2023 NFL mock draft: Mel Kiper projects the Lions to double dip on defense in 1st round

ESPN has been taking it slow releasing their 2023 mock drafts but with the NFL season coming to a close, expect the frequency to pick up as the offseason rolls on.

In Mid-December, ESPN’s Todd McShay released his first mock draft of the season and paired the Detroit Lions with quarterback CJ Stroud (Ohio State) and corner Joey Porter Jr (Penn State). Three weeks later, his colleague Jordan Reid dropped his first projection, pairing the Lions with defensive tackle Bryan Breese (Clemson) and running back Bijan Robinson (Texas). Now, with another three weeks passed, ESPN has turned to Mel Kiper to release his first mock draft of the season ($subscription required).

Let’s set the table for Kiper’s projection. Defensive tackle Jalen Carter (Georgia) was first off the board, followed by Stroud, edge rusher Will Anderson (Alabama), quarterback Bryce Young (Alabama), and quarterback Will Levis (Kentucky).

As we have seen in our weekly Lions mock draft roundup series, most analysts have Carter and Anderson off the board and end up pairing the Lions with who they consider the next best defensive player. And that seems to be the case with Kiper here as well.

Round 1, pick No. 6: Tyree Wilson, DE, Texas Tech

Let’s let Kiper explain his projection:

“Wilson, the top true defensive end in this class, would help both (against the run and pass). He can use his burst at the snap to beat offensive tackles on passing downs or use his 6-foot-6 frame to hold up against the run. An edge-rushing duo of Wilson and Aidan Hutchinson would be formidable, with surprise rookie James Houston working in on obvious passing downs.”

Wilson (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) is a menace. At his size, strength, and athleticism, he is able to rush from a standing position, with his hand in the dirt, as an open or closed end, and inside at the 3-technique. I don’t agree with Kiper all that often, but he’s dead on when he says a duo of him and Hutchinson would be “formidable.”

Wilson is a plug-and-play closed end in the Lions system and his presence would allow the Lions to continue to be creative in how they use Josh Paschal and James Houston (last year’s second and sixth-round picks, respectively). It would also give the Lions four edge rusher to build their defense around.

Edge rusher may not seem like a priority—especially with Charles Harris, Romeo Okwara, and Julian Okwara still under contract—but there are still decisions to be made at the position and room to keep more. Julian Okwara’s position flexibility and rookie contract are likely enough to keep him around in a SAM linebacker role (pass rusher with off-the-ball skills, ie Houston). While his brother Romeo and Harris may find themselves in a battle for a spot in the rotation behind Hutchinson on the open end, as both have very large contracts for the roles they are in and one could end up being a cap casualty.

Bottom line, the Lions need potential superstars on defense and Wilson has that ceiling.

Heading towards the Lions’ next selection at pick No. 18, defensive back has been a very popular selection. The first off the board was corner Devon Witherspoon (Illinois) at pick No. 14, followed by Porter at No. 17, leaving the Lions with …

Round 1, pick No. 18: Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon

Here’s Kiper’s reasoning:

“Jeff Okudah flashed the talent that made him the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, but he was still inconsistent, and there’s no surefire starter on the other side of the field. Gonzalez was a lockdown defender at Colorado before transferring to Oregon last year, where he picked off four passes and improved every week. He’s going to test really well at the combine in March too. This pick makes too much sense for a Detroit defense that badly needs an infusion of young talent in the secondary.”

The pairing of the Lions with Gonzalez makes a lot of sense, as his physical attributes and experience match well with the Lions’ defense. In coverage, his press skills, off-coverage range, and instincts make him a potential CB1 in the NFL. On tape, he’s not quite as physical against the run as the Lions’ prefer, but it’s not clear if that is a product of Oregon’s scheme or the player himself. This is surely something the Lions will explore and hope it is an adjustment he can make because he has a ton of skills that fit the modern game.

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