The Lions had high hopes last season after going 9-7 in 2011 and started the season 4-4 before losing their final eight games and ending up with another top-five pick. Only six teams allowed more points than the Lions and as a result, three of their first four picks were used on defensive players. Detroit was set up well to succeed in this draft with three picks in the top 65 and according to Chris Tripodi, they didn’t disappoint.
Ezekial Ansah/DE/BYU (Round 1/Pick #5): An incredible athletic specimen, the former track and field star from Ghana enjoyed a breakout season as a senior with the Cougars. Ansah improved on a week-to-week basis last season, just his third playing football, but still has a lot of work to do to become a polished NFL defensive end. His development will be aided playing next to defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and as he adds strength to his 6-5, 271-pound frame, Ansah should become more comfortable holding his ground against NFL offensive lineman. As a potentially elite pass rusher who can stand up against the run and pursue from the back side, Ansah has the Pro Bowl potential to offset his raw skill set in the top-5 and make the Detroit defensive line a force to be reckoned with in the future. Jason Pierre-Paul comparison are not out of line here when it comes to how good Ansah truly can be.
Darius Slay/CB/Mississippi State (Round 2/Round #36): Slay stepped into the starting lineup as a senior opposite fellow second-round pick Jonathan Banks and became an All-Conference player, recording 5 interceptions and catching the attention of scouts nationally. Slay then ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine (4.36), only adding to his appeal as a prospect. That speed combined with strength in bump-and-run coverage and a physical mentality against the run give Slay as much upside as any cornerback prospect in this draft class. While his backpedal and ball location skills still leave something to be desired, Slay has the potential to return first-round value from an early second-round pick.
Larry Warford/G/Kentucky (Round 3/Pick #65): A tough and nasty interior blocker, Warford is big (6-3, 332) and powerful in small areas. He lacks the speed to be effective in motion but is quick to the second level and uses his wide body to wall off linebackers from the hole and make pass rushers go around him. While Warford was good value early in round three, he’s a somewhat curious fit in a passing offense that doesn’t quite play to his strengths as a power run blocker. A high-character prospect, Warford should be able to adjust and at the least will help open up more holes for Mikel LeShoure and even Reggie Bush.
Devin Taylor/DE/South Carolina (Round 4/Pick #132): Taylor was dominant at times with the Gamecocks but was plagued by inconsistency as an upperclassman after a 7.5-sack, All-Conference sophomore season. Taylor isn’t quick or fast off the edge yet can rush the passer and also shows good ability to keep contain on the outside and force ballcarriers back into the middle of the field. Taylor has the height (6-7) to bat down passes and good ability in pursuit but will never be a starting-caliber NFL player unless he can elevate his game after it leveled off in college. He should find a place in Detroit’s defensive line rotation this season.
Sam Martin/P/Appalachian State (Round 5/Pick #165): The Lions haven’t drafted a specialist since Jason Hanson in 1992 and they’re hoping Martin shows the same ability and longevity as the veteran kicker. With a big leg that ranked him third in the nation in average yards per punt last season, Martin looks poised to take over for Nick Harris and Detroit hopes he can solidify a position that has seen many different starters over the last few seasons.
Corey Fuller/WR/Virginia Tech (Round 6/Pick #171): Like Ansah, Fuller initially went to college for track and field and has limited football experience. At this point, he’s more of an athlete than a receiver but took a big step forward as a senior and has more upside than any other receiver taken this late in the draft. If Fuller can develop a more complete route tree and refine his game, his ability to go up and catch the ball in the air and create yardage after the catch make him an intriguing prospect. With Nate Burleson aging and entering the final two years of his contract and Ryan Broyles a better fit in the slot if he can come back fully healthy, Fuller could find himself starting opposite Calvin Johnson in 2015 if he can continue to take steps forward in his development.
Theo Riddick/RB/Notre Dame (Round 6/Pick #199): Riddick is a solid if not limited running back who has some potential as a multipurpose asset on offense. He took over the starting role last season and runs with a North/South mentality, good burst and quick feet. Riddick shows ability in the passing game and despite lacking great next-level size or speed, has the versatility to line up in the slot and be effective on third downs. He could provide an extra weapon for Matthew Stafford if he can make the roster behind Mikel LeShoure, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.
Michael Williams/TE/Alabama (Round 7/Pick #211): A blocking tight end who lacks the speed to be anything more than a short-range target in the passing game, Williams could settle in as Detroit’s third-string tight end behind Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler and contribute as a blocker in jumbo and goal-line packages. Both of the players ahead of him on the depth chart are free agents after the season, but Williams isn’t dangerous enough as a receiver to be a starter in this offense. He was drafted to open up holes in short-yardage situations and not much more.
Brandon Hepburn/LB/Florida A&M (Round 7/Pick #245): Hepburn’s lack of size (6-2, 240) and small-school pedigree gave him a free-agent grade but he was productive at Florida A&M and is a good tackler who can cover a lot of space. His strengths make him an ideal special teams player and a situational linebacker who can bring energy and chase down ballcarriers when the starters need a break.
Grade: B. We like what the Lions did with their first three picks, drafting three players who could play important roles right away for a team that still believes in their playoff aspirations. Besides Fuller, their later picks were nothing special but they all can find a way to make an impact on the Lions’ roster. This was a solid draft for Detroit and while they still probably aren’t a playoff team, their roster is headed in the right direction.