The Most Intriguing Rookie Storylines at Detroit Lions OTAs
As OTAs advance into their second week, it's time to shed a little light on the Detroit Lions' rookie class.
Detroit has a very interesting group of rookies. From top pick Eric Ebron to undrafted long shots such as Justin Jackson, there are some intriguing storylines playing out as camp progresses.
It's still quite early in their NFL careers, of course. Yet some revealing tidbits and glimpses into the future are out there already. Here are some of the more intriguing storylines to watch with the newest additions to the Lions' den.
Where Exactly Will Eric Ebron Play?
First-round pick Eric Ebron should probably just go by the label "receiver." He's a tight end on the team's official website, but as was the case during his college days at North Carolina, Ebron plays more of a wide receiver role.
It's so contentious to call Graham—and by extension Ebron—a tight end that the Saints star has filed a grievance against the NFL to declare him a wide receiver. The Saints used the tight end franchise tag on him, but the NFLPA claims that because he spent 67 percent of his time split out, he should be considered a receiver, according to John Breech of CBS Sports.
To reinforce how labeling Ebron a tight end is a misnomer, Breech points out that Dennis Pitta led all tight ends by being split in the slot or out wide 74 percent of the time. Guess who was Pitta's offensive coordinator in Baltimore?
That would be new Lions head coach Jim Caldwell.
Ebron figures to be an interchangeable piece with Calvin Johnson, who can also play split wide or in the slot. Of course, No. 2 wideout Golden Tate offers that same versatility.
We haven't seen much of a hint from the first few days of OTAs. Ebron was running with the third string at tight end (h/t Paula Pasche from the Oakland Press) and was not seen working with the wide receivers in the brief sessions open to the media.
For a detailed breakdown of what Ebron's role figures to look like, check out this excellent piece from Bleacher Report's Zach Kruse.
What Role Will Kyle Van Noy Play?
Much as Eric Ebron doesn't really fit the traditional way the Lions have used the tight end, the same is true of second-round pick Kyle Van Noy at linebacker.
The title remains the same, but Van Noy's job description is quite divergent from what Lions fans have seen in the Jim Schwartz era.
Instead of lining up five yards off the line and playing more of a read-and-react style, the linebackers in new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's defense have a lot more on their plates.
That's perfect for Van Noy, whose versatility at BYU helped make the Lions covet him so highly. As noted a minute into the above video, they've already shown several different looks with the rangy rookie in the first few sessions.
He's going to rush the passer from a closed-end position, something the Lions have not done since Julian Peterson's heyday. Van Noy is also going to move around to create overload looks and drop into deeper coverage responsibilities as well.
It's exciting to ponder the possibilities of what a creative mind such as Austin can do with a versatile piece such as Van Noy. After years of predictable, often pedantic linebacker usage under Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, the spot is shaping up to be a lot more interesting and aggressive.
How High Does Cornelius Lucas Climb on the Depth Chart?
Former Kansas State offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas went undrafted, which was a bit of a surprise. Even so, the Lions had their eyes on him a lot earlier than when they quickly signed him as an undrafted free agent:
Cornelius Lucas was the Lions' top UDFA target, per team. Originally called him in fourth round.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) May 17, 2014
The 6'8" behemoth often looked like a legit NFL starter while playing in the Big 12. A foot issue hampered his workout season, and his draft loss is Detroit's big gain.
Lucas immediately jumped to fourth on the depth chart behind starters Riley Reiff and LaAdrian Waddle, as well as veteran swing tackle Corey Hilliard.
With Michael Williams moving from tight end to tackle, Lucas has some more serious competition for that role. However, the player who might need to worry more is Hilliard.
Detroit is tight against the salary cap, and Hilliard's $1.55 million salary, per Spotrac, just might be a luxury it cannot afford. Lucas could make the choice easy if he continues to impress in OTAs.
It would be a major feather in general manager Martin Mayhew's cap to land a quality starting right tackle one year and a viable third tackle the next—both as undrafted free agents.
How Quickly Do the Defensive Projects Progress?
With three selections in a 25-pick overall span in the fourth and fifth rounds, the Lions stocked up on young defenders.
Cornerback Nevin Lawson, the first pick of the trio, is more of a known commodity and appeared the most ready to contribute right away after starring at Utah State at the FBS level. He projects to be in a battle with Bill Bentley for the slot nickelback role.
It's the next two selections who are projects. Defensive end Larry Webster and defensive tackle Caraun Reid are both coming from lower levels and need some development to prove they belong at the NFL level.
Reid, the team's fifth-round pick, hails from Princeton and is the more advanced of the two linemen. He turned in decent performances while matched up with the big boys during the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl practice sessions.
He stands a decent chance of making the rotation as the fourth defensive tackle behind Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley. I recently broke down Reid's game, noting he must add some aggressiveness and polish his technique.
There are going to be some growing pains, as Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News reported:
Lions DL coach Jim Washburn yelled at rookie DT Caraun Reid today: "Is that your stance? Are you going to have a new stance every day?"— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) May 17, 2014
Webster is even greener despite the fact his father, Larry, played in the NFL for many years. The younger Webster was a basketball player until getting back into football two years ago at Division II Bloomsburg.
He was also at Shrine Game week, and to say I was not impressed with what I saw is an understatement:
@espn961 to answer about Larry Webster: I was at Shrine Game week & he was EASILY the worst player there. Lost puppy, completely unphysical— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) May 7, 2014
The Lions selected Webster with the 136th overall pick knowing he was an athletic project. It's his impressive athleticism that gives Webster a chance. Coach Jim Caldwell said as much during camp, in a story related by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
Obviously, he's a guy that certainly has explosion. He has speed, he has quickness, he's intelligent. ... And working with him out here, I think our guys on our defensive line have been pleased with where he is right now.
As with Reid at tackle, the fourth defensive end spot is up for grabs. Webster faces tougher competition from veteran Darryl Tapp, but if he can continue to impress with his quick learning curve, the rookie should snag the fifth end role at worst. That's a spot on the 53-man roster, though typically a game-day inactive.
The Lions held on to defensive line coach Kris Kocurek from the Schwartz regime in part because of his ability to develop raw young talent. Kocurek made players out of Sammie Lee Hill and Willie Young. He's got lots of work to do with his young lieges, but they both bring an awful lot to work with.
Which UDFAs Make the Roster?
Last year, the Lions struck pay dirt with the undrafted-free-agent class, nabbing starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle and touchdown terror Joseph Fauria at tight end.
This year's class has some potential too. The headliner is Cornelius Lucas, who got his own slide as a result. But he's not the only one with a chance to make an impact.
Fullback Chad Abram stands the best chance. In fact, it's not out of the question that the thumper from Florida State earns the starting role in the offense. Still, it's his special teams prowess that gives him the leg up.
As noted by Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website:
Abram spent his first three seasons at Florida State as a special team's ace. He started on three of four phases of special teams, serving as an edger on kickoff coverage, one of the back ends on kickoff return and one of the top coverage guys on punt return, usually responsible for manning the opponent's best coverage player.
Reserves must play roles on special teams, and Abram has years of proven excellence there. It would be more of a surprise if Abram and his old-school neck roll doesn't make the team.
Former Missouri quarterback James Franklin is involved in an open competition with Kellen Moore to earn the third spot on the depth chart.
Moore has a distinct advantage with his two years of Lions experience, though he's never taken the field in a regular-season contest. The verbiage and complexity of the NFL offense are a challenge for Franklin, as he told CBS Detroit's Ashley Dunkak.
Among the other UDFAs, linebacker Justin Jackson from Wake Forest probably has the best chance. He only has to beat out journeyman Cory Greenwood and a handful of recent late picks and practice squad veterans.
There are two UDFA safeties, Gabe Lynn and Jerome Couplin, who are likely competing for one practice squad spot. Couplin is the better athlete, but Lynn is the better football player.
Is Nate Freese the Next Jason Hanson?
Even though the Lions have not had a lot to celebrate over the past 30 years, they've had a remarkable run of stability and excellence at the place-kicker position.
From Eddie Murray's run through the 1980s to Jason Hanson's record-setting two decades in Detroit, Lions fans grew accustomed to having a reliably great kicker.
That ended with Hanson's retirement before the 2013 season, and aged veteran David Akers didn't live up to expectations in his one-year experiment. The Kickalicious experience, also known as Norwegian trick-kick sensation Havard Rugland, didn't pan out despite high fan interest.
To that end, the Lions selected Boston College kicker Nate Freese in the seventh round. Even though he will have to beat out Giorgio Tavecchio, it's widely presumed Detroit has its long-term kicker in the hyperaccurate Freese.
Hanson has already given his own approval of Freese. That's a great sign, a willing nod from the old master to the young apprentice.
Freese's 86.7 percent accuracy rate, mostly while kicking outdoors in the Northeast autumns, ranks seventh in NCAA history. He did not miss a single field-goal attempt as a senior, going a perfect 20-of-20.
Expectations are high, especially after the Lions appear to have solved their endemic punting issues with Sam Martin a year ago. Freese has a high bar to reach but the talent to make it happen. Lions fans should be rewarded with many more years of quality stability.
All observations of OTAs obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted