The Detroit Lions had clear needs heading into the NFL draft and chose to address most of them, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Ezekiel Ansah, Darius Slay and Devin Taylor are all players who should see the field immediately upon donning the Honolulu blue and silver for the fist time.
Still, how much can be expected from these three players in their first season with the Lions?
Ansah is a first-round pick with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He steps into a position that has seen both Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch vacate the roster this offseason. Ansah is as raw a prospect as one could possibly imagine and yet must produce right away in order to validate the pick. Taylor will join the same defensive line rotation and yet may not be ready to have an impact.
Slay joins a defensive backfield that allowed 223 passing yards per game last season and has a severe lack of depth throughout.
What this draft did was raise just as many questions as it did answers, but let's attempt to break down what each of these three players can offer this season.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
The Ghana native was a polarizing pick on draft day, but there is no denying that Detroit absolutely had to find defensive ends at some point. Ansah has a 6'5", 270-pound frame and athleticism that rivals anyone in the league, but he is understandably raw, having discovered football just three years ago.
What Detroit must do is find a way to play to the strengths he has already developed, while fleshing out the rest of his game in the coming years. His freakish athleticism is only going to get him so far against the best offensive linemen that the NFL has to offer.
So he must be put in as a weak-side defensive end, allowing him to get off the ball quickly and bull rush offensive tackles when the opportunity presents itself. Ansah does not yet have a well-rounded set of pass-rushing moves, but he is strong enough to work through the opposition and force his way to the quarterback.
Simply watch here as Ansah overpowers the Boise State offensive tackle and forces his way into the backfield. He then uses his tremendous closing speed to get in the mix and track down the runner:
He is not always going to be able to overpower offensive tackles, but that is the strength of his game at the moment, and it must be utilized. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley can draw double-teams at defensive tackle and free Ansah to use his athleticism in space. He can either use his speed in hopes of going right around offensive tackles, or he can use those hands and try to go right through them.
Detroit's leading defensive end from a season ago, Cliff Avril, racked up 9.5 sacks in what was considered a down year. Is it crazy to expect similar production from Ansah in his rookie campaign? Absolutely not. This is a player the Lions staff coached at the Senior Bowl and fell in love with. If he is worthy of a top-five selection, then immediate production is expected.
Ansah has one of the best defensive-tackle pairings in the league lined up next to him, and that should help ease the transition to the NFL. He can now focus solely on being a DE, rather than frequently moving positions as he did at BYU.
Darius Slay, CB, Mississippi State
It says quite a bit about the current state of the Lions' backfield that a second-round pick is slated to start right away, but such is the position the Darius Slay finds himself in. Alphonso Smith simply was not getting the job done last season and plenty will be expected of the rookie to improve the secondary.
Chris Houston is a capable cornerback and will draw opponents' top wide receivers each game, but Slay has a lot of characteristics and skills that should make him an early success at the NFL level. At 6'1", 190 pounds, Slay has good size and combines it with the type of speed that is ideal for a CB. He can run right alongside receivers, or track them down if he finds himself beat.
In fact, Slay was the fastest player at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, running a 4.36-second 40-yard dash.
That speed can be seen to its full extent on this interception that Slay returned for a touchdown against Georgia:
Slay closes in extremely quickly and has active hands that should suit him well over the course of his career. And he will need those active hands because it seems safe to assume that offenses will attack him early and often until he gives them reason not to.
His speed and versatility would make him a fun piece to utilize in nickel and dime situations, allowing him to roam the field a bit more freely and make plays on the ball, but he will clearly be needed as an every-down player.
Slay should be able to lead the Lions in interceptions next season, as he is already a more skilled pass thief than Houston.
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
Taylor is obviously joining the Lions with a lot less publicity and attention than Ansah, but there will be much less asked of him, and he could potentially be a quiet steal for GM Martin Mayhew.
A lengthy 6'7", 267-pound defensive end, Taylor found success on a weekly basis against SEC defenses but was frequently overshadowed because his running mate at DE was one of the best players in the country—Jadeveon Clowney.
However, Taylor clearly has the physical tools to contribute at the next level and should flourish as a rotational piece early in his career. Ansah and Jason Jones are the clear starters heading into OTAs and training camp, so Taylor will be able to learn the Lions system and add some dimensions to his game.
The statistics may not display a great player, as he had just nine sacks combined over the past two seasons, but like Ansah he is a great athlete with a solid motor. He does not yet have the skill set to get to the QB consistently, but his pure height and reach will allow him to clog passing lanes and obstruct the QB's view.
Look here as he uses his height to his advantage and deflects a pass against LSU:
Where Taylor may actually be a bit better than Ansah at this stage of their careers is his tackling skills and run-stopping ability. He is a form tackler who is rarely going to let rushers get to the second level. He uses his long arms to haul in rushers and bring them to the turf.
It will be interesting to see just how many reps Detroit gives Taylor early in the season, but the depth behind Ansah and Jones is really thin. Willie Young is there, but Detroit is a team that prides itself on getting to the QB consistently without blitzing. Taylor can cause problems and will be able to carve out a role rather quickly.
What this all means is that each of these players can, and should, play a major role in what the Lions do defensively this season. There are clear roles for them to fall into, and there are ways that they can find success.
Yes, Ansah could prove to be too raw and lack the fundamentals to succeed right away. Slay's knee injury may prove worse than is believed, and Taylor may struggle to find a spot in Detroit's defensive-line rotation. However, these are worst-case scenarios.
All three of these players have the right skill set to make an impact right now. Lions fans do not need to wait three, four or five years, because the future is ready to contribute immediately.
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