It's NFL Combine time, ladies and gentlemen.
That means it's that special time of year when we all get to ignore everything college football players have done in hard-fought games over the last three or four years, and instead judge their draft status based on a day of non-contact drills and tangible metrics.
It may be a bit silly to measure these players' tangible skills like this when so much of football is intangible, but the NFL Combine is still one of the most important events in a draft prospect's life.
So the Detroit Lions, who have lived and died (mostly the latter) by the draft over the last decade, will be paying very close attention to the combine as well.
But to whom? There are a couple hundred players slated to visit the combine, and the Lions' brass won't be keeping close track of all of them (hint: don't look for Jim Schwartz around Cam Newton's passing drills).
I don't claim to know who the Lions' scouting department has at the top of their board, but here are 11 players I'll be scouting very closely over the next few days, with a short explanation of what I'll be watching and where I see them in the Lions' plans.
Note: This particular piece will focus solely on LBs and CBs, because if I expanded it to all positions (I was going to), it would have been far, far, too long. Maybe a second part coming soon?
Also, the slides have the players organized by position, but are not in any particular order otherwise, so don't bother with any, "I can't believe you're looking at X player higher than Y player!" comments.
Ayers is a trendy top pick to the Lions as an instant fill at the spot vacated by Julian Peterson.
An athletic sideline-to-sideline player, Ayers could be just the tonic the Lions need to bolster the linebacking corps and shore up the defense against the run.
As he is now, Ayers is a bit of a liability in coverage, so I'll be paying very close attention to his footwork in the pass drop drill. If Ayers shows solid footwork and hip rotation in this drill, it will go a long way towards solidifying his status as a top 15 pick.
Casey Matthews' pedigree can be surmised simply by looking at his last name and hair.
The brother of Green Bay Packers' linebacker Clay Matthews III, the son of former Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews, Jr., and the nephew of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Casey Matthews has football in his blood.
He also has an unstoppable motor and fantastic instincts.
The knock on Matthews is his size, strength and overall athleticism (the same knocks delivered to his brother, the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Year, early in his career), so he has a chance to really boost his draft status at the combine.
Pay particular attention to Matthews' measurables this weekend. If he posts decent numbers, particularly in the 40-yard, shuttle drills and bench press, he could see his stock jump from the third or fourth round to the second.
If the Lions don't take a linebacker with the No. 13 pick, Matthews could be a value. Putting him and Kyle Vanden Bosch on the same team might result in an intensity overload.
The son of the Pittsburgh Steelers legend by the same name, Greg Lloyd is another player whose family's reputation precedes him.
Lloyd is a big, mean, hard-hitting, run-stuffing MLB who is best suited as a two-down player. Lloyd lacks range and coverage skills, but can play the run downhill with the best of them. He can stack and shed lead blockers with relative ease, and deliver the big hit if he gets the ball carrier in his sights.
Being a situational player, Lloyd is likely looking at a middle-round grade, but he could be a perfect addition to a Lions team that lacks an intimidation factor in its linebackers.
Look for Lloyd to excel in the bench press and struggle in the agility-based drills. Still, pay attention to his shuttle times, as a better-than-expected showing there could really quell concerns about his athleticism.
If there has ever been a player with stronger intangibles coming out of college than Mark Herzlich, I'd like to see him.
Not only is Herzlich a rare find on the field for his team leadership, but he has also made his fair share of news for his courageous (and successful) battle against cancer.
Heartwarming story aside, Herzlich is a solid linebacker in every way. He possesses a very good blend of size, speed, and strength, plays the run effectively and can drop into coverage or rush the quarterback on passing downs.
Herzlich won't scare anybody with his coverage skills, and could perhaps be labeled the "jack of all trades, master of none," though his ability against the run has very few holes.
Of course, in most circles a player lacking either a major strength or major weakness is known as a "complete player."
Sadly, Herzlich's battle against cancer makes him a serious durability risk, and regardless of his on-field skills, he will be a gamble for whatever team drafts him.
On the other hand, a player whose skill set likely warrants a first-round grade could slide into the second or third. If he does, he could be one of the biggest values of the draft.
At the combine, Herzlich doesn't need to blow anybody away. All he needs to do is maintain decent measurables and show that he hasn't lost a step due to his illness.
Another linebacker who attempts to make up for a lack of size and strength with sheer force of will and work ethic.
Jones looks tiny while he flies around the field, but he is a productive playmaker with good range and rare intangibles.
Many see Jones fitting in as a Tampa-Two middle linebacker, an accolade that will likely get him crossed off of a lot of Lions fans' draft boards. Really, though, the comparison is made because he attempts to make up for his diminutive size with his speed.
As a result, Jones will look to make a splash in the speed/agility drills, as well as the pass drop drill. If he shows well in those, he could make a good third-down specialist.
Of course, that depends on whether he falls far enough to be drafted strictly as a specialist, since his current draft grade puts him somewhere on Day Two.
Kelvin Sheppard looks better and better the more I see of him. His skill set points to him becoming a 4-3 OLB (probably on the weakside) at the next level, and the Lions certainly have a spot for him.
Sheppard lacks the strength and ability to shed blocks consistently against the run, and he has little in the way of pass-rushing talent, but he has good size and speed and is outstanding (for a linebacker) in both man and underneath zone coverage.
On top of that, Sheppard is a sound (and occasionally even hard) tackler in the open field, an attribute the Lions need perhaps more than any it its back seven.
Sheppard's asset is his agility and instincts. Because of that, look for him to be one of the day's best in the pass drop drill, and to post above-average numbers in both the 20 and 60-yard shuttle drills.
If he does that, and still slips into Day Two of the draft, look for the Lions to make a push for him, perhaps even if they draft Akeem Ayers in the first round.
Kendrick Burney is shooting up draft boards all over the country after dominating Senior Bowl week.
Burney is a small cornerback (5' 9") who shows good speed, great quickness, and elite ball skills.
Burney isn't going to be able to grow three inches for the combine, so his height is something he's going to have to deal with. If he shows up big on the vertical leap (and he should), it will help his stock.
Still, he's going to have a career of being out muscled and outworked by bigger wide receivers, and his press coverage skills need work in the first place. Because of his shortcomings, it's easy to project him as an effective nickel corner, in which case the Lions, in need of a starting corner, should pass on him.
Still, watch his footwork and ball skills at the combine. If he improves his footwork and shows off his top-notch ball skills, he could be a steal if he falls towards the end of Day 2.
After Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara, (both basically locks for the Top 10), the cornerback position becomes a bit muddled. The third cornerback off the board could be one of many, many options.
Aaron Williams is one of them, if a bit of a long-shot.
Williams has good size at 6' 1" and is quick, instinctive, and flashes great ball skills.
His problem is that he has stiff hips, which combined with his lack of elite speed will make him a liability in the vertical passing game at the next level.
That's why Williams could stand to make a lot of money at the combine.
Pay very close attention to Williams' hips in the speed turn drill. Though it will take some work, Williams' slow transition is a correctable problem. If he shows decent agility, he's looking at a major improvement in his stock.
Of course, there's no guarantee he rises past Brandon Harris or Jimmy Smith, so it's entirely possible that he falls to the second round. If that happens, the Lions will be all too happy to take him on.
Brandon Harris is another player caught in the late first-round logjam of cornerbacks fighting for draft position.
Harris shows a great closing burst and very fluid hips, two things that may set him apart from his competition. He has quick feet and good ball skills, and seems to show a penchant for hard work and effort.
He struggles a bit in zone and press coverage, and isn't the greatest tackler in terms of technique, but he is still a favorite to leave the board in the top 20.
That is a bit problematic for the Lions, who would probably love to add Harris to the fold. With the 13th pick in the first round, the Lions would probably be reaching for him (especially with two or three other cornerbacks on the board with comparable skills). But by the 13th pick of the second round, he'll probably be gone.
That makes Harris an ideal pick after a trade down of five or six spots in the first round.
Harris is well-known as a gamer, so his combine performance might knock him down a few slots if he doesn't bring his A-game. But short of blowing an ACL, I don't see anything he could do to slide him out of the first round to the Lions in the second. If he winds up in Detroit, it will either be because of a trade or a big reach.
Jimmy Smith is another corner with a stock on the rise.
Smith has size, speed, intangibles, and most importantly, upside. That makes him the most likely candidate to unseat Brandon Harris as the likely third cornerback off the board in April's draft.
Smith is a great press-man corner who needs some polish in off-man and zone schemes. But that's okay, because the Lions would really love a corner who can play effectively in press coverage.
The Lions' defense was torn apart by teams who realized they could use quick timing routes to offset the Lions' pass rush, and the lack of athleticism in the back seven was powerless to stop it. Smith could be a big, strong answer to that problem.
That being said, Smith is another player whose draft position is in question. As he is now, he lacks the polish of some of the other corners in the draft, but his ceiling is arguably higher. He's certainly moving up draft boards, and the combine will have a lot to do with whether he continues.
Watch Smith in the speed-turn drill as well as the pass-drop drill. Smith's hip-stiffness will probably show up there, and his questionable ball skills (he's prone to interference calls) will be on display. They will probably mean the difference between the middle of the first round, the end of the first round and the top of the second.
If the Lions don't address their CB need in the first two rounds, Chris Rucker could be the answer in the third.
Rucker is a bit of a character concern, and he needs lots of work in zone coverage as well as some polish in the run game. But he, like Jimmy Smith, is a solid corner with good size and speed, starting potential, and great press-man ability.
Rucker needs some coaching to stay with good route-runners, so he's probably not a "plug in and go" cornerback, which might be what the Lions need right now.
Still, his strengths and physical abilities are things you can't coach, while his weaknesses are largely things you can. Could be a great long-term pick if he slides to round three.
Look for Rucker to impress in the physical metrics (40-yard, shuttle, vertical/broad jumps) and do below average in his interview. If he does well in his interview, he may move up.