6 2014 Draft Picks That Could Be Opening Game Starters for the Detroit Lions

Jeff RisdonContributor IApril 13, 2014

6 2014 Draft Picks That Could Be Opening Game Starters for the Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya

    The 2014 NFL draft is less than a month away, and the Detroit Lions are breaking down potential additions to the den.

    This is a bit of an odd draft for the Lions in that just about every starting spot is already filled. The team filled four starting roles with 2013 picks, including cornerback Darius Slay (pictured).

    The only realistic opening day starting positions are at outside linebacker, third wide receiver and, perhaps, kicker or defensive tackle. Even a first-round pick is not guaranteed to start right away. 

    Here are a few prospects that could immediately take over a starting role for the Lions in 2014. Of course, a couple of them might require a trade up in the draft...

Anthony Barr

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    UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is an intriguing option with the No. 10 overall pick. 

    He would figure to handle one of the starting outside backer positions along with DeAndre Levy. As Kyle Meinke of MLive and others have reported, the Lions are definitely in the market to add a pass-rushing linebacker to the defense.

    Recently I explored what Barr brings to the table and whether it's a great fit for Detroit. His athleticism and explosiveness offer the Lions something they do not have on the roster.

    Even if he were to start as a rookie, the Bruin would likely play a limited role. Even though most expect the Lions to use three linebackers more frequently under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin than in recent seasons under Jim Schwartz, the Lions figure to remain in nickel situations quite a bit.

    That means just two linebackers on the field, which has been the norm. Barr would have to prove his mettle as more than just an edge-rusher to earn some of those reps from returning starter Stephen Tulloch.

Mike Evans

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    Like Barr, Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans would almost certainly start the 2014 season third on the depth chart at his position. 

    Some weeks that would mean a starting assignment, while in others Evans would come off of the bench. Either way, it's a role that figures to see extensive action in new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense. 

    Evans brings tantalizing size and strength as an outside target. This would allow free-agent signing Golden Tate to slide inside to the slot, where he had some success in his Seattle tenure. With Calvin Johnson also adept at playing the slot, Evans would give Lombardi freedom to isolate favorable matchups.

    There are issues with Evans, however. He's not quick off of the line, which somewhat limits the roles he can play. Also, the Lions already have a crowd of giant targets with Johnson, tight ends Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew, as well as holdover Kris Durham. 

    The team could, and probably should, be looking for a little more diversity of targets. 

    Then there is the availability factor. Evans winds up coming off of the draft board before Detroit picks in a plethora of mock drafts, going to Buffalo (SB Nation), Cleveland (Detroit Lions Draft) and Tampa Bay (in two of CBS's listed mocks and NFL.com).

    If he does last to tenth, Evans will certainly be in the Lions' final consideration. 

Khalil Mack

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    This is the most unlikely of the players to actually be available when the Lions pick at No. 10 overall. However, if they trade up, Mack could be a very intriguing target. 

    As noted in the above video, Mack is a do-it-all talent that can play as both a traditional outside linebacker as well as an edge-rusher. He offers the potential to play a hybrid position similar to what Terrell Suggs played in Baltimore, where Teryl Austin comes from. 

    His tantalizing skills led B/R's own Eric Mack (no relation) to guarantee superstar status for the Buffalo Bull. As noted in Mack's piece, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network believes he should be the top overall pick in the entire draft, ahead of Jadeveon Clowney. 

    Anyone with those credentials would absolutely start right away for Detroit. He's the kind of player that you build a defense around, rather than trying to plug him into a predetermined role. 

    The price to move up and secure Mack figures to be steep. He's a top five fixture in just about every mock draft. 

     

Sammy Watkins

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    Perhaps the worst-kept secret is Detroit's coveting of Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins. Many sources, including Pro Football Talk, have openly reported on the likelihood of a trade upward to secure the dynamic receiver. 

    Watkins makes a better fit than Mike Evans because he offers more versatility and diversity to the receiving corps. Like Johnson and Tate, he can play inside or outside. His quickness and precision on short routes would open up all sorts of lethal opportunities for the Lions offense to pounce upon opposing defenses. 

    Of course, it would require a trade. At minimum, the Lions would have to move up to No. 5, where the Raiders currently sit. It might mean moving all the way up to No. 2 and dealing with the Rams

    The price would be steep to add a player that wouldn't figure to play more than two others at his own position as a rookie. That speaks to Watkins' dynamic skills, but it also clouds whether or not all of the open gushing is really a clever smokescreen by general manager Martin Mayhew.

Kyle Van Noy

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    BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy represents the only pick here with the potential to start right away who doesn't come from the first round.

    That's how solidly established Detroit's depth chart sits entering the draft. 

    Van Noy would fill the same role as Mack or Barr, albeit with less fanfare. That doesn't mean he isn't the best fit, however. In fact, his production compares nicely to the first-round options over the last two seasons:

    Player Tackles Tackles for LossSacks Forced Turnovers Passes Defended
    Van Noy7839171212
    Mack1083918.5139
    Barr1034123116

    All stats here are courtesy of CFB Stats. Forced turnovers include blocked punts.

    His all-around game, as highlighted in the above video, would enable him to stay on the field for all three downs. He would also represent the best option of the three as injury insurance for either DeAndre Levy or Stephen Tulloch, either of whom would be quite devastating without prominent draft help. 

Aaron Donald

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    Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald would be given an opportunity to start right away if he is the pick at No. 10. 

    That 10 spot seems to be right in line with where Donald should go in the draft, as noted by B/R's own Matt Miller:

    The fact that Aaron Donald is my No. 10 overall player is a testament to how deep this draft is. Would be top 5 most years.

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 11, 2014

    Of course, the Lions have Ndamukong Suh firmly entrenched at one defensive tackle spot. The other position would be a battle between Donald and yet another first-round pick, Nick Fairley. 

    The fourth-year Auburn product is entering a contract season after the Lions refused to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. His future with the club is tenuous even if he doubles his meager 2013 output of six sacks. 

    We talked about this potential last month in a piece on Fairley's future. To expand upon those thoughts, I would speculate that drafting Donald at No. 10 means Fairley will not be in Detroit in 2014. It's hard to envision Fairley reacting positively to first being denied his option and then having his replacement thrown in his face. 

    That would make Donald starting right away academic. It's a rather dramatic move, but if the diminutive dynamo is indeed the best player available on Detroit's draft board, they're not going to hesitate to make it.