more, of this 11-player group, only Springs, Pickens, Ward and Woodson were chosen third or fourth overall, and this quartet generated mixed results as actual NFL performers.
On the plus side, Woodsdon (three-time All-Pro, nine Pro Bowl berths, 11 touchdowns, 65 interceptions) should be a Hall of Fame lock in the next year or two; and Ward made the Pro Bowl in his rookie campaign with the Browns (2018).
On the meh side, Springs and Pickens combined for 17 pro seasons, but the duo netted just one Pro Bowl berth, and neither cornerback sniffed a championship with their respective clubs.
In other words, the GMs for the 90s-era Falcons and Seahawks probably regret taking Pickens and Springs so high, especially with prodigious talents such as Herman Moore, Alvin Harper, Alfred Williams, Brett Favre (1991 class) and Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Trevor Pryce, Tarik Glenn and Jason Taylor (1997 class) still on the board.
Sure, in practice, Okudah seems like a bona fide talent, perhaps of the can’t-miss classification. But he’s also not a game-changer in multiple realms, a la Deion Sanders (shutdown corner/punt returner/wide receiver) or Patrick Peterson (shutdown corner/punt returner).
Okudah also might possess the athletic dominance of Jalen Ramsey, who was an impact performer for the Jaguars on Day 1.
That’s not to say the Lions should bypass Okduah more than once.
History simply tells us that Detroit can wait a few beats for Okudah’s services, while simultaneously driving up the draft-day price for Tagovailoa.