O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Expectations for the 2014 draft class

Posted May 19, 2014

There is a long road ahead, with many obstacles and detours, from rookie minicamp to playing regular-season games, but this week’s Monday Countdown looks at where the Lions’ 2014 rookie class could make an impact.

Travis Swanson was a durable, dependable center at Arkansas. He was as much of an iron man as the schedule and eligibility limits of college football allow.

Swanson played every game in his last four years at Arkansas – 50 games, 50 starts.

That does not quite represent one quarter of the longevity log for games played by Dominic Raiola, the Lions’ incumbent center whom Swanson was drafted to replace eventually. Raiola has played 204 games and started 88 since the Lions drafted him in the second round in 2001.

Swanson was asked Sunday to compare his 50 games to Raiola’s 204 after the last practice of the Lions’ three-day rookie camp.

“I couldn’t imagine,” Swanson said. “But I’m excited to ask him about it.”

Swanson sounded like a typical rookie when he spoke to the media. He has more questions than answers, which is the way it’s supposed to be after one week as a pro.

There is a long road ahead, with many obstacles and detours, from rookie minicamp to playing regular-season games, but this week’s Monday Countdown looks at where the Lions’ 2014 rookie class could make an impact – either in starting roles, development for the future and effect on the roster makeup.

One man’s opinion: Eric Ebron and Kyle Van Noy can be projected as starters on opening day or soon after, with role players coming from those taken in later rounds.

But we start with a look back at the 2013 rookie class, which set a high standard that this year’s crop will be hard-pressed to match.

01. Class of 2013: In the first and third rounds respectively, the Lions got season-long starters and producers in defensive end Ziggy Ansah and guard Larry Warford. Sam Martin, taken in the fifth round, solidified the punting job and kickoffs.

Of the other draft picks, defensive end Devin Taylor (fourth round) made the most impact. Two undrafted free agents, tight end Joseph Fauria and offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle, added production and depth to the class.

Cornerback Darius Slay, a second-round pick, battled injuries but developed late and could help as a man-coverage defender with good size and athletic ability. He could be a bonus from last year’s draft if he progresses.

That makes six rookies who played significant, positive roles and a seventh, Slay, who could develop.

Here’s a look at realistic expectations for the 2014 draft class.

02. Pass-catcher Eric Ebron, first round: I don’t call him a tight end. Brandon Pettigrew plays that position in the traditional manner as a blocker and short to mid-range receiver.

Ebron was drafted to give the offense a 250-pound receiver with speed who can create mismatches, split seams and get deep. That is not a tight end.

Eric EbronTE Eric Ebron (Photo: Detroit Lions)

Impact: If he performs up to expectations, Ebron will take attention away from Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. His versatility could make the Lions keep four receivers on the final roster, opening a roster spot for another position.

03. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, second round: The Lions are looking to add impact to the front seven, and Van Noy can do that in a dual role as a pass-rusher at strong-side linebacker and dropping into coverage. He created turnovers at Brigham Young, but not as many in 2013 as in 2012, when he played with Ansah.

Impact: As defensive coordinator Teryl Austin explained when Van Noy was drafted, a linebacker with multiple skills can force defenses to account for him with blocking schemes, and that can free up others to make plays.

04. Center Travis Swanson, third round: It is almost impossible to run an offense effectively with a subpar center. Swanson likely is a year away, at least, from replacing Raiola. Swanson said he’s also getting practice time at guard. It is standard for backups to play more than one position.

Impact: 2014 is a development season, barring injury.

05. Cornerback Nevin Lawson, fourth round: GM Martin Mayhew likes the physical presence Lawson brings, but height is an issue at just under 5-10.

Impact: Three 2012 draft picks, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green, will get pushed for roster spots and playing time. It is time for someone to step forward.

06. Defensive end Larry Webster, fourth round: Jadeveon Clowney, drafted first overall by the Texans, was the only defensive end who had better overall results in the agility drills at the Combine than Webster. Webster was drafted earlier than most analysts had him rated because of his athleticism.

Impact: Webster will play behind Ansah, Taylor and Jason Jones, but he should be in the rotation at some level under a plan to allow him to develop.

07. Defensive tackle Caraun Reid, fifth round: The Princeton grad is smart and athletic, but the majority of the playing time will go to starters Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh with C.J. Mosley the primary backup.

Impact: Reid will push a veteran for a roster spot.

08. Wide receiver TJ Jones, sixth round: No matter how you classify their positions, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Ebron are the top three pass-catchers, with Pettigrew and Fauria in their roles at tight end. Jones was a productive player within the framework of Notre Dame’s offense, but 70 catches in 2013 barely cracked the top 50 in the FBS stats list.

Impact: Jones will compete for a roster spot first, then playing time. Whether it’s a third, fourth or fifth receiver, catching the ball is a priority in a unit that has had far too many drops.

09. Kicker Nate Freese, seventh round: Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio, who had previous tryouts with the 49ers and Packers, are the only kickers in camp.

Barring an addition – or coaxing Jason Hanson out of retirement (I would not bet against it) – the Lions will have a rookie kicker for only the third time in 35 years. The other two – Eddie Murray in 1980, Hanson in 1992.

Impact: When a rookie wins the Lions’ kicking job, it’s a long-term proposition. Murray had it for 12 years and Hanson for 21.

The key, obviously, is to get a foot in the door.

10. Reality check: Three days of minicamp do not tell the full story on a player or a draft class.

We can evaluate the 2014 draft class next year at this time – and many times before that.