ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions were on the clock with the No. 10 pick during the first round of the 2014 draft.
Almost immediately, the Lions called the pick in and had the card brought up to the stage. Four future Pro Bowlers would go in the next 10 picks after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell read tight end Eric Ebron's name to the Lions that night.
Three of the four Pro Bowlers taken after him were at positions of need for Detroit -- wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 12, New York Giants), offensive lineman Zack Martin (No. 16, Dallas) and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (No. 13, St. Louis).
Ebron has set career-highs in catches (31), yards (357) and touchdowns (4) already in 2015. But fair or not, he’ll often be compared to Donald with the obvious question of what if the Lions had taken Donald over Ebron in 2014.
While the Lions had Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley under contract at the time, all were entering the final years of their deals. By the time the 2015 season started, all three would be playing elsewhere.
Donald would have fit a massive need in the middle of the Lions' defensive line. That he already amassed 102 tackles and 17 sacks in less than two seasons just adds to the scenario.
So how did Donald, who Detroit will face Sunday, become a Ram instead of a Lion?
“Just like anybody else, we look at them thoroughly,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We look at them really closely, see where they fit in, see what we think. He was a guy that we certainly liked.”
So what made the Lions -- then led by general manager Martin Mayhew and Caldwell -- go with Donald over Ebron?
“There’s a lot of different factors that go into it,” Caldwell said. “But at that particular point and time, Eric was a guy that we needed.”
One thing that became clear Thursday was there were no issues with Donald from defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Austin said “I didn’t have any” concerns about taking Donald at No. 10. When asked how hard he lobbied for him in the draft room that night, the defensive coordinator said nothing.
Then he smiled wide. He had already said how much he liked Donald.
“There’s always going to be guys that are drafted that you’d love to have and he’s one of those guys,” Austin said. “But the way the board shook out and what we drafted, that’s how it works. All we do as coaches is we offer our opinion, the scouts have a much better knowledge of everybody, they watch more film than we have and rank the players accordingly.
“So they draft off the board and how they have them ranked and that’s how it goes. We can lobby for a guy, but the bottom line is if the guy is not in the right pecking order, we go another way.”
So what would the Lions look like if they had gone with Donald instead of Ebron? It’s tough to truly say, but Detroit likely does not draft Caraun Reid in the fifth round that year. The Lions might have looked to offense in the second round instead of taking linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has yet to make an impact in Detroit.
In 2014, the Lions would have had a defensive tackle rotation of Suh, Fairley, Donald and Mosley, which could have turned the league’s top-ranked run defense into something even more formidable.
It’s impossible to actually know how Donald would have fit in Detroit’s scheme -- except for this: Fairley left the Lions for the Rams during the offseason and noticed minimal differences in the defenses.
“Really, there isn’t a difference,” Fairley said. “You have two guys that are going to come off of the ends. The style of play that we are is an attack defense as it was there in Detroit. Then we have two guys that are going to come up the middle and just put pressure on the quarterback in the B-Gap.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher “hoped” Donald would be available when St. Louis picked and said that he looks like a “fifth-or-sixth-year veteran player.” By the time the draft rolled around, Fisher said he had “a good feeling” Donald would fall to them and that selecting him “was a no-brainer for us.”
And Fairley had no doubt about Donald’s fit in Detroit.
“He’d fit in well. The type of player that he is, he’s an attack-type player that’ll go get in your backfield and try to mess havoc,” Fairley said. “And that’s the type of D-line that the Detroit Lions would like to have. So I think he would fit well.”
But all of that leads to a giant what-if -- something no one will ever know.
“One of the things that you have the benefit of is hindsight,” Caldwell said. “And so when you look at it, we don’t look back. We make our choices and we move forward with it.
“You never worry about that after that.”