Detroit Lions Combine Preview: Top Targets, Sleepers and Prospects to Watch
More than 300 players will go through extensive medical examinations, interviews and workouts, while every coach, scout, general manager and even most owners watch with pitched intent.
The Detroit Lions will be well-represented among the NFL contingency. General manager Martin Mayhew and his personnel team will be looking for prospects for every round of the draft.
There will be a lot of candidates to choose from, as this draft appears quite deep with both athletic talent and football skill.
Here are some players who figure to be prime targets and late-round sleepers, as well as some players who are poised to put on quite a show at the Underwear Olympics.
Top Target: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
With Detroit jettisoning starter Louis Delmas in a salary-cap maneuver, the safety position has become an offseason priority.
Heading into the combine, the consensus top safety in the draft is Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. No doubt the Lions will have a keen eye on the rangy Crimson Tide defensive back.
He needs a strong combine performance to prove he's worthy of the No. 10 overall pick. Right now he sits 17th on Matt Miller's pre-combine big board at Bleacher Report.
Even if he tests out better than anticipated athletically, he's unlikely to rocket up much higher.
That would make him a pretty big reach for the Lions if they stand pat at 10th. If they trade back, however, he could be in play. Mayhew and Co. will be judging if he's a prudent possibility while they watch him work out and interview him in Indy.
Prospect to Watch: Sammy Watkins
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is already a long shot to fall to the Lions at the 10th pick. Still, it's OK for Lions fans to dream about the potential pairing with Calvin Johnson.
If Watkins performs as expected, those dreams will go the way of unicorns and mermaids as impossible visions.
Per Mike Huguenin of NFL.com, Watkins is expected to light up the workouts: "Sammy Watkins, Clemson: He looks to be the best receiver in the draft, and he is expected to turn in a great 40 time. His agility looks good, too. In short, he should be a combine standout."
Any 40-yard dash time under 4.40 will cement him as unreachable for the Lions. If he breaks 4.35 and kills it in agility drills, he would stand a fair chance of going in the top three.
Sleeper to Watch: Matt Armstrong
How deep of a sleeper is Matt Armstrong?
The Grand Valley State offensive lineman doesn't even have a picture available in the extensive database here. Instead, we'll show the man he would eventually replace in Detroit: center Dominic Raiola.
Armstrong is a late-round prospect with a lot to prove. While he's quite accomplished at the D-II level, most of the football world has yet to lay eyes on the 6'3", 296-pound Michigan native.
His Lakers resume is impressive. He won the Rimington Trophy as the top Division II center in 2013. He earned All-GLIAC honors all four years in Allendale while playing right tackle and right guard as well as center.
That sort of versatility gives him a better chance of making a roster initially as a reserve, which is the typical way that most late-round picks or priority undrafted free agents survive their first year.
When I watched him play in person this fall, I saw a player with legit NFL potential. He dominated his level of play—not just with athleticism but with strong technique and football IQ as well.
For more info about Armstrong, check out Peter Wallner's feature about him on MLive.
Top Target: Mike Evans
One potential pick for the Lions at No. 10 is Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. How he performs at the combine will either put him into serious consideration or rule him out completely.
The biggest questions surrounding him are his speed and agility. He has size to spare, as he's listed by the Aggies at 6'5" and 225 pounds. During the last two seasons in College Station, he has proved he has the strength and hands that are desired at the next level.
If he can break the 4.5 barrier in the 40-yard dash, he would be firmly in the Lions wheelhouse. That would be a surprise, however—CBS lists his projected 40 time at 4.58.
Given his long-striding gait and sheer length, it's hard to imagine Evans getting separation from NFL defenses without much speed. That would almost certainly rule him out at the 10th spot. In fact, if he clocks in at or above 4.6, he could fall to the Lions at the 45th overall pick in the second round.
Few players have as much money on the line in Indy as Evans does.
Prospect to Watch: Tyler Starr
South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr probably fits as a sleeper as well, but after the combine, few will have their eyes closed to his ability.
The Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year showed enough at the FCS level to merit an invitation to the Shrine Game. While in St. Petersburg, Fla., he demonstrated the impressive athleticism to transcend the lower level of competition.
That athleticism will be on display in Indianapolis, and it just might be record-breaking. As Bruce Feldman of CBS notes: "Starr says he has clocked a three-cone drill time of 6.29 in his training sessions in Tennessee. For comparison's sake, the fastest time in Indy last year was 6.52 by cornerback Will Davis from Utah."
Even if Starr doesn't hit his boasted time, anything under 6.75 seconds would still be quite a feat.
He could also put up the most bench-press reps of all linebackers, which would demonstrate strength to go with the freakish quickness.
All of that would draw the interest of the Lions, perhaps as early as the fourth round. Of course, if he breaks combine records, he might not last that long.
Sleeper to Watch: Kenny Ladler
Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler is a third-day prospect whom the Lions could find intriguing. He's an under-the-radar talent who impressed me during Senior Bowl practices with his all-around game:
Came away impressed again with Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler. Count him a winner this week. #SeniorBowl— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) January 22, 2014
He's an instinctive safety with good range and an excellent feel for coverage responsibilities. At Vanderbilt he proved he could make plays on the football; he led the nation in forced fumbles in 2013 with five, including two against Texas A&M.
He also picked off five passes as a senior, and his strong hands and burst to the football showed well on the practice fields in Mobile, Ala.
The Commodores used him in a similar style to the way the Lions deployed Louis Delmas last season, so the transition for the potential fourth-round pick would be smooth in Detroit.
He's the No. 6 free safety on Matt Miller's big board and is rated 125th overall. Nabbing a potential starting safety in the fourth round would help the Lions address other issues with more prominent picks.
Top Target: Kony Ealy
Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy doesn't get a lot of attention as a potential target for Detroit at the 10th spot. But if Mayhew is sticking to a "best player available" philosophy, the versatile Ealy would be very much in the picture.
He played all over the Tigers' front and thrived no matter where he lined up. His most natural position is at left defensive end in a four-man front, where the Lions need to replace free agent Willie Young.
However, he has the Jason Jones-like ability to kick inside as a 3-technique defensive tackle. He also has the Julian Peterson-like ability to stand up and play in space as a strong-side linebacker.
He's a player whom the Lions are likely considering a lot more than most fans would believe, especially if the strategy is to take the top talent regardless of position. A strong performance at the combine should cement Ealy as a top-15 lock.
Prospect to Watch: Dri Archer
Kent State has produced a couple of versatile NFL talents in recent years. Both Josh Cribbs and Julian Edelman parlayed their impressive athleticism into strong pro careers, playing a host of roles with their teams over the years.
Dri Archer is the next Golden Flash in line. He quite literally embodies the "flash," and his incredible quickness will shine at the combine.
As Dan Hope of Bleacher Report notes, Archer stands to gain a lot in Indy: "Archer has shown exceptional speed and quickness throughout his collegiate career, which he could use to be among the combine’s top performers in the 40-yard shuttle, 20- and 60-yard shuttles and three-cone drill."
His agility fostered a prolific career at Kent, where he played as a running back, wide receiver and return specialist.
He's unlikely to be highly drafted—if at all—but look for diminutive 5'8" Archer to drop a lot of jaws on the synthetic turf at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Sleeper to Watch: Matt Hazel
Coastal Carolina has a couple of late-round prospects in this draft class. Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro has a chance to get drafted as a powerful runner with surprisingly soft hands.
The Lions don't figure to have much interest in that type of player, but his teammate Matt Hazel ought to pique their curiosity.
The wide receiver earned rave reviews from Shrine Game practices, where he repeatedly tormented the corners in attendance with his ability to cut sharply at full speed. As I wrote in a recap of the week:
While he measured in somewhat shorter than expected at just over 6’ and 196 (he was listed at 6’3” and 210), his speed and quickness were definitely legit. Hazel continually torched East defensive backs in practice with his incredibly fast, sharp cuts and body control. He proved he could leap up and make the contested catch in traffic. There is some of the “good” Greg Jennings to his game
Hazel is a more NFL-ready prospect than last year's sixth-round pick, Corey Fuller. Hazel projects to get drafted in that same sort of range, although he could elevate himself with a strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine.