Lions winning ways means using Rams' draft pick for defense, not a quarterback

It's a pickle, no doubt. A conundrum, if you’re not into brevity. And if the Detroit Lions keep winning and the football gods bestow a playoff berth?

Team brass will be in a downright crisis.

Not a life-or-death one, to be sure, but let’s say the Lions finish the season 9-8, after a 1-6 start, and during the parade Brad Holmes turns to Dan Campbell and asks: What should we do with our top-five pick? And Campbell says …

Hey, how should I know what Campbell will say?

But I can guess. And if the Lions keep rolling and keep scoring then how can Campbell say anything other than: “You think Jalen Carter will be available at five?”

The Georgia defensive tackle is a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound blast furnace and moves with the kind of quickness no human should at that size. There’s also Will Anderson Jr., an edge rusher from Alabama who would make a nice bookend to Aidan Hutchinson.

He might go as high as No. 2, and if the Rams keep losing the Lions might have a shot at him, too. A couple of other defensive players possess top-six talent as well.

Nov 19, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) celebrates during the second quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Georgia Bulldogs defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) celebrates during the second quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

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It’s not unreasonable for the Lions to go defense if they’re picking this high. It’s also not unreasonable for the Lions to draft a quarterback. Deciding which way to go is the pickle. The decision will reveal a lot about the team’s expectations next season.

Winning four out of five brought the Lions to this point. Win another four out of five and it’s hard to imagine the team rebooting behind center.

Lose four of the next five and the choice should get easier: take a quarterback. Though even that choice has its risks: Math and history tell us that either Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud will flame out. Math also tells us that a future star might be lurking later in the round.

Again, the conundrum.

There are examples of solid-to-good teams using a relatively high pick to stash a quarterback for a year, Kansas City being the most recent. The Chiefs took Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft. Alex Smith was the starter and led the franchise to the playoffs. The franchise bet Mahomes had a higher ceiling. Smart bet.

If the Lions finish with nine wins and Jared Goff continues to play as he has during the team’s recent surge, we’ll hear lots of talk about Goff’s ceiling. Heck, it’s already out there. And while the Kansas City example is a relevant one, Goff is a better player than Smith was.

As for his ceiling?

It’s high. The proof is in his history.

Goff played in the Super Bowl. Before you say he was along for the ride, consider what Pro Football Focus said of his performance that season in 2018:

“He was so much more than a system quarterback …”

Lions quarterback Jared Goff warms up before the game against the Jaguars on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, at Ford Field.
Lions quarterback Jared Goff warms up before the game against the Jaguars on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, at Ford Field.

PFF ranked him eighth among quarterbacks that year. His numbers are on pace this season for another top 10 performance.

He may not be the kind of quarterback to carry a team, but he isn’t a quarterback that gets carried, either. Not when he’s at his best, which he has been for most of this season. If he continues his same level of play the last five games, it will be hard for Holmes and Campbell to walk away from that.

I don’t blame them. Because they shouldn’t. At least not for next year. It’s a matter of goals.

Holmes and Campbell weren’t just hired to rebuild a team and its culture and compete for the playoffs every year. They were hired to try to eventually win the Super Bowl. And if Goff is good enough to play in a Super Bowl, he’s good enough to win one.

The Lions already have shown they have one of the best offenses in the league when they are healthy. The defense is showing improvement, and that it’s got a handful of promising young players.

Which means the best bet to the playoffs next season is to keep building the defense. This also means that passing on a potentially big-time difference maker on that side of the ball has its risks, too.

Only four quarterbacks have won more than one Super Bowl in the last 24 years: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning.

Manning the younger made a couple of memorable throws on the way to two titles but didn’t consistently elevate the Giants the way Brady, Manning the elder and Roethlisberger did for their teams.

Still, if the Lions think they’ll have a shot at the next Brady, Peyton Manning or Roethlisberger in next year’s NFL draft, then sure, go for it, though the odds won’t favor them finding a generational talent with the Rams’ likely top-five pick.

Generational talents sell jerseys and tickets and help keep franchises relative for long stretches. All important considerations. But plenty of generational talents haven’t won more than a single Super Bowl, including Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes, obviously, has plenty of time to win a second title. Rodgers, not so much, though as long as he plays, he would have a chance assuming he has Super Bowl-level talent in the huddle.

Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell walk off the field after practice Thursday, July 28, 2022 at the Allen Park practice facility.
Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell walk off the field after practice Thursday, July 28, 2022 at the Allen Park practice facility.

That last phrase is key: Super-bowl level talent in the huddle. No quarterback, no matter how good, wins without a title without it. How much a quarterback needs is a matter of degree; Mahomes doesn’t need as much of it as Goff, for example.

Right now, the Lions are clearly a long way from the Super Bowl. Yet their play lately looks a lot like a playoff team.

If Holmes and Campbell believe they can keep adding potential to the roster and then developing it, Goff is young enough — and good enough — to lead the huddle and see where it goes.

Every franchise would love to find the next great quarterback and become a dynasty. But the goal should be getting to a Super Bowl level as quickly as possible.

This means drafting more defense up top and take a flier on a quarterback later in the round.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' winning making it harder to take QB in NFL draft