Ezekiel Ansah might be the answer to the Lions' pass-rush problem.
Detroit Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz and his staff have been busy this week. They were selected to coach one of the teams in this year's Senior Bowl, and in doing so, they'll have a unique opportunity to evaluate many of the NFL's top prospects.
They're not the only ones, though. Every team in the NFL has been in Mobile, Alabama to get a first-hand look at how the future stars of the NFL are shaping up.
If there is an advantage to coaching in the Senior Bowl, the Lions certainly need it. This offseason is one of utmost importance. Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew have been given one year to turn the team around.
On Saturday there will be more than a few players on the field that can help them do that.
Here is the Lions "unofficial" scouting guide for Saturday's Senior Bowl.
T.J. McDonald, USC, S
The Lions need to address the safety position badly. Louis Delmas can't stay healthy, and they've been burned one too many times by not having an adequate replacement for him.
This is the year the Lions will put a priority on the safety position. If they don't take Matt Elam in the second round, then T.J. McDonald or Phillip Thomas might be targeted later in the draft.
Both players have impressed during Senior Bowl practices. They both have above-average size for the position but very different skill sets.
Although McDonald can play both free and strong safety, he's proven to be much better when moving forward and stopping the run, according to detroitlionsdraft.com.
On the other hand, Thomas is a more skilled cover man. Says cbssports.com's Rob Rang:
Fresno State's Phillip Thomas, whose fluidity and instincts in coverage have made him a defender the North quarterbacks have generally avoided.
To draft Denard or not to draft Denard, it's a common debate among Lions fans.
It's no debate that Detroit needs a player like him, though. They need someone opposite Calvin Johnson who can stretch the field and be a secondary scoring threat.
It remains to be seen if Titus Young can ever be that. After his Twitter rant earlier this week, it's unclear whether he'll even be back.
The Lions also need someone to replace Jahvid Best. Their offense has struggled ever since he went out. Robinson could fill both of those needs, and for that reason, the Lions will be watching him closely.
According to Tim Twentyman of detroitlions.com, he's struggled as a receiver so far in Mobile, but he'll improve as the draft nears, and some team will take a chance on his speed.
The Lions need to decide whether they can work him into their offensive scheme. It will take some creativity on Scott Linehan's part to make it work. Robinson is a gimmick player like Tim Tebow—albeit much more dynamic.
Gimmick or not, Robinson could be the change-of-pace role player the Lions need.
Denard Robinson isn't the only receiver the Lions should look at in the Senior Bowl. They'll also pay attention to Markus Wheaton—who drew comparisons to Mike Wallace—and Quinton Patton. These two have been the most impressive prospects at practice and could be mid- to late-round steals for some lucky team.
Those two are more traditional wideouts, though.
A more intriguing prospect is Marquise Goodwin. If the Lions want speed, he's perhaps the fastest guy in the entire draft with a legitimate 4.3 40-yard dash time. Like Robinson, he's a niche player, not a traditional wideout. He'd be someone the Lions could use as a receiver, kick returner and change-of-pace back.
Here is what Dane Brugler from nfldraftscout.com had to say about Goodwin after Wednesday's practice:
An Olympic athlete will always be an intriguing NFL prospect, but Goodwin's senior season on the football field was average at best. However, through three days of practice at the Senior Bowl, Goodwin has looked much more natural and polished in his routes and catching the ball. His world-class speed translates well to the football field and he looks much more flexible in his patterns and breaks, catching just about everything thrown his way
That's enough reason to give Goodwin a second look. At 5'9" and 175 pounds, he doesn't have the body for full-time NFL work, but that doesn't mean he couldn't be an explosive late-round addition to any offense.
Would the Lions draft another cornerback this season after selecting three in last year's draft?
Of course they would. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew drafts the best player available, so position is irrelevant. Besides, depth in the secondary—for once—wouldn't be a bad thing.
Dee Milliner is generally considered the top prospect at the position, but Desmond Trufant is gaining ground after his impressive performance this week. He was easily the best cornerback in Mobile, according to Rang.
ESPN says he has above-average, top-end speed, and he had no durability issues, appearing in all 38 collegiate games and starting 35 of them.
Trufant is an NFL legacy as well. His brother Marcus was a first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks back in 2003 and has been a starter every year he's been in the league.
There's no guarantee that Desmond will follow suit, but having that lineage doesn't hurt. He's a prospect on the rise and one the Lions will be watching for sure.
Vance McDonald, Rice, TE
As cbssports.com's Dave Richard reports, the TE crop in this year's Senior Bowl is far from elite. For Lions fans that means there isn't any Brandon Pettigrew-type prospects.
Insert rim shot here.
After a disappointing season full of drops and fumbles, the luster on Pettigrew has worn off. He's not a rookie anymore and fans are tired of waiting for him to become a top NFL tight end.
If he can't, then the Lions need to find someone who can.
Unfortunately that someone is not in Mobile, but that doesn't mean there's not a future Will Heller in there somewhere.
Actually Mychal Rivera and Vance McDonald are probably better than Heller, at least as downfield threats. Both are suspect blockers but have shown off their athletic ability by making highlight-reel catches and burning DBs.
Rivera is the more athletic of the two and drew comparisons to Aaron Hernandez, albeit a smaller version.
McDonald is an absolute load at 6'4" with 10-inch hands and an 82-inch wingspan.
Sio Moore (3), UConn, OLB
The Lions selected three linebackers in last year's draft, but could potentially lose DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant to free agency this offseason.
With that said, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions targeted another LB in this year's draft.
Sio Moore, out of the University of Connecticut, has been turning heads for several weeks. Last weekend he participated in the East West Shrine Game and had a very solid game. He totaled four tackles, but it was his tackle of RB Christine Michael behind the line of scrimmage that really got rave reviews.
Said on-air analyst Mike Mayock following Moore's play:
I like the combination of heavy production at a BCS school, a great week of practice and following it up with a solid game. I think as this process goes on you are going to see this guy start to rise, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if at the end of April he doesn’t end up in the third round.
After his success at the Shriner Game, Moore was invited to the Senior Bowl—albeit as an injury replacement—and he hasn't stopped impressing people.
ESPN's Todd McShay raved about his speed, power, ability to diagnose plays and his overall patience. He's shown some struggles in coverage and he needs to bulk up, but his speed is intriguing.
Perhaps even more intriguing for the Lions, he has no red flags in the character department.
The Lions desperately need to add speed to their backfield, so it was disappointing to hear that Clemson's Andre Ellington withdrew from the Senior Bowl on Tuesday, following a hamstring injury. Out of all the running backs in Mobile, he fit what the Lions needed the most.
He possesses top-end speed and is an above-average receiver. Every other back has significant drawbacks that make them risky for Detroit.
Kenjon Barner suffered a serious concussion in 2010, and if you think the Lions are going to take a chance on another undersized back with a concussion history, I've got some swamp land to sell you.
Johnathan Franklin lacks the top-end speed to impact the Lions' running game in any significant way. They already have two backs that aren't home-run hitters, why draft a third?
Ontario McCalebb has the speed, but there are serious questions about his toughness. At 5'10" and 175 pounds, who can blame him?
Mike Gillislee is the back the Lions should pay the most attention to at the Senior Bowl. He had an excellent senior season at Florida amassing 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns.
According to walterfootball.com:
The senior has speed and deceptive power. Gillislee is very impressive as a blocker in blitz protection. He has really helped his draft stock this year.
Best of all, at 5'10" and 209 pounds, he's got the bulk to hold up better than the backs I mentioned above.
Ezekiel Ansah is all the rage right now. He's the current "it" guy whose on-field feats in Mobile are generating buzz among NFL scouts. As a result, his draft stock is on the rise.
It's not a complete surprise. He's been described as a freak of nature because of his physical attributes and the speed he's shown as an edge rusher. For those reasons, he's been compared to the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul.
However he's also been described as raw. He's got the physical gifts, but lacks the technique.
Clearly Ansah will be a "project" pick. That's the last kind of player the Lions need right now, particularly because their pass rush was so down last season and they might be losing both their starters—Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
They need a player who can contribute immediately.
He might not fit what the Lions need right now, but he's still an intriguing prospect to watch. Many experts predict they will draft DE in the first round. The most likely candidates are Bjoern Werner or Damontre Moore.
Both are much safer picks.
However if Ansah can show enough development between now and draft day, the Lions might pull off a shocker at No. 5.
Datone Jones came to Mobile with little fanfare, but he's made quite an impression. He's surprised many with his combination of speed and power. According to seniorbowl.com, he's been tagged as a "sleeper" because he has improved his draft standing significantly.
His senior year at UCLA wasn't that impressive, which makes his performance this week all the more surprising. However, cbssports.com's Dane Bugler asserts that his pedestrian numbers are because of the hybrid 3-4 scheme the Bruins ran, not a lack of talent.
In that scheme, Jones was moved all over the field, which speaks to his versatility and athletic ability as a pass-rusher, as does his 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season.
I already mentioned that the pass rush is a huge priority for Detroit. Ezekial Ansah isn't the only prospect generating buzz at the Senior Bowl. Jones should get plenty of attention too.
The Lions already have one home-grown hero in Joique Bell—the pride of Benton Harbor. They'll have an opportunity to add another one in April's draft.
Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, hailing from Rochester, has been generating as much buzz as anyone.
Based on his performance, he's now considered the second best offensive tackle in the entire draft, behind Luke Joeckel, and he's someone the Lions could legitimately target with the fifth pick.
Several scouts have raved about Fisher's skills and his dominance this week. In fact, NFL Network's Charles Davis said one player personnel director told him Fisher was the top player at the Senior Bowl on both teams (Mlive.com).
His stock is rising and the Lions need to address their offensive line sooner rather than later. They have Riley Reiff, but everyone else is either old (Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola) or replaceable (Stephen Peterman, Gosder Cherilus).
Reiff and Fisher would anchor the tackle positions for years to come and give the Lions' most valuable asset Matthew Stafford the kind of protection he needs to take the next step.