Detroit Lions

Ranking the Detroit Lions' Biggest Needs to Address in the 2014 Draft

Jeff RisdonContributor IApril 21, 2014

Ranking the Detroit Lions' Biggest Needs to Address in the 2014 Draft

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    Carlos Osorio

    The 2014 NFL draft is less than three weeks away, and the Detroit Lions are feverishly preparing their plan of attack.

    While the team has done a solid job of filling holes with free agency, they still have several needs to help improve the roster. General manager Martin Mayhew and his personnel staff pulled off an excellent draft in 2013, headlined by first-round defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (pictured). 

    It's important to note that the needs list might not mesh exactly with the order in which those needs get addressed in the draft. After all, if the Lions addressed the second need listed here in the second round, Mayhew would be a laughingstock. 

    Here are the top priorities for the Lions to address in the 2014 NFL draft. 

Outside Linebacker

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    During the final season of the Jim Schwartz era, Detroit played with three cornerbacks and two linebackers as the base defense. 

    The third linebacker was Ashlee Palmer, who participated in just 367 snaps in 2013. The third corner, a role split between Bill Bentley and Darius Slay, saw 851 combined reps. 

    That is expected to change with the new coaching staff. In fact, new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin comes from a Baltimore defense that saw six linebackers get more action than Palmer did a year ago. 

    While Palmer and 2012 fifth-round pick Tahir Whitehead remain on the roster, neither has proven worthy of more than being a sub-package role player. 

    It's readily evident that the Lions must add that third starter to join the lineup with DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. 

    What precise role the Lions want the new linebacker to play remains up in the air. While pass-rushing is a well-documented top priority, the team might want a player that can play all three downs instead of just a specialized role. 

    Among the candidates to consider:

    RoundPlayers
     First Anthony Barr, UCLA or Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
     Second Kyle Van Noy, BYU or Carl Bradford, Arizona State
     Third Christian Kirksey, Iowa or Jordan Tripp, Montana
     Fourth Trevor Reilly, Utah or Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA

    It's entirely possible that the Lions draft more than one linebacker in May. 

Kicker

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    Steve Helber

    Through the constant revolving door of players, general managers and coaches of various aptitudes, the one bedrock of stability in Detroit has been the kicker.

    Since the Lions drafted Eddie Murray in the seventh round of the 1980 draft, the team has employed just three kickers. And the third, David Akers, lasted for just one unimpressive campaign in 2013.

    Murray and Jason Hanson provided the Lions with over three decades of strong kicking. Even in the leanest of times (take a bow, Mr. Millen!), Detroit always had a great kicker.

    With the current options the unproven John Potter (pictured) and the unknown Giorgio Tavecchio, the Lions need to bring in the worthy successor to Murray and Hanson. 

    This is a strong draft for kickers. Among the big-legged candidates for the Lions to consider, perhaps as early as with one of the compensatory picks at the end of the fourth round, include:

    • Zack Hocker from Arkansas
    • Cairo Santos from Tulane, Murray's alma mater
    • Anthony Fera from Texas
    • Nate Freese from Boston College

     

Third Wide Receiver

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    No question about it, the Lions absolutely must add another wideout in the draft to play as the third receiver with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

    While the current roster situation isn't necessarily as dire as some perceive, none of the incumbent candidates inspire much confidence. 

    Ryan Broyles has talent but has suffered serious, season-ending leg injuries in each of the last three seasons. Jeremy Ross flashed ability in the Thanksgiving massacre of Green Bay, but is more suited for limited offensive duty and a focus on his return specialist role. 

    Youngsters Kevin Ogletree and Corey Fuller offer faint promise at this point, while Kris Durham has proven he is not the man for the job by catching just 38 of his 82 targets a year ago. 

    To get new head coach Jim Caldwell's offense humming, Detroit has to add a legit third wideout. Given that both Tate and Johnson are versatile enough to play in multiple alignments, the Lions have many options to choose from.

    Recently I covered some worthy candidates and why the team should strongly consider a second-round investment at wideout. 

    Some other options for the third or fourth round include:

    • Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
    • Paul Richardson, Colorado
    • Jarvis Landry, LSU
    • Bruce Ellington, South Carolina
    • Josh Huff, Oregon (see above video)

    All of those players would immediately upgrade the role. 

Safety

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    The Lions are okay at the safety position right now. But they could stand to improve by adding a more dynamic, high-end youngster.

    Glover Quin was pretty strong in his first year in Detroit, ranking 11th in the Pro Football Focus (subscription required) safety ratings. Free-agent signing James Ihedigbo finished 16th in those same rankings while playing for the Ravens in 2013. 

    Believe it or not...

    Going just off @PFF scores from '13, the #Lions have the 4th-best safety tandem in the NFL in Quin and Ihedigbo. SEA, NE & TEN top them.

    — Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) April 20, 2014

     

    Yeah, I don't believe it either. 

    Ihedigbo is 30 and his solid 2013 is an outlier for an otherwise humdrum career. He's a good schematic fit and can help install new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's system, as he played under Austin in Baltimore. Yet he's almost certainly hit his apex already. 

    Quin's 2013 was no fluke, but he's more of a reliable cog than a dynamic force. He has five interceptions and three forced fumbles in the last three seasons. 

    The Lions still could use a playmaking safety, a true turnover progenitor. 

    Be it Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Jimmie Ward in the first round, Terrence Brooks or Deone Bucannon in the second, or even later-round types like Kenny Ladler or Jonathan Dowling, the Lions need to take a shot at landing a more dynamic safety. 

     

    Note: in the above tweet, the Titans were mistakenly included at the expense of the San Francisco 49ers. The Lions remain fourth, however. 

Interior Offensive Lineman for the Future

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    This is one need that is more about long-term fulfillment than short-term imperative.

    Detroit's starting offensive line returns intact. Three of the five were first-year starters in 2013 in left tackle Riley Reiff, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. The arrow is pointing up for all three youngsters, notably Warford.

    The other two starters are center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims. Both will be free agents after the 2014 season, and Raiola is expected to retire after one more year per numerous reports, including from Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press

    A proactive solution is an excellent idea. The Lions can grab a prospect in 2014 and groom him behind the veterans before installing him into the starting lineup in 2015. 

    That's exactly what they did with Reiff, the team's first-round pick in 2012. He played fewer than 100 snaps as a rookie while getting his NFL feet wet. That allowed him to swim above the typical rookie starter. 

    Colorado State's Weston Richburg would make an excellent fit. When I spoke with him after a Senior Bowl practice, he indicated a willingness to sit and learn behind a veteran mentor. He was was enthusiastic in noting he can play guard as well as center. 

    If he's available in the third round, Detroit would be wise to rush up to the podium with his name on the draft card. Richburg could even merit the 45th overall pick if the Lions are so inclined. 

    Some other options to consider:

    RoundPlayers
     Third Travis Swanson, Arkansas or Trai Turner, LSU
     Fourth Bryan Stork, Florida State or Dakota Dozier, Furman
     Sixth Tyler Larsen, Utah State or James Stone, Tennessee

     

A Legit Developmental Quarterback

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    Michael Conroy

    The Lions filled the backup quarterback role by bringing Dan Orlovsky back to the den after he journeyed about the NFL for a few years following his first stint in Detroit.

    Orlovsky is a nice stopgap as Matthew Stafford's backup, but the Lions still need a legitimate developmental option to groom as the eventual No. 2. Kellen Moore lacks the arm strength and athleticism to realistically ascend to that role. 

    While the Lions could address this as early as with one of the team's two fourth-round compensatory selections, it's more likely they wait until the sixth or seventh round. 

    One of the more prudent options is Keith Wenning from Ball State (pictured). He has the arm strength and confidence that can emulate Stafford.

    Fellow B/R writer Michael Schottey and I both came away impressed with Wenning during East-West Shrine Game practices. Schottey offered this informative piece on the strong-armed MAC product, who projects as a sixth or seventh-round pick. 

    Other options include Jeff Mathews from Cornell, Dustin Vaughan from West Texas A&M and Garrett Gilbert from SMU. Pittsburgh's Tom Savage also fits the bill, though his inexplicable meteoric rise up draft boards (h/t NFL.com) in recent weeks removes him from the equation. 

     

    All advanced and game statistics and snap counts are courtesy of Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription. Transactional and biographical info is from NFL.com. Draft-round projections are the opinion of the author and largely derived from Detroit Lions Draft, where he is the founder and editor. 

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