The Detroit Lions likely know they can get a player with their top selections that can play a big role for the future of their team, but the draft is won or lost based on what a franchise does in the middle or later rounds.
With the right picks there, legendary teams and championship rosters are forged, and this is what the Lions should be focusing on when they draft. The good news is there are plenty of players who will be found later in the draft that have the right makeup to become steals.
The latest Lions news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Lions newsletter here!
This class has plenty of hidden gem talent for the Lions once things shift past the early rounds, and there are players who could end up as solid picks for the team. When the bigger names are off the board, what players could play a surprising role for the Lions? Here’s a look.
Velus Jones, Wide Receiver, Tennessee
If the Lions are looking for another steal later in the draft like they were able to get with Amon-Ra St. Brown last year at wide receiver, Jones could be this year’s version. He’s got a solid body for the position and has been through the battles in the SEC. The highlights show the kind of player who can do plenty of good things on the field, from special teams to the offensive side with regards to route running:
Jones has put up 1,434 yards and 11 touchdowns during his career, which spanned from USC to Tennessee. For a team that could crave a hidden gem, he could be a great option for the Lions later on in the draft. Watch him to see how he does in the game.
Leon O’Neal Jr., Safety, Texas A&M
The Lions have lacked some nasty for quite a while on defense, and O’Neal is perhaps the one player best suited to help in that revival in this draft class at safety. Detroit needs some thump and a player who is capable of covering ground, which is just what O’Neal did in his time with the Aggies, to go with some big hits. Statistically, he put up 161 tackles and 6 interceptions in his career along with 12 passes defended. More important than that was the edge and mentality he plays with.
O’Neal probably goes higher than the fifth-round, but the Lions could nab him with a middle-round pick and shore up plenty of their issues over the middle of the field. He’d be a great developmental prospect for Aaron Glenn and Aubrey Pleasant. Detroit has added nothing at safety in free agency, making it a virtual-must that the team pick up someone in the draft. In this case, O’Neal could be the perfect someone for the team.
Kobie Whiteside, Defensive Tackle, Missouri
The Lions could be looking for defensive help in the middle of the line, but may not want to grab it early after investing picks on it there last year. For this scenario, a guy like Whiteside is perfect. Detroit’s defensive renovation would continue with Whiteside, a player who is a force in the middle of a line that can provide some pass rush punch. To that end, he’s a lot like Levi Onwuzurike, who he could partner well with up front for the team in the future.
Whiteside put up 81 tackles and 10.5 sacks in his career with the Tigers, and that is good production for a player who is being snapped up with a seventh-round selection.
An active player who could help the culture of change in the trenches, Whiteside is the kind of presence the Lions could use for their line development and he wouldn’t cost a high pick at all.
Connor Heyward, Tight End, Michigan State
Detroit needs tight end depth badly and another local prospect provides it late. The son of former Pittsburgh legend Craig “Ironhead” Heyward and current Steelers star Cameron Heyward has good NFL bloodlines and would fit the mold of what the Lions are trying to build from a toughness standpoint. He also has great stats, with 825 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns to go with 711 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. Here’s a look at one of his best plays of the 2021 season:
Heyward could be a sneaky good addition to the Lions, and could help improve the team’s depth at tight end as well as offer a potential dual role for the offense. He seems to fit what Dan Campbell and the staff is about already, which could put him firmly on the team’s radar for the draft.
Sam Howell, QB, UNC
At quarterback, it’s hard to call many players hidden gems, but Howell could fit that bill as a prospect. Howell had thrown for 7,227 yards in his career and 68 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions entering this season. In 2021, Howell threw for 3,056 yards and 24 touchdowns. As a result, he is trending toward being one of the better pro prospects that can be picked, even if some folks have nitpicked him thus far in the process.
Here’s a look at some of Howell’s highlights from 2020:
Adding Howell would represent the first quarterback the Lions have drafted since Brad Kaaya in 2017, and if the Lions could get him without giving up a high pick, it would be a smart move to add him into the mix.