The Detroit Lions came into the 2014 NFL Draft with a new head coach and an interesting assortment of needs that gave the team options in how they wanted to attack them. Led by general manager Martin Mayhew, they actually neglected arguably their biggest need and took some risks in the draft but also got some great value that really bolstered the talent of the team. The Lions still have some major questions at a few spots, especially safety but they did get substantially better in a few key areas, hitting them with a hammer.
Much to the chagrin of many Lions fans, many looking at the NFL Draft kept insisting the Lions were going to take a corner, with many projecting Justin Gilbert there. Fans were hoping for Sammy Watkins in a trade up to play opposite Calvin Johnson. Gilbert and Watkins ultimately did not end up lasting to the pick, so Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix seemed like a logical choice, addressing the biggest issue on that defense; safety. Instead, the Lions opted to go a different route, taking tight end Eric Ebron.
On paper, this pick makes a ton of sense. They spent an interesting amount of money to retain Brandon Pettigrew, who now becomes their #2 tight end that can focus on what he primarily does well in blocking. He can still catch the ball and extend drives but he can really spend most of his time helping them in their blocking scheme.
Ebron is a unique prospect. In terms of his size, strength and athleticism, he could legitimately play wide receiver or tight end. He is big enough and strong enough to play inside, bringing a high level of effort to blocking, but has the speed and ability to high point the ball where he can legitimately play outside if the Lions wanted to go that route.
For the Lions, whether it is in space or inline, Ebron can attack vertically with Johnson attacking deep on the outside. They also have Golden Tate signed as a free agent and Kris Durham coming off of a productive season that can attack and allow the Lions to have a strong 4 verticals look, which is where Matthew Stafford can pick apart a defense with his incredible arm.
The issue with Ebron is his hands are dreadful. His concentration really becomes a problem at times and he drops passes right to him, trying to get yards before he has secured the ball. He also has problems when bodies fly in front of him and he has to try to locate the ball. As a result, Ebron dropped an alarming amount of passes both at North Carolina and in workouts. Athletically, he has everything, but he needs to be a consistent pass catcher to really open things up in that offense, because he will have opportunities to make plays in the middle of the field. Personally, I think the pick was a reach, but if he can figure out his hands issues, he can be one of the best tight ends in football.
In the second round, the Lions made one of my favorite picks in the entire draft, selecting Kyle Van Noy. Van Noy did everything in the BYU defense, was incredibly well coached and prepared by Bronco Mendenhall and can do a ton in the Lions scheme. He can rush the passer, play the run and drop into coverage well with an impressive knack for making plays.
Beating out Ashlee Palmer should not take a terribly difficult process and the Lions have a talented trio of linebackers in Van Noy, Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy. Levy is one of the better weak side linebackers in the NFL and having Van Noy across from him gives them nothing but options.
The other part of this that works out great for the Lions is they reunited Van Noy with former college teammate Ziggy Ansah, whom Van Noy helped to teach the game. Van Noy was always the more accomplished and more talented player in their time in Provo even though Ansah’s potential is through the roof. Van Noy really gives them a versatile threat that can give them a little bit of everything and should be able to get into the starting lineup quickly. For me, Van Noy had first round talent and this could be a steal for the Lions.
I also really liked the Lions’ third round pick in Travis Swanson. Despite the fact Dominic Raiola is going into what seems like his 37th season at center for the Lions, he was bothered by the idea of taking Swanson. What makes Swanson a good pick is not just the fact he can play center after Raiola is gone, but he can also help out at guard in the meantime. The Lions are thrilled with Larry Warford but Swanson could at least push Rob Sims for time at left guard. Even if Sims wins out, Swanson is a player that can provide depth at all three interior spots, assuming he does not possibly take the pivot job from Raiola.
Swanson brings a ton of size for the center position and really excelled as a pass blocker for Arkansas, which fits what the Lions like to do. He has the size and strength to be a good run blocker, but just needs to be meaner and play with better leverage to power the running game. For a division that has talented interior defensive linemen, having Swanson who can slide well and move the pocket would be a good investment. And along with Riley Reiff and Warford, Swanson allows to have a nice, young core for the foreseeable future.
In the fourth round, the Lions did address the secondary by adding corner Nevin Lawson. He adds to a young group of corners the Lions hope can come into their own. Lawson is a competitive, physical man corner that can come in and compete for a slot spot, playing in nickel or dime. With Darius Sly and Chris Houston presumably starting on the outside, Lawson comes in to compete with Bill Bentley and 33 year old Rashean Mathis.
With the talent they have in their front seven, the Lions want to put pressure on opponents and have put a premium on adding corners that can play man. If they can get four guys they like, they bring pressure and either force punts or just cause turnovers. Lawson is a developed enough player that should be able to contribute early, but has to make up for some average physical tools.
Later in the fourth round, the Lions added another pass rusher in Larry Webster. The Lions have a type when it comes to their defensive ends and it is long, athletic, rangy pass rushers. Ansah, Jason Jones and Devin Taylor are all in excess of 6’5” with that lean frame. Webster is a raw rusher out of Bloomsburg not unlike Ansah was at this time last year, though Ansah came in much bigger and stronger.
The Lions have a nice rotation of defensive ends that can stay fresh and keep coming as well as conceivably having the ability to kick guys inside to a rush tackle if they want to go that route. Webster will have the opportunity to contribute, but will not be overwhelmed in terms of responsibility and can develop behind the rest of the group while focusing much of his attention as a rookie rushing the passer. The value here was a little iffy, but it is a great fit for what the Lions want.
Whatever value was lost in taking Webster, I feel like they made up when they took Caraun Reid in round 5. I was a big fan of his Princeton teammate last year in Mike Catapano and Reid was a better prospect. Much of my exposure to Reid was at the Reese’s Senior Bowl where he was solid all week long and looked impressive at the weigh-in. He looked like an NFL player as opposed to an Ivy League player trying to make the NFL.
The Lions have a talented duo of interior defensive linemen in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and Reid can come in and develop as depth. The Lions have a couple of alright but underwhelming depth players in Andre Fluellen and C.J. Mosley, so there is an opportunity for Reid to work into that first rotational option. Much like Catapano, Reid could have some adjusting to do in terms of the uptick in competition, but Catapano was able to get on the field towards the end of the season and Reid was not afraid to take on the competition at the Senior Bowl. Along with Webster, Reid gives them a pair of talented small school defensive line prospects that could make them strong seven players deep if all goes according to plan.
In the sixth round, the Lions took a decently sized name in T.J. Jones from Notre Dame. Jones was a former running back turned wide receiver, so he has a nice build for a slot receiver. Unfortunately for Jones, he may have tapped out his physical potential coming out of high school as he really did not improve in his time in college in terms of physical ability. Nevertheless, he is athletic enough to help a team, perhaps as a depth receiver and on special teams.
Jones may have some difficulty making the Lions roster, but even if he has to go to the practice squad, Jones has the ideal player to look up to in Golden Tate. Tate was a running back turned receiver at Notre Dame as well that has been able to use his running back skills to excel after the catch. Jones should stick to his fellow Irish alum and do everything Tate does. The Lions finished up the draft with a kicker.
Overall, the Lions took a few leaps on value with Ebron and Webster, but really made up the difference with Van Noy, Swanson and Reid. The big question mark at safety still remains and the situation there still looks like it could be a big problem, but they continue to build on their strength in the front seven and give Stafford weapons that help him with his strengths. They also added a quality offensive line prospect that could give them a core to build around for the long haul. Holes aside, the players the Lions took really did a great job in terms of finding players that fit what they want to do while really upping their talent. The Lions still have work to do on their roster for the long haul, but this draft could be a big boost to their talent pool for the long haul.