In recent years, general manager Martin Mayhew and the Detroit Lions have used the draft philosophy of taking the best player available, and for the most part, it has paid off.
But following the departure of Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lawrence Jackson, and Sammie Hill, it was clear that the Lions needed to reload along the defensive front and take a more need-based approach.
After the top three offensive tackles went off the board in the first four picks, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Detroit opted to select BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah with the fifth overall pick.
Many mock drafts had the Lions taking Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner instead, but recent news revealed that he had undergone five different surgeries to address various injuries. One has to wonder if that was a major factor Detroit passing on him.
Considering all of the injuries that have plagued the Lions in recent years (especially to their top draft picks), player durability was likely a big concern.
Detroit continued to fill roster holes with its next five picks, drafting a cornerback, a guard, another defensive end, a punter, and a wide receiver. Because of a trade with Seattle and some compensatory selections, the Lions were able to acquire a fifth-round pick as well as additional sixth- and seventh-round picks, for a total of nine.
By the end of the draft, Detroit had adequately addressed its biggest needs. Most of the team’s draftees are raw but physically gifted. That will likely give many of them a chance to make an impact early on.
I’ve listed each of the new Lions below, and included some analysis of each pick.
Round 1, 5th overall:
DE, Ezekiel Ansah, BYU
A defensive end from BYU, Ansah is a very raw prospect. He was introduced to the sport of football just three years ago as a walk-on only after attempting to play basketball and track. Showcasing his incredible athletic ability (he’s 6’5″ and 270 pounds), he wowed teams and scouts at the NFL combine in February.
Among defensive linemen in attendance at the combine, Ansah had the fastest short shuttle, the fifth-highest vertical leap, and was one of two players to run a sub-4.65 40-yard dash. Unfortunately, his college production was minimal and he only made any real impact during his senior year when he recorded 4.5 sacks, 62 tackles, and a forced fumble.
Ansah should see playing time from the get-go. He still has a long road ahead of him developmentally, but the team’s holes at defensive end and his incredible physical talents should guarantee that he’ll be inserted into pass-rushing situations. There is even a possibility he’ll end up starting.
Round 2, 36th overall:
CB, Darius Slay, Mississippi State
Although considered to be a slight reach by some, bringing in Slay fills another need at cornerback. Like Ansah, Slay has limited experience, playing only 27 games at the FBS-level after transferring from a community college. During his two years at Mississippi State, he recorded 64 tackles with six interceptions and a forced fumble. Despite relatively low production, he was clearly able to impress Detroit with his exceptional athletic ability, running a 4.36 40-time, while displaying a 35.5-inch vertical leap at the combine.
Because of a distinct lack of talent and the constant circus that is Detroit’s secondary, Slay will get plenty of opportunities to prove himself and earn a starting role. With Chris Houston as the Lions’ only definite starter at cornerback, he’ll likely compete against second-year pro Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from last year’s draft.
Round 3, 65th overall:
OG, Larry Warford, Kentucky
A big, bruising guard from Kentucky, Warford will help replenish a depleted offensive line. Rated as the fourth-best guard in the draft (according to ESPN), he was a three-year starter at Kentucky. Known for run-blocking and the ability to open up holes, Warford was also exceptional at protecting the quarterback, surrendering just four sacks during his entire collegiate career.
After the departures of Jeff Backus (retirement) and Gosder Cherilus (free agency), Warford will team up with Jason Fox, Riley Reiff, and Rob Sims as what will hopefully be Matthew Stafford’s protection for years to come. One of the NFL’s oldest offensive lines suddenly became one of the youngest this offseason and Warford adds much needed talent and depth. Like Ansah and Slay, he should see plenty of action during his rookie season.
Round 4, 132nd overall:
DE, Devin Taylor, South Carolina
With their fourth-round compensatory selection, the Lions picked up another defensive end, Devin Taylor. As a three-year starter, he recorded a respectable 161 tackles and 18.5 sacks at South Carolina. Overall, he was productive but did little to impress teams and scouts until the East-West Shrine Game, when he recorded several sacks and a pair of forced fumbles, all against top college competition.
At 6’7 with an outstanding 35-inch vertical leap, Taylor should find early success disrupting passing lanes. He’ll need some development in terms of technique and overall strength (he’s only 266 pounds), but he’ll likely earn himself a spot in the rotation opposite of Ansah.
Round 5, 165th overall:
P, Sam Martin, Appalachian State
Since the first release of Nick Harris, the Lions’ punter position has been in relative limbo for the past few seasons. Punters aren’t usually selected in the fifth round, but it was another need that Detroit eventually had to address, and Sam Martin was on the team’s radar.
Once a soccer player who received a scholarship offer from Georgia, Martin was sought out by Appalachian State’s football coach, who wanted to know if he’d like to kick for the team. He seized the opportunity, quickly enjoyed success, and became the team’s permanent punter. During his senior season, he averaged 45.9 yards per punt.
After spending a fifth-round pick on Martin, one would have to think that he’s the Lions’ punter for the future. He will have to compete against another new punter, Blake Clingan, to earn the job though. There will be a competition in training camp, and then one of them will take it.
Round 6, 171st overall:
WR, Corey Fuller, Virginia Tech
Like many other Detroit picks this year, Fuller is a raw talent. Formerly a track athlete at Kansas, Fuller transferred to Virginia Tech before his junior year and started playing wide receiver as a walk-on. Despite only starting eight games his senior season, Fuller caught 43 passes for 815 yards and six touchdowns.
At 6’2″ and 204 pounds, Fuller is built like an outside receiver, but the Lions will probably try him in a variety of roles to see where he fits best. Ultimately, Fuller will have to earn a roster spot against a healthy number of receivers currently on Detroit’s roster. He stands a decent chance of making the team, but he may not see a lot of playing time early in the season.
Round 6, 199th overall:
RB, Theo Riddick, Notre Dame
A versatile back, Riddick is an excellent scheme-fit for Detroit. Riddick can double as a wide receiver, and will have an opportunity to thrive in the team’s spread offense.
He’s a lot like Reggie Bush in terms of his versatility, and that should only serve to help him on the depth chart. With the running back position so thin for Detroit, Riddick shouldn’t have any problems finding himself a roster spot. He’ll likely end up behind Bush and Mikel LeShoure, but he could eventually see some snaps.
Round 7, 211th overall:
TE, Michael Williams, Alabama
A big, durable tight end, Williams was on all three of Alabama’s recent national championship teams. He is an average receiving tight end with below-average speed, but he does make good use of his hands, both in catching the ball and in blocking assignments. He had respectable numbers during his senior year, with 24 receptions for 183 yards and four touchdowns.
With only four tight ends on the roster, Williams could easily find himself a roster spot behind Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. He’ll compete on special teams against Nathan Overbay, a practice squad player who has been with Detroit since 2011.
Round 7, 245th overall:
LB, Brandon Hepburn, Florida A&M
A relatively unknown player from Florida A&M, Hepburn is a speedy inside linebacker. Clocking a 4.54 40 time on his pro day, he was one of the fastest linebackers in the draft. Durable and productive, he had 86 tackles, 5.5 sacks, seven passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Hepburn will look to make an impact on special teams. With a fair number of linebackers already on Detroit’s roster, he’ll have to impress coaches during training camp and during the offseason to make the team.
Conor Schott is an Indiana University graduate and a regular contributor to Midwest Sports Fans and the Assembly Call. Follow him on Twitter: @DarthHoosier