Detroit Lions Rookie and Free Agent Midseason Progress Report
Eight games are in the books, and the Detroit Lions currently sit at 5-3. They sit a half-game behind the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and hold the final playoff spot in the NFC if the season ended today.
Many newcomers have played key roles in that positive record. Some of them are prominent draft picks. Others are notable free agents. A couple even are pleasant surprises from the land of the undrafted free agents.
I have watched every game at least twice, even the All-22 film from Cleveland that appeared to be shot from a passing blimp. Between my own evaluations, statistical analyses and observations by trusted resources, here is a midseason assessment on the progress of the newcomers.
The rookies come first, followed by the free agents. The two undrafted free agents come after the bigger ticket ones.
This piece will frequently cite data from Pro Football Focus, an independent evaluator of NFL games which breaks down and grades every player for every game. You need a subscription to view their premium statistics, but it's absolutely worth it if you love probing deeper into what's happening in the NFL.
*All other statistical data comes from NFL.com unless otherwise specified.
Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah
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Consternation reigned when the Lions drafted defensive end Ziggy Ansah from BYU with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Many were quite scared that a player of his scant experience would struggle making the transition to the NFL.
The Lions coveted his unnatural athleticism and amazing size/speed package. Detroit wanted impact plays from the pass rush, and Ansah's potential to produce those impact plays was undeniable.
For the most part, Ansah has done almost exactly what I expected him to do. He has made some splash plays, which showcase his rare physical skills. Ziggy has three sacks on the season, and two of those sacks were forced fumbles.
Ansah would have three more sacks and two more forced fumbles, but penalties have wiped them out. Two of those penalties were on Ansah himself, and that highlights the learning curve he's navigating as a rookie.
His play has fallen off in the past couple of weeks. That slide coincides with facing very good left tackles in Joe Thomas and Andrew Whitworth, as well as an injury which limited him against Dallas.
A quick look at Ansah's Pro Football Focus profile confirms the slump. He is struggling to beat the blockers, who now have film on him and can prepare a little for the Ghana native.
I devoted an article last month to Ansah's progress. My personal belief is that the bye week came at a perfect time for the greenhorn, who appears to have run smack into the proverbial rookie wall. Better days are ahead, and his present isn't too shabby.
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Second-round pick Darius Slay's rookie season thus far is best surmised in the picture. He's close to being a pretty good player, but the results are unfortunately not very appealing.
Slay initially won the starting right corner job with a decent preseason. His size and speed were exactly what the Lions wanted to upgrade the secondary.
Unfortunately, Slay proved not quite ready for prime time. As I wrote here, he proved vulnerable to exploitation by savvy opposing offenses.
The team benched Slay, using him only out of necessity due to injuries. The rookie responded, playing headier and looking more like a player worthy of his high draft status.
Even though he was beaten for two touchdowns by Alshon Jeffery in the Bears game and gave up another to Dez Bryant this past Sunday, Slay has generally been in much better coverage position. The first Jeffery touchdown (pictured above) and the Bryant catch both required amazing efforts by the respective wideouts.
It's also worth noting that he is one of the better form tacklers on the team. Slay has an ugly negative grade from Pro Football Focus, but I've seen tangible improvement from week to week. He will continue to fill the third outside corner role for the rest of this season. I strongly suspect we'll see Slay starting, and keeping his job, in 2014 and beyond.
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The general consensus on draft night when the Lions selected Kentucky guard Larry Warford in the third round was "Wow, great pick for Detroit."
For once, "they" were right.
Warford has been nothing short of fantastic as the starting right guard. In fact, he's arguably the best rookie offensive lineman in the entire league.
He has certainly proven a godsend for the Lions, quickly and thankfully making the fans forget the name Stephen Peterman. Warford grades out from Pro Football Focus as the best run-blocking lineman on the team.
In fact, Pro Football Focus grades Warford as the sixth-rated guard in the entire NFL through the first eight weeks. Even on his worst day, which was the Cincinnati game by a wide margin, he did not allow a sack.
Warford is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent already, and he's only going to get better as he develops a mental book on his opponents. As long as he doesn't get hurt, Larry Warford looks to be an above-average starter for a very long time for the Lions. The fact he came in the third round makes his instant success even sweeter.
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Fourth-round pick Devin Taylor is pretty easy to spot on game film. When you're 6'7" with 36-inch arms, it's hard to blend in.
Yet blending into the talented defensive line is just what Taylor is doing as a rookie. After veteran Jason Jones was lost to injury, Taylor started seeing action as a reserve defensive end.
He bagged his first career sack against Cleveland, and Taylor has notched eight tackles in the six games he's played.
His Pro Football Focus profile is quite emblematic of a middle-round rookie; two games look strong, while two others graded out negatively.
I agree with my cohorts here. Taylor has flashed promise, both as a pass rusher and an edge run defender. Yet his play has been inconsistent so far. He played his most snaps yet against Dallas and has shown enough to merit inclusion in the team's long-term plans.
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I was in Las Vegas for the draft weekend this past April with a group of friends and acquaintances. As I held court in the sports book at the Tropicana watching the draft, the Lions selected Sam Martin in the fifth round.
A punter. They took a friggin' punter. My companions laughed at me. It wasn't even a prominent punter, but rather some kid from Appalachian State. I don't scout punters because I've long held they should never be drafted.
Let this serve as my lesson learned. Sam Martin has been worth the pick. Heck, he's outplayed his draft status.
Other than one abysmal effort which set up the Bengals in prime field position on their game-winning drive, Martin has been great as a punter. Detroit leads the league in net punting, and Martin's big leg and ability to control direction plays a major part in that.
Factor in his excellent work on kickoffs, and the Lions have finally found strength and stability at a position of need.
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Sixth-rounder Theo Riddick hasn't made much of an impact. The running back from Notre Dame has just three carries for five yards in limited action.
He also has two receptions for 15 yards, and it's Riddick's receiving skills which offer the most promise for impact in the rest of 2013. With the Lions shorthanded at wide receiver, Riddick could see increased time working in the slot. He played some wideout for the Fighting Irish and has a similar set of skills to Reggie Bush, the man he backs up.
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The first free agent covered here is the one with the biggest shoes to fill. Replacing Lions legend Jason Hanson is no small task, but so far David Akers has done a fine job as the field goal kicker.
Most encouraging, Akers is 2-of-2 on kicks beyond 50 yards. Jason Hanson approves.
Reggie Bush was the marquee name on the Lions' free-agent list. He was the top priority, recruited to resuscitate a moribund rushing attack.
Bush has not disappointed...mostly. The running back has ripped off several big gains as both a runner and a receiver. The big play element has been noticeably, painfully absent from the Lions offense for most of the last decade.
He has proven lethal on quick inside screens and working out of the slot. Defenses have to adjust for his presence, and when he attacks, Reggie Bush has been a dynamic force.
It would be better if Bush attacked with greater regularity. He reverts to dancing and drifting outside instead of bursting through the designed hole too often, the primary issue which plagued his early career in New Orleans.
Bush has 518 yards on 119 carries, good for a 4.4-yard average. He's also caught 31 passes for 335 yards, both of which are good for second on the team. Bush has scored four touchdowns, two each on the ground and in the air.
Considering he missed one full game and a handful of drives in others with various injuries, his production pace is all that the Lions hoped for. He and Joique Bell make an excellent one-two punch at running back.
Former Texans safety Glover Quin was another high priority on the free-agent shopping list. The Lions sought stability and improved run support from the position after a series of disappointing stopgaps.
The irony is that Quin has proven more adept in pass coverage than run support. His two interceptions and three passes defended are gravy for a Lions defense which had precious few plays on the ball a year ago.
Quin has played a team-leading 543 snaps on the season, having missed just one rep all year. He is a great counterpart to fellow safety Louis Delmas, and the two have meshed quickly to dramatically upgrade the safety position.
His run defense started strong but has waned in the past couple of weeks. Quin excels at swooping in around the tackle and taking out the feet of the ball carrier, but lately he's been making those tackles further down the field.
Glover Quin has been worth the investment. His stabilizing presence and coverage ability have nicely upgraded the back end of the defense.
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Mathis came to the Lions from Jacksonville late in the preseason. He was an emergency reach for any veteran cornerback with any sort of relative competence.
That's probably the best word to describe Mathis. Competent. His Pro Football Focus grade of 0.8 reflects his baseline mediocrity.
When he's played, the veteran has generally looked okay. He did have a very good stretch against Cincinnati, where he deflected three passes in two possessions.
Alas, there have also been moments which explain why he was a street free agent in late August. He's had trouble with quicker wideouts, and I've noted him being on the hook for a couple of communication issues which facilitated big plays by the other team.
He's battled a pesky groin injury for most of the first half of the season, which has limited his downfield coverage speed. Mathis and Darius Slay have essentially split the starting corner role opposite Chris Houston, and Mathis has been the better of the two.
As long as his groin heals, Mathis has carved out a solid role with Detroit. Considering his late arrival and low expectations, he represents another solid find by general manager Martin Mayhew.
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For my money, there has been no bigger Lions free agent disappointment than defensive end Israel Idonije.
I applauded when Detroit signed the longtime Chicago Bear. I felt like Idonije would bring pass-rushing oomph and solid run support to the left defensive end position. He also played inside in Chicago quite a bit, and that versatility was something which the Lions sought out.
Unfortunately, his effectiveness apparently remained in the Windy City. Idonije has done very little as a pass rusher other than tormenting his former team and its overwhelmed rookie right tackle, Jordan Mills.
He's been even worse as a run defender. Pad level and anchor strength have been a major problem, and he has registered just five tackles in eight games.
His primary function on the team now is to mentor fellow African native Ziggy Ansah. Idonije is widely regarded as one of the classiest players in the NFL, a consummate professional. Detroit does have a need for that, but that's really his only value to the team at this point.
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Micheal Spurlock was brought in to upgrade the punt and kick return position.
Improvement over the wildly ineffective Stefan Logan wasn't asking for much. The Lions ranked 31st in 2012 in kickoff return average and 22nd in punt returns.
To that end, Spurlock has been better. Detroit currently sits 13th in kick return average and remains 22nd in punt returns, according to ESPN.
Yet Spurlock suffered from the same malady as Logan; neither could make the first tackler miss with any sort of regularity. The blocking has not been great, but good return men are able to create for themselves. Just one of his six kick returns out of the end zone has made the 20-yard line.
Spurlock was a healthy scratch for the Dallas game, losing his role to recently acquired free agent Jeremy Ross. This does not portend well for his future. It would not be surprising if he doesn't finish the season with the Lions.
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Tight end Joseph Fauria is the most prominent undrafted free agent find by Detroit in a long time. It's so long, in fact, that I cannot think of anyone who has had close to immediate impact which Fauria brings.
The best part is that Fauria isn't even supposed to be the rookie tight end making an impact. Detroit drafted Michael Williams in the seventh round, but a broken hand in the preseason landed the big Alabama blocker on injured reserve.
Fauria is not a blocker, not in the least. As I wrote this past Sunday, his playing time is limited in no small part by his lousy pass protection.
Yet the Lions are still quite happy with the lanky UCLA product. Catching five touchdown passes in six games, including three in the win over Cleveland, engenders that sort of goodwill.
Fauria is an excellent target in short yardage and shrunken field situations. He has just eight catches for 81 yards, but the five scores trump the meager output. His celebratory dances are worth the price of admission, too.
The Lions feel strongly enough about Fauria's ability that they released veteran tight end Tony Scheffler. If he can improve his blocking, Fauria has a chance to be a more significant contributor for the playoff push this season.
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The other undrafted rookie contributor is offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle. And for as much publicity as Fauria has received, the big man from Texas Tech might have an even more prominent future with the team.
Waddle did an excellent job in preseason, consistently impressing the coaches and his teammates. That earned him an unexpected roster spot.
He bided his time on the bench for the first six weeks. With three veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, Waddle saw no action.
Injuries changed that in Week 7. Waddle had to replace left tackle Riley Reiff, and he fared pretty well. He then impressively flopped to the right side when Corey Hilliard went down. He wasn't perfect, but he was just as good as either man he replaced.
When Hilliard couldn't answer the bell against Dallas, Waddle earned his first career start. Judging by his play, it will not be his last. Waddle earned the highest offensive line game grade for any Lion from Pro Football Focus for his excellent effort.
I've written extensively about Waddle's potential, both in the preseason and before the Dallas game. Suffice to say, I strongly believe in his ability to emerge as a good starting tackle sooner than later. He's got the potential to be very good.