7 NFL Draft Sleepers for the Detroit Lions

Jeff RisdonContributor IMay 7, 2014

7 NFL Draft Sleepers for the Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The 2014 NFL draft is nearly upon us, and the Detroit Lions are poised to add several new young faces to the den. 

    Much of the focus has been on which players general manager Martin Mayhew and his personnel staff are going to choose in the first two days of the draft. 

    That ignores the third day, rounds four through seven. The Lions have three picks in the fourth round and one each in the sixth and seventh. Those players will be expected to make at least some impact on the team in 2014, much like punter Sam Martin (pictured) did as a fifth-round pick a year ago. 

    Here are seven prospects who could appeal to the Lions this Saturday. 

Shaquille Richardson, CB, Arizona

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    Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson checks a lot of boxes on the Lions wishlist for prospective corners. 

    He's a hair over 6'0" and his 4.43 40-yard dash time meets the requisite speed to match recent Lions picks like Jonte Green, Darius Slay and Chris Greenwood. 

    As noted in the video above, his speed and length are attributes that cannot be coached, and he also demonstrated he can aggressively jump routes and get his hands on the ball. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com mentions his feistiness during East-West Shrine Game practices, noting:

    Arizona CB Shaquille Richardson has been one of the most impressive corners on the field this week. He has consistently made plays on the ball in 1-on-1 drills, displaying outstanding quickness, footwork and movement skills.

    Richardson is solid in run support and doesn't miss many tackles. That's important, because it will help him contribute on special teams even if he cannot crack the corner rotation early in his career. 

    Much of what ailed him in college, namely his impatience and tendency to overplay routes, are fixable with solid NFL coaching. The athletic material is there for a potential future starter. 

    He projects as a fourth- or fifth-round pick, and the Lions could be eyeing him with one of their fourth-round compensatory selections. 

     

Bruce Gaston, DT, Purdue

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    It's hard to be a sleeper for a midwestern franchise while playing in the Big Ten, but the current downtrodden status of the Purdue football team has kept people from giving defensive tackle Bruce Gaston his proper due. 

    Some have noticed, including Mike Loyko of NEPatriots Draft:

    Late Round DT Sleeper I'm working on.. Bruce Gaston, DT, Purdue. Nice combo of size, quickness, and upperbody strength.

    — Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) April 12, 2014

    Dane Brugler of CBS also came away impressed with Gaston after watching him up close in St. Petersburg for the Shrine Game, noting that the scheme change to a 3-4 front took away from what Gaston does well:

    #Purdue DT Bruce Gaston had a forgettable SR year, but the main reason was bc of the switch to the 3-4 base. He's very much draftable IMO

    — Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) March 18, 2014

    The Lions play a 4-3, where Gaston impressed while playing next to Carolina Panthers 2013 second-rounder Kawann Short for the Boilermakers. His ability to shoot gaps into the backfield but also anchor against the run means he can play multiple roles behind starters Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley while learning the NFL ropes. 

    Gaston should be in play for the Lions in the sixth round. 

     

Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson

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    From the above video, Matt Miller's first line explains his appeal to Detroit in the late rounds.

    "Clemson's Tajh Boyd is one of the top athletes at the quarterback position."

    It might seem counterintuitive for the Lions to select a developmental quarterback whose skills are so divergent from entrenched starter Matthew Stafford. Yet Boyd's scrambling ability and creativity are things that no other quarterback on the roster offers. 

    That's important for game preparation against mobile, improvisational throwers like Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Tannehill on the 2014 schedule. 

    Considering the only reason the backup would ever see live action is the unthinkable injury to Stafford, it's smart to have a player who offers something tangible to help the team win games in that role. 

    Max Demara of SideLion Report offered this opinion as well, noting that ESPN's Jon Gruden brought Boyd's name up in conjunction with the Lions recently. The Clemson product's uneven play likely keeps him available deep into the draft.

    Perhaps as far as Detroit's sixth-round selection.

Howard Jones, OLB, Shepherd

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Shepherd University isn't exactly a football hotbed. In fact, I had to do an Internet search to find out where it was even located, which is Shepherdstown in the West Virginia panhandle. 

    The D-II school has one heck of a linebacker in Howard Jones, who demonstrated enough ability to earn a combine invitation. From his NFL.com combine profile:

    Muscular build with long arms. Intriguing athleticism. Outstanding straight-line speed and leaping ability. Explosive edge burst. Displays good balance, body control and agility as a rusher. Dips inside suddenly. Closes fast and shows striking ability. Flashes power potential. Has special-teams experience. Durable four-year starter.

    Sounds like someone you would like to get to know well, right? 

    Before professing your everlasting love for Jones, there are some caveats. Darren Page highlighted them in his draft profile for Bleacher Report, noting:

    • as less a dominant performer than he was a dominant athlete at the Division 2 level. 
    • Didn’t necessarily play the game at a faster pace mentally than his collegiate competition. 
    • Questionable instincts and play diagnosing skills for a non-pass-rushing linebacker prospect. 
    • Little experience playing from off the ball or playing in pass coverage, if any. 
    • Linear athlete more than one with significant lateral quickness. 
    • Drops his eyes to blockers and can be slow to locate the football.

    Yet the Lions have shown a propensity for drafting great athletes at the linebacker position. Unfortunately players like Doug Hogue, Brandon Hepburn and Tahir Whitehead have done little thus far.

    However, things can only get better in terms of player development under the new coaching staff, and Jones is as much of a freak athlete at linebacker as Ezekiel Ansah is at defensive end. 

Je'Ron Hamm, WR, Louisiana-Monroe

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    If the Lions are looking for a big, physical wideout who can reliably catch passes in a crowd and bulldoze defenders after the catch, one guy they need to consider is UL-Monroe's Je'Ron Hamm.

    He's a widebody of a receiver, so much so that he looks like a tight end. Hamm is 6'3" and a muscular 233 pounds.

    Even though he lacks speed, he can surprise defenders with the niftiness. Check out the play at the 1:15 mark of his game against Wake Forest, courtesy of Draft Breakdown. While you watch, note how often he has to adjust to the ball in the air too.

    The Warhawks had major quarterback issues last season, which hurts Hamm's stock, but makes him a sleeper worth a long look. He looked solid in 2012 contests against Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor. Hamm's size and potential gives him the chance to occupy that hybrid receiver/H-back role. 

    It's a real stretch to sell Hamm as a potential draft pick, however. He's currently listed as the 64th-best wideout at CBS, well into the 500-600 overall range. He's more of a priority free-agent target to sign after the draft ends. 

     

Tre Boston, S, North Carolina

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    When the Lions released starting safety Louis Delmas, they lost more than a quality defender. They lost a vocal leadership presence, both on and off the field. 

    While North Carolina's Tre Boston isn't as instinctive as Delmas, he's got the vociferousness down pat. From my Shrine Game practice notes at Detroit Lions Draft:

    North Carolina safety Tre Boston wins Mr. Congeniality. He’s always got a smile on his face and is always making noise. Sometimes (see Sean Weatherspoon or Cam Thomas) that drives teammates nuts but Boston’s act is well-received. Oh yeah, he can ball too. He showed great burst in breaking up a pass to Gallon, reaching around the Michigan wideout to break up the pass.

     

    His game film consistently shows a lifelong cornerback trying to learn to play safety, which is precisely what Boston is. He boasts well-developed cover, including the ability to line up over a flexed-out tight end and run with him down the seam. 

    His profile on CBS perfectly summarizes why the Lions should take a late-round interest in Boston:

    He's still very raw in terms of his instincts in coverage, and could probably use a couple of years sitting behind experienced safeties at the next level, but his ceiling is certainly high enough to merit a draft selection, and he has the potential to be a regular down the line.

    That's exactly the situation Boston would enter in Detroit. Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo are set as the starters in 2014, but in the long term Ihedigbo is probably best served playing as the third safety.

    Get Boston a year of experience under his belt and he could take over in 2015. 

Lawrence Virgil, DL, Valdosta State

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Lions love having large, athletic players at defensive end. Ziggy Ansah, Devin Taylor and Jason Jones are all at least 6'5" and 270 pounds. 

    If they're looking to add another big end, one player who fits the bill is Valdosta State's Lawrence Virgil.

    The small-school defensive tackle measures in at almost 6'5" and 287 pounds, but he projects more as a hybrid end/tackle in the NFL. He caught Tony Pauline of Draft Insider's attention:

    Lawrence Virgil/DL/Valdosta St; one of my favorite D-line sleepers- 39 reps on bench, 34.5-inch arms, 4.95s/40..shouldve got a Shrine Invite

    — Tony Pauline (@TonyPauline) March 24, 2014

    Those are some outstanding raw athletic numbers to work with for Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. That's good, because Virgil needs the work. As noted in his NFL.com draft profile, he is "too easily engaged" and "needs to learn to shoot his hands, stack and shed". 

    He's a sixth or seventh-round prospect who would spend his rookie campaign on the practice squad while he learns better technique and positional discipline.