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Published: Friday, 2/20/2009

No sure bet, but Lions have best odds at draft

The Detroit Lions are on the clock, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., one of the foremost authorities on the upcoming NFL draft.

But it isn't a safe thing, either.

"I don't care how you slice it, the Lions have to go with a quarterback," Kiper said in a recent interview. "They don't have one quarterback on the roster they can be comfortable with."

The Lions have restructured a deal with Daunte Culpepper, but not with any thought of him being a long-term starter. He's in the fold to become a mentor and, eventually, the veteran backup.

Detroit will likely choose between Matthew Stafford of Georgia and USC's Mark Sanchez. The former has one of the biggest arms ever; the latter throws more accurately on the move and is more instinctive.

But neither, said Kiper, is a "super-elite prospect," and there are a number of teams that don't rate either as No. 1 on the draft board. That's where the Lions are scheduled to pick on April 25.

The general consensus is that Stafford has a slight edge, but Kiper said he has a lot to prove at the NFL Combine now playing out in Indianapolis.

"Very few quarterbacks have ever come out in the draft, maybe three or four ever, who can throw the football like Matthew Stafford can," Kiper said. "But if he's going to solidify the No. 1 pick he has to show everybody at the combine that he's not just a thrower, but a pitcher, that he's got more than a 100-mile-per-hour fastball and can take a little off. Can he feather it? He'll have to show he can finesse it and improve his accuracy."

The apprehension with either of the two top quarterbacks is their readiness to play. Both left college early, which, said Kiper, "is a dangerous concern. And they're both going to be asked to be very good very early in their careers."

That's because of what Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco accomplished as rookies in 2008. Ryan was the first quarterback to go in the last draft, taken No. 3 overall by Atlanta. Baltimore then moved picks around the board like chess pieces to trade up to No. 18 and nab Delaware's Flacco. Just months later, both teams were in the playoffs.

"People were laughing at Flacco, and Baltimore was ostracized for trading up," Kiper recalled. "There's always risk. But sometimes there is great reward too."

Some experts feel the

Lions won't be up to such a risk - think Joey Harrington - although laughter shouldn't bother a franchise that has been ridiculed for years.

But Detroit, which also has the No. 20 pick in the first round, could go in another direction. A new regime could opt to rebuild from the line out and use the No. 1 selection on the top offensive lineman in the draft, perhaps Alabama tackle Andre Smith. Then, later, the Lions might trade up a few spots from No. 20 and pluck big-bodied, big-armed Josh Freeman out of Kansas State, a quarterback who Kiper said "could be the buzz of the draft" despite concerns over deep-ball accuracy.

The only sure thing about the NFL draft is that there's no sure thing.

"You definitely can't say anything for sure about quarterbacks," Kiper said. "Remember, not everybody liked Peyton Manning when he came out. Some liked Ryan Leaf better."

The Lions should be shaking like a leaf at that comparison. But they wouldn't mind landing a Manning.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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