ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The Detroit Lions were on the clock that night in 2014, and general manager Martin Mayhew quickly made his decision. The options were plentiful. The franchise, having just hired Jim Caldwell in the hopes of breaking out of the monotony of mediocrity it had been in for a half-century, was once again drafting in the top 10.
As the well-worn story goes, the Lions could have taken Odell Beckham Jr., Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Ryan Shazier or an undersized defensive tackle out of Pittsburgh who had college production similar to Detroit’s own All-Pro, Ndamukong Suh.
By now, everyone knows the way the Lions went. Instead of Aaron Donald, the Lions selected pass-catching tight end Eric Ebron. The thought of what could have been has both Ebron and the Lions, especially with how everything unfolded since that moment, has remained – especially with Detroit heading toward another top-10 pick this season.
Suh, who left for Miami in 2015, joined the Rams this offseason. That gave Los Angeles the interior defensive line the Lions could have had five seasons ago.
“It’s a really unique challenge,” Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said of Suh and Donald. “You see different challenges in this league, especially up front. Is it an edge rusher? Is it an interior player? Is it one of each?
“To have multiple interior players who are excellent players in this league, it is a challenge. It is a different challenge.”
It’s one the Lions could have possessed – at least for one year if not more. The ripples of the Lions choosing Ebron over Donald can be felt now because that one decision might have given Detroit an alternative history brighter than the one it currently possesses.
Start with 2014. That team is often considered the best one the Lions have had since Barry Sanders. The Lions went 11-5 and lost in the wild-card round at Dallas.
Detroit knew entering the season the majority of their interior defensive line were heading into contract years. Suh, former first-round pick Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley were all impact players on the line. All would be gone by the time 2015 began.
The 2014 defensive line was the heart of a Lions defense that was historically good against the run (69.3 yards allowed per game, 3.17 yards per carry) and finished No. 2 in the league in total defense and No. 3 in points allowed (17.63).
Now imagine that line with Donald, who had 48 tackles, nine sacks and two forced fumbles as a rookie. Even if he didn’t approximate those stats, he would have given Detroit an almost impenetrable unit with Suh, Fairley, Donald, edge rushers Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor and good edge containers in Jason Jones and Darryl Tapp. They were perfect fits for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s scheme.
The depth and talent approximates what the Rams have now.
“They created a mini defensive line from Detroit,” Tapp said. “Like everybody’s a threat at any given time. That would have truly been something special to see. Had he been in Detroit at that point in time, that would have been exciting, but things kind of happened.
“I’m happy that Suh is getting to play with another supreme talent as himself.”
How the year ended – a 24-20 loss to Dallas in the playoffs – was a combination of many factors: A conservative offense in the second half, a blown penalty call, a poor punt from Sam Martin and the defense folding for one of the few times all year on a game-winning drive from Tony Romo.
Would Donald have changed that? Possibly. It’s also possible Detroit wins the NFC North for the first time since 1993 and then hosts its first playoff game of the new millennium with Donald making even two-thirds of his impact as a rookie with the Rams – especially since Fairley suffered a knee injury in the middle of the year that ended his season.
The Lions are now 25 years without a division title.
“I think we would be in the NFC Championship game,” Tapp said. “We had a really truly good team in 2014. That was one of my missed years. There are three years where I thought I had my opportunity to get a ring and that was definitely one of ‘em. Everything was clicking.
“The team chemistry was good. The powers that be, the community service, the outreach program, everything at that point in 2014 was the same page. You could feel it each and every day you went into work and each and every day we stepped on the field on game day, we had no doubt we would win the game. It was just a matter of how we were going to do it, but we had no doubt. That was a special year.”
It was one that – like every other year in the Super Bowl era – ultimately fell short. What happened in the years after was a complete franchise overhaul, but it’s fair to wonder how much would have occurred had the Lions gone with Donald over Ebron (or, really, any option).
Suh departed for a then-record contract in Miami – but Tapp said had Donald been around, there’s a chance Suh might have thought a little bit harder about staying in Detroit, a place he still has business dealings (although in reality he likely still would have left). The line, in particular, was close – Tapp said they still participate in a group text five years later.
Detroit moved on from Fairley and Mosley, trading for Haloti Ngata. Ngata spent all preseason on PUP, missed two games during the first half of the regular season and didn’t become a true factor until after Detroit’s bye.
By then, the Lions had started 0-5, were 1-7 and on their way to 7-9. The midway point of the year cost Mayhew, team president Tom Lewand and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, whose side of the ball had its issues, their jobs.
“I got to believe it would have been a different story having Donald anchor,” Tapp said. “Nothing to knock Haloti but at that point in time, he was old like me. Having a young, athletic, tenacious defensive tackle. A guy that had double-digit sacks his first year, a guy that thrived in rushing the passer but was also second-to-none with stopping the run would have helped us out a lot.”
That season led to the eventual hiring of current team president Rod Wood and general manager Bob Quinn. Two years later, after back-to-back 9-7 seasons following 2015, Quinn fired Caldwell and Austin, replacing them with Detroit’s current staff, led by Matt Patricia.
If Detroit had taken Donald – a player Austin said he would “love to have” when facing him in 2015 – it is possible Mayhew, Lewand and Caldwell would still be employed by the Lions, especially if they had won a playoff game or divisional title. Austin, a hot head coaching candidate for three seasons, might have landed a job.
The player the Lions took instead of Donald – Ebron -- was released in March. Throughout the four seasons where he showed improvement year-over-year, he became a fan villain. He was constantly booed in 2017, in part because fans never believed he lived up to the pick – and who Detroit could have had instead. Ebron signed with Indianapolis. He’s tied for the NFL lead with 11 touchdowns and looks like the Pro Bowler Mayhew had hoped he’d become.
Meanwhile the Lions are now 25 years removed from a division title and 27 from a playoff win. Only a handful of key players on offense or defense – Ansah, Matthew Stafford, Theo Riddick, Darius Slay and Glover Quin – remain from that team.
It’s tough to truly say what would have happened had Mayhew made a different decision in 2014. The draft, as Tapp pointed out when he said he didn’t blame Mayhew or Caldwell for the decision, is never a sure thing.
But Donald seemed awful close to it. That’s shown since. And the Lions, well, they’ll have to see what could have been on the other side of the field Sunday afternoon.