O'Hara's Monday Countdown: What impact will the Lions' rookie class have?

Posted Aug 25, 2013

It's is still too early to hand out final grades for the draft picks and undrafted free agents who make up this year’s rookie class, but it could be one of the Lions’ best and deepest in several years

At 6-6 and 321 pounds, LaAdrian Waddle is a big man who can give the Lions depth in two areas – the crowd of candidates competing to start at right tackle on the offensive line, and the quality of their 2013 rookie class.

LaAdrian WaddleT LaAdrian Waddle (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

At that size, he even can add width.

It is still way too early to hand out final grades for the draft picks and undrafted free agents who make up this year’s rookie class, but the signs so far indicate that it could be one of the Lions' best and deepest in several years.

When the draft concluded in April, there was a feeling in the front office that the Lions had four players who would be starters on opening day or soon after – defensive end Ziggy Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay, guard Larry Warford and punter Sam Martin. I’d quibble about a punter or kicker being considered a starter, but there’s no argument about their value.

Waddle is a bonus addition to the rookie class, as is tight end Joe Fauria. Both were signed as free agents soon after the last player went off the board and are making strong pitches to be on the final 53-player roster.

"It’s still yet to be seen," Coach Jim Schwartz said when asked Sunday about the progress of the rookie class. "We’re not to a regular season. You probably evaluate that a little bit better when the season’s over. There are potentially some guys there that can really help. I think that is certainly beneficial."

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses on the Lions' rookie class, and what impact it might make this season and in the future.

We start at the top.

1. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, first round: He has been the starter at right defensive end and made plays since the first series of the first preseason games. He had an interception and a tackle-for-a-loss in the first game and a fumble recovery in the Game 3 against the Patriots.

Concerns about his lack of football experience are legitimate, but Ansah has been a big part of the redesign of the front four.

Key stat: in three preseason games, teams have gained 186 yards on 72 carries, an average of 2.6 yards per attempt.

Ziggy AnsahDE Ziggy Ansah (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

2. Cornerback Darius Slay, second round: At 6 feet and an even 192 pounds, Slay adds a physical dimension in a young cornerback that has been lacking. He gave up a 37-yard reception on the first drive against the Patriots but settled down after that. It looks like he’ll open the season as the starter at right corner.

3. Guard Larry Warford, third round: He gave up a sack early against the Patriots when he got his shoulders turned and was beaten. That’s a technique issue that should be correctable. Warford might not beat out Dylan Gandy or any of the other veterans to start on opening day, but his day will come soon enough.

4. Defensive end Devin Taylor, fourth round: Playing opposite Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina made it easy for Taylor to be overlooked, but he’s shown enough with the Lions to be part of the rotation on a strong defensive line. Taylor’s performance so far made it easy for the Lions to cut Ronnell Lewis, a defensive end drafted in the fourth round a year ago who showed little.

5. Punter Sam Martin, fifth round: Jeff Locke, who went to the Vikings with the 155th pick, and Martin, taken at 165, were the two punters rated as legitimate draft prospect this year. The Lions are happy with their choice.

Punting was a weakness the last two seasons. In three preseason games, Martin has a gross average of 48.6 yards and a net of 46.5 on 11 punts. As a team last year, the Lions had a gross average of 41.4 and a net of 36.9.

6a. Wide receiver Corey Fuller, sixth round: On a team looking for receiving help, he hasn’t caught a pass in three games. Not a good sign. On the plus side, he’s cost them a lot less that the Lions blew on first-round picks Charles Rogers and Mike Williams.

6b. Running back Theo Riddick, sixth round: There’s a lot to like about Riddick. He runs hard, catches the ball, and had experience as a return man at Notre Dame. He’ll have a hard time making the 53-player roster because of the depth behind Reggie Bush provided by Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure.

7a. Tight end Michael Williams, seventh round: He’s given the Lions what they expected – a blocking specialist who might develop as a short-zone receiver. A broken hand in the last preseason game obviously could land him on injured reserve.

7b. Linebacker Brandon Hepburn, seventh round: The Lions are looking for depth behind the starting threesome. That’s a possibility for Hepburn, as is the practice squad if he does not make the final 53.

8. Offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle: He made 40 starts at Texas Tech, including all 38 games his last three  seasons. He has 36-inch arms, which is something the scouts look for in offensive tackles. Waddle said he was contacted by the Lions almost immediately after the draft and decided to sign with them within an hour after considering other options.

The Lions brought him in for a visit before the draft, and the visit made a favorable impression on him.

"I saw Detroit as a good opportunity," he said. "I jumped on that. I saw the facility. I saw the area. I had a good feel."

9. Tight end Joe Fauria: He played 40 games in his last three seasons at UCLA and caught 20 passes. One quality he’s shown with the Lions is that when the ball gets in his hands, it sticks. At almost 6-8, he’s a big target with a wide wingspan.

A lot will depend on how the Lions configure the final roster at running back, wide receiver and tight end. Fauria does not lack confidence in his ability. Based on what he’s done so far, there’s no reason why he should.