The Detroit Lions were stuck in football purgatory for decades. Everyone knows this, but a large reason for it was terrible decision making during the NFL Draft. Nowadays, the Lions are in first place with a roster teeming with talent. How did they get this talent? It wasn’t overpaying for free agents it was shrewd scouting and smart drafting. Detroit’s rookie class of 2013 is the best draft class they’ve had in years, and they are making a much bigger impact right away than most thought they would.
Their first round pick Ziggy Ansah (5th overall, BYU) has adapted to the pro game much faster than most predicted. Despite his immense athleticism, he’d only been playing football for a few years and was viewed as a very raw prospect who would need some time to develop. Well, he’s still very raw, but he has made tremendous leaps in terms of development. His pressure off the edge has decreased the amount of double-teams inside on both defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, which is a big reason the Lions are third in the league stopping the run. Ansah, who’s tallied three sacks so far this season, has a very, very bright future.
Cornerback Darius Slay (36th overall, Mississippi State) has quietly been enjoying a strong rookie season as well. He hasn’t been able to beat out Rashean Mathis or Chris Houston for a starting gig yet, but he has been productive as the team’s nickel back. This will be a position of need for the Lions moving forward, considering the Lions face some tough QBs in their division like Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Christian Ponder (ha, just kidding with this last one).
Third round pick Larry Warford (65th overall, Kentucky) was somewhat of an afterthought in last year’s impressive guard class. Guys like Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack received all the headlines (well, as many headlines as a guard gets), but Warford has made the biggest impact so far. He’s been rock solid at right guard for the Lions all year. Everyone knew he could be a force in the ground game, but he’s surprised many by his impressive pass protection skills.
DE Devin Taylor (132nd overall, South Carolina) has been another pleasant surprise. The skill set has always been there and he’s got tremendous size (6-foot-7, 270-pounds), but he was always stuck in the shadow of former teammate Jadeveon Clowney. He’s still very raw, but he is a heck of an athlete. Right now he’s the Lions’ No. 3 DE, but it’s clear he should be the starter of the future. The Ansah/Taylor combo has a bright future alongside Suh and Fairley. If this defensive line isn’t the best in the league yet it will be soon.
Punter Sam Martin (165th overall, Appalachian State) has improved the Lions’ punting as well as locking down the kickoff and holding roles. It’s rare to find rookie punters who make much of an impact on a team, but with a 42.3 net punting average he’s getting the job done. That number is good for 4th in the league.
The rest of the Lions’ draft class has been battling injuries and inconsistency or have been cut.
One last thing piece of evidence of the improved scouting from the Lions is to look no further than OT LaAdrian Waddle (Texas Tech) and TE Joseph Fauria (UCLA), two undrafted rookies who have seen a ton of time. Fauria has five touchdowns playing opposite Brandon Pettigrew and has been a red zone monster. Waddle has been solid filling in on both left and right sides.
Only time will tell if the Lions can make a similar impact in the 2014 NFL Draft.