Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Now that two preseason games are in the books and we have a better idea of what exactly the Lions have, I’ve come up with some revised expectations for the Detroit rookie class.
1st rounder Ziggy Ansah–He might not get the Week One start, but that’s more of a semantics issue than a concern about his talent. Ansah will be on the field for the majority of snaps every week, primarily on the right side formerly manned by Kyle VandenBosch.
There are going to be a lot of lean times for Ansah, who is still learning how to play football on the fly. He is going to get washed out against the run at times, and overrun plays on others. The Lions themselves fully knew this when they drafted Ansah 5th overall in April. They pulled the trigger because of the 3-4 plays a game where his incredible blend of length, strength, and speed make the big impact plays that VandenBosch couldn’t anymore. It might be a strip sack. It could be blowing up a runner in the backfield Clowney-style on 3rd & short. It might be a deflected pass that gets picked off and returned for a touchdown. Ziggy is here for his impact play potential even if that comes at the expense of overall reliability. I see Ansah recording about 28 tackles, which is what KVB did a year ago. But Ansah will bag at least 6 sacks and break up 4 or 5 passes, while forcing a fumble or two and maybe even pulling down an INT like he did in the preseason opener.
2nd rounder Darius Slay–The lanky corner from Mississippi State has done nothing to make the Lions regret pulling the trigger on him a little earlier than most draftniks expected him to get taken. He’s blessed with excellent closing speed and length, and he’s not afraid to try and make plays. Slay has all but seized a starting role opposite Chris Houston.
Slay’s rookie season is likely to remind Lions fans some of Dre Bly. Like Bly, Slay is going to surrender some big plays because he gambles or gets sucked up on a double move. But like Bly used to do, Slay will get his hands on a lot of balls and make quarterbacks think twice about throwing his direction. I expect 45 tackles, 4 INTs, 12 PDs, and one surprise sack.
3rd rounder Larry Warford–The presumption that Warford would start right away at right guard appears premature. Warford has struggled in camp and hasn’t looked ready for prime time in the first two preseason games either. Grandiose visions of Warford pancaking opposing tackles won’t come to fruition until 2014. Instead, the rookie from Kentucky figures to spend most of 2013 as a reserve guard that sees limited action in short yardage packages and perhaps a series or two per game to get his feet wet.
4th rounder Devin Taylor–My early expectation for Taylor was that he would serve on special teams and get some garbage time play at defensive end. However, Taylor has played well in preseason and impressed the coaches in camp with his length and burst off the snap. He’s likely to spend his rookie year as the 5th defensive end but could see 10-15 snaps a game. And expect Taylor to block at least one kick with his 6’7” frame, 36” arm length and 35” vertical jump.
5th rounder Sam Martin–Detroit burned a 5th round pick on the Appalachian State punter with every intention of Martin being the punter for the next decade. His big leg and excellent hang time have been as good as advertised…mostly. Martin will beat out Blake Clingan for the job and should help the Lions improve in punting net average from Nick Harris a year ago. Look for a 43.8 yard average with over 40% of his punts not returned past the 20 yard line.
6th rounder Corey Fuller–The speedster from Virginia Tech has not distinguished himself amidst a crowd of receivers competing for the 4th and 5th wideout spots. The coaches love his long speed and ability to track deep throws, but he has struggled against press coverage and doesn’t change speeds very well. Fuller was also in the mix for the return specialist job, but that hasn’t panned out either. It looks like Fuller will spend 2013 on the practice squad, perhaps getting a late season promotion or as an injury replacement. It’s less than 50/50 he catches a pass in the regular season.
6th rounder Theo Riddick–He faced an uphill battle to make it past the practice squad, and the rookie running back from Notre Dame has climbed up that hill a bit. He’s best described as a poor man’s Reggie Bush, and because the Lions have the real Reggie Bush there is little for Riddick to do. If he can really impress in the final two preseason games I still maintain he could push a lethargic Mikel Leshoure or unexceptional Joique Bell off the roster and be the third down back, but that seems unlikely. He’s been passed on the return specialist competition by fellow rookie Steven Miller as well. It looks like the practice squad for the versatile Riddick, though he might not make it through waivers.
7th rounder Michael Williams–Drafted to serve as a blocking tight end and de facto extra tackle to replace Riley Reiff in that role, Williams was a player I believed could play his way up the depth chart. That has not been the case. He will take over Will Heller’s role as the 3rd tight end, primarily a blocking role but one that will see some targets, especially in the red zone. Williams should catch about 12 passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Note that those numbers will increase should the team trade Tony Scheffler.
7th rounder Brandon Hepburn–The fact that the outside linebacker from Florida A&M has survived a recent wave of cuts (Adrian Moten, Cory Greenwood) is a good sign. He’s competing with Tahir Whitehead for the 6th linebacker spot, a role that is almost exclusively used on special teams. If he makes it past the cutdown to 75 next week, it’s a safe bet Hepburn will make the practice squad. He was drafted with the Lions fully aware Hepburn was a long-term project.