Lions draft class first impressions: What Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown and others bring to Detroit (2024)

Between OTAs (if they happen), training camp and the preseason, we should get a decent idea of how the Lions plan to use their rookies during the 2021 season. Until then, what better time than now to discuss the possibilities.

Our initial impressions after rolling back the tape on Detroit’s draft class:

Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

Nick Baumgardner: There are a couple of games of Sewell’s at Oregon where you turn them on and think out loud: “Does he bury someone like this on every snap?” And after fast forwarding for a while you discover that, no, he’s not actually perfect — but, my God.


Chris, your early thoughts here? We know Sewell. But the more you watch, the more ridiculous of a prospect he becomes.

Chris Burke: So, we’re going to do deep dives on a few of these picks — this is more of a “first impressions” thing here — but I’ll mention the two things that really jumped out to me with Sewell. First is that he’s always looking for his next block, just constantly processing whether he’s facing stunts, blitzes or operating in space. And second, I just cannot wait to see him out in front on screen plays. He is lethal with how he gets out and finds guys, and undersized defenders do not stand a chance once he locks on.

What stood out as you watched him a little more?

Baumgardner: His body control as an athlete is just stupid good. Like, even when he’s just in a 3-point stance — you watch him squat down, move and twist to read what’s going on pre-snap. Little stuff like that, it reminds me of watching Frank Ragnow a bit in that way — his body is never out of control. I’m so glad you mentioned how he’s always looking for his next block — and unlike most tackles, he’s actually capable of picking up multiple “whoa” blocks in one play. I have countless examples clipped up; I’m sure you do, too.

One of my favorites is from his game against Derrick Brown and Auburn. On a screen, he releases at the line of scrimmage and just punches a DB into the ground 8 yards off the ball. He does all this without falling down, or even so much as losing his balance. And still has a chance to hit someone else. You do not see stuff like this from college tackles. Can’t wait to get into more.

Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington

Baumgardner: Other than his ability to weave expletives into terrific sound bytes, what’s the first thing you thought of when you turned on Onwuzurike’s tape?


Burke: How much he’s going to benefit from having not just Michael Brockers but Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara to teach him. Because I can see some of Brockers’ game in how Onwuzurike fires off the ball and uses that speed/power combo to whip interior O-linemen. But I think he also can play as a five-tech — maybe wider. His burst upfield would be tough to deal with from anywhere up front.

Something else that popped for me (and wanted to get your thoughts on): He’s exactly the type of guy Detroit wants for its new scheme, right? The way he can play in a gap, then wipe out a second gap when he slants … I mean, that’s it.

Revisited ‘19 tape to refresh why @UW_Football DT Levi Onwuzurike was top-10 graded overall for 2021 Senior Bowl. @LeviOnw is an active & impactful do-it-all IDL that can play doubles and penetrate. Consistently creates for everyone around him. Stats don’t do him any justice.

— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) March 16, 2021

Baumgardner: Yes. He checks all the boxes Aaron Glenn is going to want out of a versatile tackle-end type. Can definitely envision scenarios where he’s aligned head-up vs. a tackle, and then he just slants down into the guard’s hip and knocks the hell out of everything. He can cause havoc and chaos with his burst off the snap. Exactly what they want.

The Brockers point is so important because Onwuzurike needs work. His hand placement is sloppy. There are times when he goes to punch and he’ll sort of whiff. But what makes him so special athletically is that even when he whiffs, he’s still so smooth on his feet, he doesn’t lose his balance and he finds a way to restabilize himself as he continues to push the pocket. He has a chance to be an elite disruptor. Curious what type of work load he gets, or maybe how this shakes out. Sorting the DL early was kind of tough when we did it.

Burke: I think that pertains to other spots, too. Matt Patricia claimed his defense was multiple, and I guess technically it was, but everything was so telegraphed — early downs, it was Nick Williams, a nose tackle, Trey Flowers and Jarrad Davis or Jahlani Tavai; passing downs, they’d swap out most of those guys for their sub-package group.


Having Brockers, Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Okwara and Flowers means you can bounce between three- and four-man looks without having to adjust personnel. That’s huge.

Alim McNeill, DT, NC State

Burke: While we’re talking about roles … what do you think here? McNeill was almost exclusively a heads-up nose tackle in NC State’s scheme. Is he a guy the Lions can use to one-gap? Can he be out there on passing downs?

Baumgardner: So, this is McNeill as a 280-pound high school linebacker. He also played running back. This is the type of athlete you’re getting inside here. He has that outstanding lower-body flexibility (he still moves like a linebacker, by the way) and can just squat and punch centers and guards over the ball. Just inhales gaps.

But, uh … as you see here: This is an athlete. His 20-yard split was faster than Onwuzurike’s and Onwuzurike is fast as hell for a man his size. The Lions went back-to-back DL here and this is why. This guy … I don’t think we’ve even come close to seeing everything he might be able to do. The biggest question mark, though, is the proof. He has elite traits. He’s not an elite player yet. That said, I mean … he’s starting, right?

Burke: I think he has to. Whether their base is going to be more of the Saints’ 4-2-5 or the Rams’ sort of hybrid 3-4, I don’t see any better grouping than Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Brockers and then McNeill on the ball. And, again, Detroit has versatility to change based on the opponent. But McNeill is a clear athletic upgrade on John Penisini, without losing the run-stuffing Penisini brought last season.

Ifeatu Melifonwu, DB, Syracuse

Baumgardner: Sewell is the best athlete in this class. But Melifonwu might be the second best — and in a class filled with freaky types, that’s saying something. I’m going to come out and ask you this right off the bat, and note we will be getting deeper into Melifonwu, because he’s a fascinating prospect: Do you think he can be a safety or are you leaving him at corner?

Burke: You know, I watched Melifonwu a little before the Lions drafted him, but that question was front and center as I went back in. At his size (6-2, 205), a cornerback has to move really well — Patrick Surtain II has about the same measurements — or things can get clunky on the edge.


And the good news is that Melifonwu’s movements look like they can hold up at corner. I was surprised by how smooth his footwork is, especially when he had to flip his hips and run with the types of wide receivers he saw from Clemson or North Carolina. I get why they like him.

Baumgardner: Yeah, Holmes was so excited about Melifonwu’s work in off/zone coverage on Friday night, I went back Saturday early and made a point to watch some of that and it’s all I can see now: He picks up routes in off coverage and flips his hips in stride like a natural safety. All the way. Same time, he’s so long and has a lot of really good press traits.

He feels hybrid-ish to me. If nothing else, the goal here is to get Melifonwu to a place where the staff is comfortable walking him out against twitchy slot tight ends. This could be the answer to the question we’ve been asking about this Lions defense for a good minute: Can anyone here cover a tight end?

Burke: Right. On the one hand, I could see the coaching staff pinning Melifonwu to Quinton Dunbar’s hip and saying, “Do everything he does.” On the other, though, is their need for that big, physical hybrid option. Eventually, that could be the play. I’m not sure Melifonwu can live there, exclusively, right out of the gate.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC

Burke: So, you got some Robert Woods vibes from St. Brown. I noticed a little Cooper Kupp in how he sets up his routes over the middle. Maybe those are too obvious, given the Rams hook. Fair to say we both liked what we saw here, though. What’s the main selling point?

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— All-American Bowl (@AABonNBC) December 7, 2020

Baumgardner: He’s a high-floor player and, athletically, he and Woods are really similar. Can see what you noted about Kupp, too. He’s a very sturdy player — some scouts would probably call him boring. But “boring” doesn’t equal “bad.” In many ways, a boring wide receiver can be one of the most valuable pieces on your roster.

He’s a disciplined route runner who tracks the ball as well as anyone you’ll watch in this class. He plays through contact. He has good hands. He can squat in zones and catch a bunch of passes out of the slot to help keep the offense on schedule. That’ll be his job here and I think that’s doable pretty quickly. Not WR1, but he won’t be asked to turn into WR1. Maybe even a boring returner? I think you know what I’m getting at with that …

Burke: Yeah, it’s entirely possible they give him some looks as their trustworthy, hands guy there, like Danny Amendola was last year. I’ll throw out one more name that jumped into my head watching St. Brown: James Jones. He made a living as one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite targets by making himself open even when he wasn’t open, if that makes sense. He was great right at the catch point of creating a little window, and St. Brown does that.


I’m excited about this guy, so I’ll wrap it up here before I get long-winded. But if defenses need to roll safeties over top of Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman because of their speed, St. Brown will carve up those open coverages downfield. He killed college secondaries with slot fades and skinny posts.

Derrick Barnes, LB, Purdue

Baumgardner: He grows on ya. I’ll say that. He still moves like a running back. I think he sees the game like a running back. I have questions, but he’s fun. Thoughts?

Burke: Holmes was pretty quick to note that Barnes (and the two defensive linemen) were athletic, modern-day versions of more traditional defenders. So, whereas Barnes might have been a 4-3 middle linebacker two decades ago, he’s now a guy who can track running backs into the flat or be a useful chip rushing off the edge. I’m not sure they need to find a specific role for him right away.

I’m curious to hear your questions about his game, because they’re probably going to need him to be on the field early.

Baumgardner: He has a really nice feel for mirroring running back paths. But if he misses a step and a guard catches him, he’s going for a ride. And it’s not going to be real pretty, at least not right away. So most of it, right now, will be about his play strength. His hands are ridiculously strong, I’ll say that. But can he find an answer if he has to shed a guy? That would be a concern for me right now.

But otherwise, he’s what you want. He’s not Devin Bush Jr. fast but he’s in the ballpark. He can get sideline to sideline and when they let him work OTs off the edge he showed off those hands (nobody got to his chest) and his burst. Also apparently a big-time teammate. Which is really the case across the board here and should probably be noted.

Burke: We did the Rams-comparison thing with St. Brown. I’ll flip over the Saints here, because I think they could view Barnes as eventually being what Demario Davis has been in New Orleans. He’s an All-Pro, so that’s a high bar. But he’s given that defense a little bit of everything — 100 tackles per year, a dozen pass breakups in 2019, consistent sacks/QB hits. Barnes could develop into that sort of all-around defender, if he hammers out those issues.


Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State

Update:The Lions are waiving 2018 second-round RB Kerryon Johnson, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday night. It’s a bit of a surprise given that new assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley has stressed the importance of blocking for his running backs, and that’s where Johnson has been at his best over the past two seasons. But Johnson also landed on IR in both ‘18 and ‘19 because of a knee injury, and he saw a career-low 71 touches last season (52 rushing attempts for 181 yards; 19 catches for 187 yards). Plus, the Lions seem high on Jefferson thus far. On SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday, Lions coach Dan Campbell revealed that they had Jefferson rated well above where they took him, at No. 257 overall. “When you turn on the tape, this kid’s a football player,” Campbell said. “He had some of the fastest play speeds of any back in this draft — I think he might have been second behind Najee Harris. … For me, halfbacks, I don’t necessarily care about speed. I care about vision and toughness and smarts, and this kid hits every one of them.”

The Lions also signed two UDFA backs, Arkansas’ Rakeem Boyd and Nebraska’s Dedrick Mills.

Baumgardner: Jefferson was the guy they made us wait around for. My favorite quote of his Saturday afternoon was when someone asked him what it’ll be like running behind a rival Oregon Duck in Sewell and he was like: I think it’ll be just fine.

Thoughts on Mr. Jefferson?

Burke: Can I toss out a name for you that local folks will recognize, and you can tell me if I’m crazy? Karan Higdon. That’s the style I kept getting in Jefferson — patient at the line, quick through a hole when he sees it, and then finishes runs on the end. Nothing flashy. Nothing that’s going to wow you all that much, physically. Just a solid, one-cut back who’s going to produce if the line gives him a chance.

Baumgardner: Good call. He really sets people up well, uses his whole body to cut and shifts laterally through defenders with a lot of really natural feel. He’s not a home-run hitter but he’s not trying to be either. That, more than anything else, has been my favorite part of his tape.

He knows what he’s good at, he knows what he’s not good at and he’s not trying to do anything but the former. If you’re a running back who has figured that out, you’re halfway there. Not a big-time athlete, but if your offensive line is awesome … he might find some yards.


Burke: I do wonder if he can help on third downs. He caught a bunch of passes in 2018, so that’s a hint he can, but Kerryon Johnson is a borderline elite blocker for the position. Jefferson (or the UDFA backs, Rakeem Boyd and Dedrick Mills) won’t be able to get any higher than RB4 if Johnson laps them in passing situations.

(Top photo of Penei Sewell: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lions draft class first impressions: What Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown and others bring to Detroit (2024)
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