The Detroit Lions came into the 2013 NFL Draft with substantial holes to address and some statements to make about players already on their roster. The Lions’ cupboard was bare at the defensive end after releasing Kyle Vanden Bosch and basically letting Cliff Avril walk in free agency. Complicating things further was the retirement of Jeff Backus after a dozen years playing the left tackle spot and being the only one Matthew Stafford has ever known. Last year, the Lions drafted Riley Reiff, who some believed could play left tackle but with Backus, was playing right tackle, so the natural question with the Lions approach to the draft was whether they believed Reiff could play left tackle and protect their franchise quarterback. The Lions also had a decent sized hole at corner and brought in resigned Chris Houston to lessen the issue. Over the past few years, the Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has ignored needs, opting for the best player available which has had success but some big misses in the past years on players with character concerns (Titus Young for example) have left the Lions in a lurch trying to plug a number of holes while being a competitor in a difficult division and Mayhew’s job may be on the line with this draft depending on the first year’s returns.
With the fifth pick in the draft, the Lions never had a chance to decide if they wanted one of the top tackles in this draft, but they opted to address the substantial hole at defensive end by selecting Ezekiel Ansah from BYU. Ansah was one of the biggest boom or bust picks in the entire draft as he had limited football experience after picking up the game after initially going to BYU from Ghana for track. He was slightly older for a project player of this caliber at 24, but his physical tools are incredible. At about 6’4” 270lbs, Ansah has impressive strength, speed, and agility and flashed at times what he could be for the Cougars, though his production was limited.
It ultimately remains to be seen where Ansah will line up, but he is a power player that excels at stacking and shedding opposing offensive linemen. Many criticized the fact he played so much interior line for Coach Mendenhall at BYU but he was a disruptive player inside than he was on the outside. When he used good leverage, he could overwhelm opponents, collapse the pocket, and either make plays himself or create plays for teammates. He certainly has the speed to come off the edge but he has shown limited ankle flexibility which makes it difficult to bend around the edge on the outside. He is far better going through them than trying to go around them but if he can develop and learn, he could keep opponents off balance by having both.
One of the things that could really help Ansah and ultimately make this a devastating defensive line is the presence of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley playing the defensive tackle positions. Their ability to draw double teams and disrupt could give Ansah favorable matchups and opportunities to excel. Ansah may need to develop and could have a limited impact as a pass rusher as a rookie, but he should be fantastic as a run defender and between him and the signing of Jason Jones to play the other end spot, the Lions have a significant amount of size and strength on the defensive line to clamp down on the run.
In the second round, the Lions opted to address the hole at corner by picking Darius Slay from Mississippi State. The Lions made it clear what they want on the outside of this defense. Man cover corners with speed. Slay is still a little raw and needs experience to get more comfortable in certain aspects of his game but he has shown some impressive talent as a cover corner and the willingness to mix it up and make tackles in the running game in addition to impressive triangle numbers. Slay is tall, fast, and strong for a corner. The biggest thing Slay needs to continue his development is game reps. He needs to get more comfortable playing in the receiver’s hip pocket and had too many situations where he gave up too much space to receivers which caused him to give up plays. Slay has shown decent ball skills as well but has had some instances where it appears he got stage fright and dropped balls he should not have; with experience will come comfort and making the most of those opportunities.
The most natural fit for Slay is to have him play the strong side corner and keep Houston play on the weak side but that is if they decide to maintain sides, which is yet to be determined. Slay is more than willing to attack the run and help in that area so playing on the strong side makes a great deal of sense allowing Houston to be able to focus more on coverage. The Lions would prefer Slay come out and earn the job over a guy like Bill Bentley, another young corner, but the Lions may have Slay learn on the job this year and learn by doing. Because so much of what he needs is game reps, having him play nickel is possible but they want him to start and the more reps he gets, the faster he will adjust to the NFL and for the Lions’ sake, hopefully reach his high ceiling.
In the third round, the Lions jumped on an opportunity and picked Larry Warford, guard from Kentucky. A favorite among draftniks, there were many who believed Warford was a borderline first round talent art guard and the Lions were able to grab him at the top of round three. He is a classic mauler of a right guard who demonstrates a ton of power at the point of attack and can really help the Lions attack their weakness with running the football. The last few years, the Lions have been near the bottom of the league in rushing yards and it has put a significant amount of pressure on Stafford to generate all of their offense. The first, second, and sometimes third option was throwing the ball and running represented a changeup and trying to catch defenses by surprise. They have had issues with backs staying healthy and Jahvid Best’s career may be over due to concussions and Mikel LeShoure had an ACL his rookie year so this is the year he might be back to 100%. The Lions also signed Reggie Bush to help in this area.
Warford is a pretty good bet to compete and likely start right away at the right guard spot. He played well at about 335lbs this past year but for the sake of his lateral agility in pass protection, he might want to drop a little weight to get quicker and work better in space. Warford is talented but the situation on the right side of the line is precarious. Their center is 34 year old Dominic Raiola and currently, they are yet to be decided at right tackle with guys like Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox the likely competitors. There are a couple solid free agent options that might be able to come in and work as a stopgap option and help ease the transition for Warford. A rookie at right guard and a question mark at right tackle could be a huge risk for Stafford in a division loaded with pass rushers. The pick appears to be a good one that could give them a solution at right guard for years to come but that is a tough situation to walk into to try and learn.
In the fourth round with a compensatory selection, the Lions went back to the defensive line and took defensive end Devin Taylor from South Carolina. Taylor is another impressive athlete with incredible triangle numbers who really aced the postseason process. He was a dominant player at the East-West Shrine Game week and had eye-popping results at the Scouting Combine. The problem is that this version of Taylor never seemed to show up for the Gamecocks.
On a team that had Jadeveon Clowney on one side, Taylor was not able to take advantage that often of the lack of attention he was getting. Taylor was the third defensive end last year when Melvin Ingram was playing opposite Clowney. Taylor made mention of the fact that he felt freer to play up to his talent at the Shrine Game because it was simple. Perhaps it was that easy an answer and keeping it simple allowed Taylor to play up to his talent but the natural concern from there is his ability to learn and master the defensive scheme he will learn in the NFL.
The situation Taylor comes into with the Lions is a good one as they seem to like having tall, long defensive ends and Taylor is exactly that at 6’7”. He is able to work behind Jones and Ansah and rotate in as a player off the edge. One of the areas that would really help Taylor in the NFL is adding bulk to his frame. He is tall but was quite lean at South Carolina and getting up to around 280lbs would help him hold up at the point of attack and could help make him more effective using power moves. There is a substantial amount of potential with Taylor for the long term and if the Lions coaching staff can tap into it, the long term duo of Taylor and Ansah on the edges, with those talented defensive tackles in the middle, could be a big, athletic, dynamic line that can play the run and get after the quarterback.
In the fifth round, after trading down to the end of the round with the Seahawks for an extra sixth round pick, the Lions picked a punter; Appalachian State’s Sam Martin. He only punted one year in high school but was a soccer player for much of his career. He will kick in camp against Blake Clingan, but unless he completely falls on his face or gets injured, Clingan will eventually be cut and the job will go to Martin. Not only was Sam Martin the first punter to be selected but he was not one that people were really aware of during the draft process.
The Lions had a pair of sixth round picks and used the first one on Corey Fuller, wide receiver from Virginia Tech. Fuller gives the Lions a nice combination of size, speed, and athleticism. Fuller originally went to Kansas for track but opted to transfer after his sophomore year to be closer to his brother, Kyle, and made little impact as a junior. As a senior, Fuller had a good year with 43 catches for 815 yards and six touchdowns. Fuller is still raw and working on his technique but he made huge strides and by the end of his senior year started getting some buzz. Most of the focus was on his teammate Marcus Davis but there were some draftniks who liked Fuller better and he ultimately got the nod between the two and represents a nice value for the Lions.
The Lions have arguably the best receiver in all of football in Calvin Johnson, but the Lions have struggled in finding other receivers to give Stafford more options. Titus Young proved a disaster and Nate Burleson is average. The Lions opted to trade for Mike Thomas in exchange for a fourth round pick and is their projected slot receiver. Fuller represents a project but if his development over the past two years is any indication, he could have a bright future and be a steal for the Lions.
With their other sixth round pick, the Lions opted to add more competition in the backfield with running back Theo Riddick from Notre Dame. Riddick has had a loyal following of draftniks who really liked him as a third day option. Riddick is intriguing because he has shown talent as a running back as a speed threat but he has experience in the slot as a receiver as well as out of the backfield. Initially, Riddick appears to be a great option to potentially contribute on third downs and obvious passing situations because he is effectively an extra receiver in the backfield who can block a little bit. The Lions seem to really like these slashing backs that offer speed. Their biggest back in terms of size and the willingness to use power is LeShoure but it seems like the Lions really want to use a large amount of single back formations to get these guys out in space as quickly as possible.
Riddick is similar to Reggie Bush in the ways he can contribute for the offense as a runner and receiving threat. It is going to be interesting to see how many running backs the Lions keep coming out of camp but this seems like further evidence that Best is not going to play this year, if he ever can again and the last running back spot competition between Riddick, Joique Bell, and Steven Miller.
The Lions had two seventh round picks and used the first on Alabama tight end Michael Williams. What stands out about this pick is in many ways, Williams is a poor man’s version of Brandon Pettigew, the Lions starting tight end. Both guys are extremely effective blockers that are basically undersized linemen but Williams is not the receiving threat that Pettigrew is. Williams is not a guy who is going to stretch the field but he has a knack for finding areas in space to get open and he is a big bodied target that can take up a ton of space and will catch the ball if reliably when given the chance.
Still, the 6’5” 270lb tight end figures to come in and primarily block since the Lions have Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler as their second tight end. The Lions may not have a great offensive line but they can supplement it a little bit with some great blockers on the edges at tight end and it will be interesting to see how they choose to use these guys. They can overload one side or run balanced formations to keep the defense guessing and hopefully open up holes for their speedy backs. When it comes to getting betting on a player to be able to contribute as well as stick on a roster, going with a blocking tight end of Williams’ caliber is about the safest bet a team can make.
With the last pick in the draft, the Lions picked Brandon Hepburn, linebacker from Florida A&M. Hepburn is a football player with a background in wrestling who was pretty productive in his two seasons playing in the MEAC Conference. Hepburn has some decent measurables and is likely a guy who will have to compete to make the team on special teams. When it comes to a player like Hepburn, the question is will he want to stay with football. The reason is that Hepburn is brilliant and has already had more achievements in researching how to treat cancer than he ever will on the football field. Hard to say where his football career will go, but whenever he finishes with football, everyone can root for him to succeed in his other passion.
My Thoughts: The Lions were in an extremely difficult position, but it is so difficult because of the decisions made by Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. They opted to take a bunch of prospects with questions in the character department and then try to accentuate that on the field resulting in a team that was amongst the worst teams in the league when it comes to penalties and developing a reputation for dirty play. The reputation would not be a big deal by itself but the penalties hurt them in games and then lastly, the character problems causing their players to fail and ultimately wash out really killed them. In opting to go with the best player available, they have ended up with a great set of defensive tackles but holes in other areas that are being filled with patch jobs; most notably the offensive line.
It is unclear if the Lions would have wanted any of the top offensive tackles had they been available at fifth pick but they apparently have decided that Reiff can be the guy to protect Stafford’s blind side. The problem is that even if Reiff succeeds, which remains to be seen, there is declining play at the center position, a rookie at right guard, and a question mark at right tackle. For whatever reason, the Lions have always put Stafford in a difficult situation with their protection and he appeared to be playing hurt last year which resulted in declining play.
The move to pick Ansah is certainly a risk and it could pay off huge or it is probably going to be the end of Mayhew. It is a huge stakes gamble to play; perhaps one Mayhew had to make with his job on the line regardless. The Lions are certainly not the only team that made this type of gamble as the Browns made a similar gamble with their pick. Ansah’s upside is incredible but he is unbelievably raw and has a ton of learning to do. It is not going to be a situation where he goes in and dominates, pending miraculous development. He had top 10 physical tools with third day technique and polish. The situation he is being put into with Suh, Fairley, and Jones could help, but it is going to be difficult to learn on the job. If it works, the Lions will look brilliant. If not, jobs will be lost and it will be a huge opportunity missed.
I like Darius Slay and I like what he can be in the NFL. I was not quite this high on him, but I understand why the Lions went that route. He fits what they want in a corner and he was not going to last until their third round pick, so if they were going to get him, it was try to move down or bite the bullet and take him there. Like with Ansah, he has remarkable upside but he is far more ready to contribute now. He has the tools to be a great corner but he just needs to get accustomed to playing in the NFL and learning the nuances of NFL caliber receivers. His attitude and effort in the running game is fantastic and that could really endear him to Lions fans early in his career. It would not be a surprise if he has growing pains but if they stick with him, he could be a really good corner down the road.
I love the pick of Warford the player and as a means to try to help the Lions improve their offensive line and the running game. The situation he is being brought into, if it remains this way, is scary. He is a talented player but a rookie right guard trying to get accustomed to playing in the NFL is difficult enough. Trying to do it with question marks flanking him on both sides could really lead to growing pains and when Stafford is the guy who gets hurt because of those growing pains, no one can blame Warford. The blame will rest squarely on the front office that failed to protect one of the two best players on their team. If they bring in a right tackle from free agency, even if it is just for one year, it makes this situation a little more stable and a better environment for Warford to learn. The Lions and their offensive line is always trying to make things work with a less than stellar effort. It is possible that Gosder Cherilus leaving was a big surprise to them as well and between that and the retirement of Backus, put them in a bad situation.
Devin Taylor represents another gamble, but a small one. The tape says Taylor still has a long way to go but his offseason was incredibly impressive, so perhaps the light just turned on or there are some red flags there. The situation and the style of play the Lions are employing make this a good situation for Taylor, but he is another boom or bust prospect. The boom is significantly higher than the bust here and the risk is limited but with the holes on this team, the question is whether or not they should have opted for a slightly more surefire bet here.
I like the players the Lions picked with their sixth round picks as well as Williams in the seventh. Riddick and Fuller both offer upside players that could help the Lions offense now and in the future. Fuller needs to develop but he has tools to contribute in a limited role as early as his rookie year with the long term potential of being the #2 receiver across from Johnson.
I am not a big proponent of drafting kickers and punters, so I can only hope the punter they took is a great punter and is better than the options they would have liked along the offensive line. This is one of those situations where Martin will come in and be a good punter and people will stop fretting about his draft position, myself included, the second the foot hits the ball. In the analytical world of draft value, it seems like Martin or a comparable option could have been had later or potentially after the draft and another player could have been taken.
Overall, this draft is great or awful. The players they took have so much upside and could be tremendous but they could also be historic busts and missed opportunities. Part of the problem here is that this draft will be impacted by players that were not in this draft class. If Reiff struggles to protect Stafford, it will weigh on this draft because they did not invest enough in their offensive line leading up to and including this year. It is also a draft where individual parts could do extremely well and the overall team could struggle mightily. It is a risky draft and a gamble of a draft but potentially a gamble that Mayhew, Schwartz, and company had to make in order to hold onto their jobs. It may or may not be enough to save them, but the lingering question will be whether or not the Lions are better off in the future after this year.
Topics: 2013 Nfl Draft, Alabama Crimson Tide Football, Appalachian State, Brandon Hepburn, BYU Cougars Football, Corey Fuller, Darius Slay, Detroit Lions, Devin Taylor, Ezekiel Ansah, Florida A&M, Kentucky Wildcats Football, Larry Warford, Michael Williams, Mississippi State Bulldogs Football, Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football, Sam Martin, South Carolina Gamecocks Football, Theo Riddick, Virginia Tech