Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
After seeing all of the practices in person, I have keyed in on the ten players who best fit the Detroit Lions. Watch them for yourself on Saturday, and DVR the game for future reference as well.
Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State: He’s the only draftable quarterback on the West squad. Wenning conveys something of a poor man’s Philip Rivers to his game; not very mobile but with toughness and stability to absorb hits without going down. He’s got a great arm. Not good, not decent, but a great arm with excellent velocity on throws. In fact, part of his problem is that he lacks touch at times. There are also times where he has some Jake Locker to him, when even though the fundamental mechanics are solid the throw stills goes wildly off-target. He’s a 7th round prospect who offers a strong-armed alternative to Kellen Moore as the backup to Stafford.
Jordan Najvar, TE, Baylor: The first thing you will notice is his size. Najvar is a legit 6’6” and has the thickness of some offensive tackles. During his time at Baylor, the Bears didn’t use him much as a receiver. That’s why it was refreshing to see him operate in space and flash the hands during West practice sessions. Several times he made athletic snags which demonstrated soft-but-strong hands and a very wide catch radius. His blocking has never been a question, and he laid out a couple of bone-rattlers in the few team sessions West coach Romeo Crennel actually staged. Because he’s such an unknown commodity as a receiver, he’s not likely to get drafted before the 6th round. He would look mighty imposing lining up across from a Shrine Gamer (before he got hurt early in the week) from last year in Joseph Fauria.
Danny Kistler, OT, Montana: The Lions are not in need of an offensive tackle, set with starters Riley Reiff and LaAdrian Waddle. But adding a youthful depth player like Kistler makes some sense. He’s the tallest lineman on the West, and he fared pretty well in pass protection during the practices. For a taller tackle he did a decent job sinking his hips and uncoiling power from his core. He likely fits in the Waddle role of priority free agent, and with a year on the practice squad could emerge as a viable swing reserve tackle. His ceiling might even be higher than that.
Tyler Starr, LB, South Dakota: If you read my practice reports from the week, you know my football man crush on Starr. Aside from the fact he looks like a long-lost Matthews brother with the long hair flowing and the exaggerated biceps, his versatility really infatuated me. Should the Lions opt to use more three LB sets, they need someone like Starr who can stay on the field in all situations. He was the best, most natural coverage backer on either roster. He proved he could bring the pain with a couple of vicious hits on smartly read run fills. He even flashed the ability to press the edge and turn the corner as a pass rusher. I’ve only seen one game tape thus far, but based on that and his work here, I wouldn’t be upset at all if the Lions used their 4th round pick on Starr.
Justin Ellis, DT, Louisiana Tech: Y’all remember the Big Buford sandwich from some fast food restaurant (Hardees?)? Well, if that sandwich were a football player it would be Justin Ellis. He’s 350+ pounds but has surprising agility for a man of his considerable girth. Ellis ripped off a spin move on more than one occasion that had the scouts in attendance shaking their heads and the offensive linemen looking forlorn. He’s another potential fourth round selection. Ideally he’d go in the top of the fifth, but the Lions dealt that for Mike Thomas.
Philip Gaines, CB, Rice: He certainly looks the NFL part at a hair over 6’ and pretty sound muscle definition. During practice sessions he showed good initial quickness off the snap and well-trained eyes. He was one of the stickier cover men in sessions all week, but what impressed most was his ability to burst to the ball. His hips were fairly loose and his ankles strong, able to plant hard and explode in any direction. His top-end speed isn’t ideal and he’s not very physical, so watch his tackling and fight for contested balls during the game.
Preston Brown, LB, Louisville: When I watched him during practice sessions, one of the players Brown reminded me of is former Lions backer Earl Holmes. Brown is thicker but has the same patient/attack style and lateral range. As mentioned with Starr, the Lions do need an upgrade from Ashlee Palmer as the third backer if they want to play more three-backer sets. Brown is likely a two-down backer unless he shows he can blitz, something we didn’t get to see that during practice sessions.
Matt Hazel, WR, Coastal Carolina: He was the most polished outside receiver on either roster. While he measured in somewhat shorter than expected at just over 6’ and 196 (he was listed at 6’3” and 210), his speed and quickness were definitely legit. Hazel continually torched East defensive backs in practice with his incredibly fast, sharp cuts and body control. He proved he could leap up and make the contested catch in traffic. There is some of the “good” Greg Jennings to his game, and he’s another potential 4th/5th round pick. Should the Lions get Sammy Watkins or Marqise Lee in the first, guys that can play from the slot, Hazel makes a lot of sense in that range as the replacement for Kris Durham as the outside target opposite Megatron.
Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State: On the East roster, Oklahoma State’s Blake Jackson is the better blocker and Bowling Green’s Alex Bayer is the better receiver, but they are one-dimensional tight ends. Gillmore offers the best total package. He’s got good length and formidable strength for the position. He proved he could catch hot passes on quick slants, and he also went to the ground to flag down some tough throws. During the season I saw him lay out some linebackers on run blocks. He’s built a lot like Brandon Pettigrew; could he replace him with a 6th round pick?
James Stone, C, Tennessee: I came to St. Pete expecting Toledo’s Zac Kerin to be the East center I really liked. A funny thing happened on my way to making hasty conclusions: Stone was the more consistent performer in the pivot. He had better anchor strength and exploded off combo blocks a little quicker and more naturally. He’s got better seasoning from playing in the SEC and it showed when handling the bigger tackles on the East practice squad, notably Delaware’s Zach Kerr, who would also look good in the Honolulu Blue as a 6th round pick. There you go, eleven for the price of ten!