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Mel Kiper beefs up defense with both first-round picks

One of the NFL’s prominent draft analysts has released his first 2023 mock draft. And with two first-round picks for the Detroit Lions, we’d be doing a disservice to ignore the information, even if we’re still three months out from names being called and calls from commissioner Roger Goodell live in Kansas City.

So let’s break it down: Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN has the Lions (subscription required) going defense with both the sixth overall pick and the 18th overall pick April 27.

First, note Kiper did not project any trades — “it’s still a little bit early to assess which teams could move up and what it would take to get there” — and has three quarterbacks going in the first five picks: Ohio State’s CJ Stroud to Houston at No. 2, Alabama’s Bryce Young to Indianapolis at no. 4 and Kentucky’s Will Levis to Seattle at No. 5.

Despite Kiper picking Stroud to Houston, he actually has him third on his QB board, “barely” behind the other two, and admits “it’s going to be a close race through April.” He sees Stroud as the best fit for Houston due to his accuracy and “excellent touch at every level of the field.”

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Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud looks to pass against Michigan State during the second half at Spartan Stadium, Oct. 8, 2022.

Seattle is the big question near the top of the draft, awaiting a decision on pending free agent Geno Smith. Kiper suggests the Seahawks could franchise tag him and coach up Levis — an admittedly polarizing prospect. “There will be a general manager in the top 10 who sees Levis’ positives over the negatives,” Kiper wrote, adding Levis is ahead of fellow rookie QBs in learning a pro-style offense, because he played in one at Kentucky.

That sets the table for the Lions at No. 6 via the Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff trade with the Los Angeles Rams two years ago. Detroit’s defense, Kiper points out, ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards per play allowed (6.2) and opponent QBR (55.9), so you know where he’s going with this pick. The question is, which prospect?

How about a rare Big 12 defender in Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, whom Kiper calls the top true defensive end in the draft class.

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Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson on Sept.  17, 2022.

Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson on Sept. 17, 2022.

“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,” Kiper writes. “An edge-rushing duo of Wilson and Aidan Hutchinson would be formidable, with surprise rookie James Houston working in on obvious passing downs.”

Wilson, 275 pounds and from Henderson, Texas, had 61 tackles (36 solo), including 14 for a loss and seven sacks in 10 games before a foot injury that required surgery ended his season. His Red Raiders’ bio says he “benefited greatly from the switch to an edge rusher position in defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s scheme.”

Wilson in 538 defensive snaps was given a 74.5 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2022, and his 50 QB pressures were among the national leaders.

Kiper doesn’t rule out the Lions going with a QB if they fall in love with a prospect that remains available with this first pick, although in this scenario, the top three are already taken.

“General manager Brad Holmes will likely take a close look at this (QB) class and weigh each passer against veteran Jared Goff,” Kiper writes.

At no. 18, Kiper has the Lions select Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, who seems to be a popular pick for the Lions’ needy secondary.

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Washington Huskies receiver Jalen McMillan catches a pass for a first down against Oregon Ducks defensive back Christian Gonzalez in Eugene, Oregon, Nov.  12, 2022.

Washington Huskies receiver Jalen McMillan catches a pass for a first down against Oregon Ducks defensive back Christian Gonzalez in Eugene, Oregon, Nov. 12, 2022.

“Gonzalez was a lockdown defender at Colorado before transferring to Oregon last year, where he picked off four passes and improved every week,” Kiper writes. “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.”

Gonzalez, a redshirt sophomore from The Colony, Texas, is big at 6 feet 2 and 201 pounds. He was named this season to the Coaches All-Pac-12 first team, and Pac-12 second team by the Associated Press and PFF.

He finished with 50 total tackles and 118 return yards on his four interceptions. He tied for sixth in the conference with 11 passes defended, and earned an 81.2 overall grade from PFF, fourth among Pac-12 cornerbacks, and 81.4 coverage grade, also fourth.

Back to the top: Kiper has the Chicago Bears taking Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter with the first overall pick, should they end up sticking. However, a trade with one of the QB-desperate teams would not surprise. Young is the favorite to go first overall, according to sportsbooks, with Stroud also favored well ahead of any non-QB.

Will Anderson Jr., the fierce Alabama edge disruptor who had 54 tackles for loss the past two seasons combined, went third overall to the Arizona Cardinals.

See all 31 first-round picks from Kiper.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions NFL mock draft: Kiper beefs up defense with both picks

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